Hands off Paul Harris

Much of the local and, particularly international, goodwill that has accrued to Prime Minister Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe has been because of his liberal attitude towards the media. Whereas the People’s Alliance under President Chandrika Kumaratunga became notorious for the harsh manner in which they treated the media, Mr. Wickremasinghe, even in the Opposition, was in touch with the media and pledged to liberalise media laws and dismantle certain institutions that were considered inimical to freedom of expression.

True to his promise, he did away with the archaic law of Criminal Defamation and now is considering replacement of the Press Council with a Press Complaints Commission in accordance with the wishes of the media institutions. It is, perhaps, in recognition of this liberal attitude that the Commonwealth Press Union is to hold the Commonwealth Editors’ Conference as well as the Biennial meeting of the Commonwealth Press Union in Sri Lanka next February.

But the decision not to renew the visa of British journalist Paul Harris, Correspondent to the London Daily Telegraph and also a correspondent to Jane’s Intelligence Review, could smear the liberal democratic image of Prime Minister Wickremasinghe.

Mr.Paul Harris undoubtedly is not a run-of-the mill foreign correspondent. He has exposed LTTE violations of basic human rights in areas under the LTTE control and brilliantly exposed the fascist nature of LTTE with the photograph of thousands of LTTE cadres delivering the fascist Hitlerite salute to LTTE leaders. Besides, he has developed a wide range of political contacts, including those of the People’s Alliance. He had accurately predicted the moves of the LTTE, such as the storming of security posts using school children.

All this may not be to the liking of the ruling United National Front. But Ranil Wickremasinghe, the democrat who has ink of two of the most distinguished journalists of this country flowing in his veins, should not succumb to toadies carrying tales about journalists, who are not the cheer leaders of the UNF.

Sri Lankan journalists are well aware that Paul Harris has continued to be hounded in recent months by officials of police investigation units despite his complaints to officials of the foreign ministry .

There is nothing to be gained by not extending the visa of Mr. Harris. Mr. Wickremasinghe knows very well that he could send out the same reports from Chennai or New Delhi or write commentaries from London about Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan journalists who have been very much concerned about the freedom of journalists should make their feelings known the Prime Minister Wickremasinghe before the stupid decision of forcing Paul Harris out of Sri Lanka is made. At a time when Colombo-based diplomats as well as visiting diplomatic dignitaries are fraternising with terroist leaders of an internationally proscribed organisation, should there be objections if a foreign correspondent associates with leading politicians of recognised political parties?


Sincerity alone is not enough

As expected Finance Minister Mr. K.N. Choksy had no lollipops to deliver. He is no magician to pull rabbits out of his hat nor does he pretend he could so. In cricketing terms, Mr. Choksy appeared to be the last man in with a huge total to make, previous batsmen having batted rashly and got out.

Many a finance minister in his predicament would have resorted to demagoguery - heaping the blame on predecessors, accusing them of various misdemeanours and tried to make cheap debating points. Mr Choksy, being a successful professional lawyer, argued his brief - a bad brief no doubt - in the best of parliamentary traditions and did not attempt to fool his fellow parliamentarians or the public. Even though there were only a few crumbs thrown at the suffering masses and the poor will be poorer this year, it was a refreshing and exemplary performance in politics.

Some opposition politicians like former Finance Minister Mr. Ronnie de Mel, who gave splendid theatrical performances in his eleven budget presentations, found Mr. Choksy’s presentation boring. Former bureaucrat Sarath Amunugama found it ‘the most boring of budgets with no imagination at all’. Had they been presenting the budget proposals with the economy in the same parlous state, they would probably have given very scintillating political performances, but whether they could have done any better in alleviating the poverty of the people is certainly in doubt.

In the first year’s performance, the UNF government had made modest gains. And Mr. Choksy was modest about it. The economy was expected to grow at 4.5 per cent during the second half of this year enabling annual growth of 3 per cent for 2002. Inflation had declined from 14.2 per cent to 9 per cent and would stand at 8 per cent for 2002. So were most of the macro economic indices which went to show that the economy was reviving from zero growth of the PA’s last year.

But statistics are a poor substitute for the pangs of hunger. And the people will not continue meekly to tighten their belts for long.

In these situations, political leaders will have to give the lead by being exemplary. They have to show that they are with the people in their hour of need. But is that happening? Jacking up salaries of MPs and voting for duty free vehicles for themselves are certainly not the ways to get about being exemplary. Much is said about elimination of waste and eradication of bribery and corruption. Why is it that the only Vice Squad that had a good record of striking down vice - the Anti-Vice Strike Force— disbanded this week ?

The people need to be enthused in various ways to make a living. But the government appears to be solely dependent in correcting macro economic policies as dictated by the international lending organisations.

The government’s sincerity not to con the people is much appreciated, but new economic strategies and ways of production to tide over the crisis we are in are called for.

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