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Opinion

Whither Freedom of Speech?

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

We live in an era when it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the truth from fiction. One may have assumed that advances in science and technology would make it easier for us to do so, but just the opposite has happened. Mainstream media have always been guilty of giving a slight slant to the truth to advance their agendas, but there were hardly any gross distortions of the truth. However, with the advent of social media and readily available broadcast sites like YouTube, truth has become a victim! In addition to the absence of statutory controls unlike in the case of the mainstream media, the sheer volumes of information disseminated by these sites make it almost impossible to monitor.

Rather surprisingly, it is not only individuals who are guilty of suppressing the truth; even international organisations are resorting to this tactic to suit the agendas of powerful nations bent on suppressing small nations. The most glaring example of this comes from none other than the United Nations itself: the supposed to be guardian of fairness! The disgraceful behaviour of the former Secretary General Ban Ki-moon defies description. The committee he appointed, the findings of which he endorsed, accuses Sri Lanka of many crimes but does not allow evidence to be challenged. In fact, Sri Lanka is denied even the right to examine the evidence. Everything is cloaked in secrecy for thirty years! In a court of law, the prosecution is obliged to provide the defence with all available data and has the right to challenge witnesses to check veracity. However, Ban Ki-moon’s UN is a law unto itself and we call it a Kekille judgement!

The right to freedom of speech at least allows us to vent our frustrations. However, it is much more important being a cornerstone of a civilised society. Not all of us think alike and we should be able to put our own points of view across but, unfortunately, pressure groups attempt increasingly to curtail free speech. Anyone questioning their views is ridiculed in social media and attempts are made to rewrite history. They forget that what is important is to learn from history rather than trying to rewrite it to suit their agendas. Of course, free speech should not mean the ability to state freely the absurd, profane and the obnoxious! It should be done within accepted norms.

The latest to join the brigades of suppression of free speech is a bank! No, it is not a bank in Sri Lanka; nor in one of the so-called totalitarian societies. Even more surprisingly, it is a bank in good old Blighty! A bank used by the Royalty! Coutts, based in London having three crowns as its logo, was started in 1692 and is the eighth oldest bank in the world. Often referred to as ‘The Queen’s Bank’, at least till last September, it serves the rich and famous. However, it is owned by the ‘high-street bank’ NatWest, which itself used to be a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which had to be saved from collapse by the tax-payer in 2008. It was one of the biggest banks in the world, considered too big to allow it to collapse, and has cost the British Exchequer £35.5 billion up to now. 39% of the shares are owned by the British Government. It may be the shame of that colossal failure, that RBS is now trading behind the name of its former subsidiary, NatWest!

In late June, Coutts decided to close the account of the British politician and broadcaster Nigel Farage as his views did not align with their values! True, banks can close accounts of crooks and racketeers but Farage is not one of those. Farge evokes strong emotions and is like Marmite; some love him and others hate him but even those who hate him for his views, do not consider him a crook. Therefore, Coutts has added a new dimension to banking; we close your accounts if you do not think like us! Is this not suppression of free speech?

Farage, perhaps, should be considered ‘The Father of Brexit’ as it was the train of events that he set in motion that led to the UK withdrawing from the European Union on 31 January 2020. He was a Member of the European Parliament from 1999 till Brexit and was the first person to expose waste and corruption of various branches of the European Union. Further, having sensed the direction of total integration the EU was heading, he wanted ‘independence’ for the UK and formed the UK Independence Party, of which he was the leader from 2006. As the pace for implementing Brexit was too slow, the crucial referendum being held in June 2016, he formed the Brexit party in 2019 which he led till 2021.

Those with bigger political clout, led by Boris Johnson, started their own campaign running parallel with Farage’s campaign. The combined effort led to the unexpected victory at the Brexit referendum and ‘Remainers’ continue to hate Farage even more than Johnson!

BBC, another flag waver for free speech, stands accused of having connived with Coutts as on 04 July, the day after its business editor was seen at a charity event with Alison Rose, the chief executive officer of Coutts’ owner NatWest, published an article stating that Coