‘Mum’s the word’: CAA panjandrum gags officials

Did Prima ‘inspection’ backfire?

by Suresh Perera

At a time there is a concerted effort to dismantle barriers and legislate the "right to information", a politically appointed panjandrum at the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) has gagged officials down the line with a firm warning to shun the media, insiders said.

"We are helpless as there are strict instructions in place that only this bureaucrat is now authorized to give information to journalists", says a director, who had built a close rapport with the Fourth Estate. "We have to now follow orders".

As the big man himself has taken over the responsibility of handling the press, The Sunday Island made an avalanche of calls to check on a news story, but his secretary said that he "cannot be disturbed as he is at a meeting".

As the political appointee was either at "meetings" or was "not on office", the newspaper sought his mobile number to clarify the important story on the recent flour price increase. "I have been told not to give his mobile number to the media’, the secretary asserted.

As officials down the line of authority declined to comment in the backdrop of the ‘prohibition order’, The Sunday Island left the contact details with the secretary for the bureaucrat to call back.

As he failed to return the call, the newspaper obtained his mobile number from a senior trade official and asked him whether CAA officials had inspected stocks of flour at the Prima factory in Trincomalee. "Yes, but I can’t talk to you now as I am at a meeting and will call back", he replied.

Industry officials claimed that the CAA’s visit to the factory had raised a hornet’s nest as it is a Board of Investment (BOI) approved venture. Permission had been denied for the "inspection" and the issue was subsequently taken up with a VIP who had shelled a controversial minister in charge of the subject and others in authority responsible for the faux pas.

However, a senior Prima official in Trincomalee said he was not aware of any "inspection". Asked whether he was not informed about it, he replied "No, I was out of office".

It happened shortly after Prima arbitrarily increased the price of flour by Rs. 7/- per kilo, but nobody seems to be eager to shed more light on what transpired following the CAA visit, industry officials noted. "Perhaps, they are too keen to keep it under wraps".

Repeated attempts to call the CAA panjandrum yesterday also proved futile as the calls to his mobile either went unanswered or were disconnected.

The CAA is a government institution dedicated to safeguard the interests of consumers. Since its establishment, close coordination with the media has been considered a vital cog in the wheel to publicize its work by creating greater public awareness, officials pointed out.

The gag order on officials is ridiculous as journalists don’t seek politically sensitive information from the CAA, they said. "The critical question is whether this public body could afford to shut out the media on which it depends for publicity on raids conducted and to create more awareness on consumer rights".

Square pegs in round holes can reverse all the good work done over the years, they pointed out. "In this space age, attempts to suppress information is counter-productive".

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