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Church defends media freedom, seeks inquiry into Dappula’s claim of Easter Sunday international conspiracy

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

Former Catholic Church spokesman Rev. Cyril Gamini Fernando says that ongoing government efforts to rein in the media, including social media platforms is actually a sign of weakness.

Rev. Fernando insists the incumbent administration cannot suppress the truth by muzzling the media as no government ever succeeded in doing so.

Rev. Fernando, currently the parish priest of St. Anne’s Church, Kurana, told The Island that the government could easily silence what it considered hostile media by changing its strategies.

Responding to another query, Rev. Fernando emphasized that the government should reexamine post-2019 presidential election vis-a-vis the promises made by the then Joint Opposition (JO) in the run-up to the change of government.

Unfortunately, the incumbent dispensation had resorted to strong arm tactics in addition to threats and intimidation of sections of the media considered hostile to the government, Rev. Fernando said.

The top Church spokesperson said that the recent disclosure in Parliament of an alleged attempt to silence Sirasa TV underscored the need to be vigilant. Recalling the suppression of the media by successive governments since the 80s, Rev. Fernando stressed that no one could achieve that despicable objective.

Regardless of the State resorting to terror tactics and various other underhand methods, the entire media couldn’t be controlled or influenced to follow the agenda desired by those in power. The SLPP government appeared to have wrongly recognized the media as an emerging threat and taken measures to neutralize that challenge, Rev Fernando said.

Asked whether the Church would take up these contentious issues with the government, Rev. Fernando said that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Archbishop of Colombo Rt. Rev. Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith regularly commented on public interest issues so much so in the wake of the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage some accused the Church of backing the then Opposition.

“The then Opposition is in power today. It enjoys a near two-thirds majority in Parliament having backed Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential election. But, today, we are struggling to convince them of the need to bring the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday carnage before a court of law,” Rev. Fernando said. The priest said that the Attorney General’s Office and the police owed an explanation over the latter’s failure to question former Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, regarding a controversial statement he made several days before his retirement in late May 2021.

Rev. Fernando asked how could the government ignore de Livera’s declaration that there is clear evidence of a grand conspiracy linked to Sri Lanka’s 2019 Easter bombings. De Livera has said that information that the state intelligence service (SIS) had, “with times, targets, places, method of attack and other information is clear evidence there was a grand conspiracy in place with regard to the April 21 2019 attack.”

Rev Fernando emphasized that investigations couldn’t have been completed without the CID recording the former AG’s statement. Pointing out that De Livera made the declaration on May 18 about a week before his retirement, the police were yet to question one-time outspoken official, who fearlessly led the grilling of those involved in the Bond Scams before the special Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the daring heist involving some of the highest individuals in the yahapalana government and others.

The Church official alleged that the government conveniently forgot the Presidential Commission report on the Easter Sunday carnage. “What have they done with it? In spite of big talk, the government didn’t implement the PCoI recommendations. In fact, we are wondering why the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and the PCoI were appointed at all,” Rev Fernando said, alleging that those in authority apparently perpetrated a massive fraud on the people.

Having examined the proceedings of the PSC, the PCoI as well as speeches made in Parliament, Rev. Fernando said that he couldn’t comprehend how the government continued to suppress the truth. Rev. Fernando said that one didn’t need the skills of a Sherlock Holmes to realise that those who carried out the actual bombings weren’t the masterminds of the dastardly crime.

Rev Fernando said that those trying to suppress the truth would find fault with the Church and the independent media for raising concerns. The Church believed the government couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for ensuring justice.

The priest urged the media to courageously report what was going on. Acknowledging the role played by the social media, Rev Fernando said that those in Parliament shouldn’t be blind to the reality. The recent controversy over the increase in fuel prices resulted in the disclosure of the pathetic state of the national economy, Rev Fernando said. The admission that two key state enterprises, the CPC and the CEB, owed a staggering Rs 737 bn to state banks and may cause the collapse of the banking sector was shocking, the priest said.

Referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s declaration that the country had to meet annual loan repayment obligations amounting to USD 4 bn should be examined against the backdrop of allegations pertaining to waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence, the priest said.

Rev Fernando also strongly criticized the deployment of police to breakup legitimate protests against the government. The move to exploit recent instructions relating to the Covid-19 prevention health guidelines to suppress those opposed to government projects should be condemned, Rev Fernando said, citing the police intervention to break up a peaceful protest against the Kotelawela Defence University Bill as a case in point.

Having captured power with a huge mandate, the SLPP government was doing everything on its own to antagonize the public, Rev Fernando said. The hasty decision to ban chemical fertiliser without making proper arrangements to introduce organic fertiliser, destruction of X-Press Pearl in Sri Lankan waters, financial crisis and general breakdown of law and order leading to decline in public confidence should be matters for serious concern, the Church spokesman said.

Rev. Fernando said that the failure on the part of the government to ensure a transparent vaccination programme was also a serious issue. The reportage of the Covid-19 control ‘operations’ and the vaccination programme were mired in controversy, the priest said, urging the government to take tangible measures to address the concerns of the public.



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Police detain Bathiudeen’s wife, father-in-law and another suspect over domestic aide’s death

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Former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen’s wife, father-in-law and another suspect have been detained for interrogation in connection with the death of the 16-year old domestic aide.

“They are being held for 72 hours for further questioning”, police said.

The suspects taken into custody were identified by police as that 46-year old Sheyabdeen Ayesha, her father  70-year-old Mohammed Sheyabdeen and the broker who brought the girl to work as a domestic aide in Bathiudeen’s house.

The victim, a resident of Dayagama Estate off Talawakelle, was admitted to the Colombo National Hospital on July 3 with severe burn injuries. She died on July 15.

Police have already recorded the statements of more than 20 persons in connection with the girl’s death.

Police have also questioned two women aged 22 and 32 from the Dayagama area, who earlier served as domestic workers at the former Minister’s house.

One of the women had claimed she was sexually harassed by Bathiudeen’s brother-in-law from 2015 to 2019 at the former Minister’s residence in Colombo.

Subsequently, police also arrested the 44-year old Sheyabdeen Ismadeen, brother-in-law of the former Minister.

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Contamination fears propel Lanka Sathosa to recall Chinese-made canned fish stocks

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After procurement from Colombo port for Rs. 50mn

by Suresh Perera

A substantial stock of “confiscated” canned fish Lanka Sathosa procured from the Colombo port at a cost of around Rs. 50 million has been recalled from the market following public complaints that the Chinese-manufactured products were unfit for human consumption.

The five 20-foot container loads of 425g ‘Kitchen King’ Mackerel canned fish of the Scomber japonicus species, which were lying in the Colombo port as “abandoned cargo” after forfeiture by the Customs in October last year, was purchased by Lanka Sathosa recently to be sold at a concessionary price through its chain of supermarkets.

“We have now withdrawn the whole stock from our supermarket shelves as there were customer complaints that the canned fish was not fit for consumption”, says Lanka Sathosa Chairman, Rear Admiral (Retd) Ananda Peiris.

The products were injected into the market after clearance by the Food Control Unit of the Health Ministry following quality testing by the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI), he said.

“As there’s a shortage of canned fish in the marketplace, we promptly distributed the stocks to our supermarkets island-wide to be sold at Rs. 290 each. We have now asked the outlets not to sell them to customers because of the quality issue that has emerged”, the Chairman noted.

“We have no option now other than to return the consignment and seek a refund from the Ports Authority”, he said.

Onions, potatoes, lentils and other food commodities, which are either confiscated by the Customs or remain uncleared by importers, are generally procured by Lanka Sathosa to be sold at concessionary prices to customers, Peiris explained.

“In terms of a Cabinet decision, the consignments are auctioned only if we don’t procure them”.

The stock of canned fish had been forfeited as the owner had not cleared it for three months, he said.

“Lanka Sathosa appears to have opened a can of worms as the 9,200 packs of canned fish had arrived aboard a vessel, which sailed into Colombo on October 29 last year, a source knowledgeable of the operation, said.

Listing out the relevant reference and batch numbers of the consignments, the source said the Chinese products were manufactured on 09/10/2020 with a 09/10/2023 ‘expiry date’.

This means the stocks had been in the Colombo port for the past nine months, and had turned rancid despite a 2023 ‘expiry date’, the source asserted.

Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) officers had raided the Lanka Sathosa outlet at Moneragala following complaints that canned fish was being hoarded.

“We found stocks in storage, but was told by officers there that instructions were received to withhold the sale of the ‘Kitchen King’ products until they were re-labeled”, CAA’s Executive Director, Thushan Gunawardena said.

As the importer was not in favor of Lanka Sathosa marketing the products under its original brand name, a sticker was affixed to obscure it, Peiris clarified.

Under Section 10 of the Consumer Protection Act, re-labeling a product constitutes an offence, Gunawardena pointed out.

Acting on a complaint, public health inspectors have taken a sample of the canned fish from the Mawanella outlet for testing, the Lanka Sathosa chief further said.

Responding to questions raised by the CAA, the SLSI said its officers had collected samples from the five containers following requests by the Ports Authority and Lanka Sathosa.

As the original importer had not submitted any documents to the SLSI so far, the need for sample collection didn’t arise, it said.

The CAA has further queried whether the SLSI was aware of the purpose the test results were required at the time samples were received.

The SLSI has clamped down on the import of substandard canned fish with an intolerable level of arsenic, particularly from manufacturers in China.

In a news report headlined “SLSI cracks the whip on substandard Chinese canned fish imports”, The Sunday Island of March 21, 2021 quoted the institution’s Director-General, Dr. Siddhika Senaratne as saying that fish harvested for canning has a high arsenic content as the sea in China is heavily polluted and dirty due to lax environmental laws.

“It is true that there is a scarcity of canned fish in the market because supply cannot meet the demand. However, this does not mean we should allow our people to be poisoned through arsenic-laden imports”, she was quoted saying in the news report.

With the SLSI stipulating a maximum arsenic tolerance standard of 1.0 milligram per kilogram of fish, a filtering mechanism is now in place to shut out substandard imports, she assured at the time.

Asked whether the consignment of Chinese canned fish procured by Lanka Sathosa was earlier detained due to its high arsenic content, Dr. Senaratne declined comment saying she’s “not allowed to talk to the media”.

“The DG wouldn’t want to be dragged into another controversy”, an official remarked, referring to the furore over her claim of toxins in foodstuffs, which she, however, declined to identify at the time.

At a time canned fish imports from China have been off the shelves since SLSI’s rigid monitoring of tolerable arsenic levels began, industry players expressed consternation on how a stock, which had been lying in the Colombo port for months, was suddenly given the nod for procurement by Lanka Sathosa.

With the scarcity of canned fish products in the market pushing up demand, will an importer abandon his consignments unless there was something rotten somewhere?, they asked.

“It is too far-fetched to imagine that they got the documentation wrong as these importers are seasoned campaigners in the game”.

It is apparent that Lanka Sathosa had not done its homework before jumping at the idea of procuring the consignment because Chinese-made canned fish had remained virtually out of bounds for many months because of fears of contamination, they said.

Importers didn’t want to risk their investments as a high arsenic level meant the consignments were either destroyed or ordered to be re-exported, they added.

“That’s why local products now dominate the market with a brand from Thailand also no longer available”.

 

 

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United States gives Sri Lanka 500,000 coronavirus rapid tests

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The United States had donated 500,000 Rapid diagnostic tests to Sri Lanka worth Rs. 300 million to help the country fight Coronavirus, the US Agency for International Development said.

“By enabling rapid detection of the virus, these tests donated by the American people will save lives and protect public health in Sri Lanka,” USAID Mission Director to Sri Lanka and Maldives, Reed Aeschliman said in a statement.

“This donation builds on previous U.S. support to the Sri Lankan government’s pandemic response and reflects our strong, long-standing partnership.”

US has also given 1.5 million moderna vaccines to Sri Lanka.

The tests are simple to use and enable fast, decentralized access to direct testing. They do not require additional equipment or specialized laboratory access, which helps achieve high testing coverage.

The United States has also given of 200 ventilators to Sri Lanka’s health system.

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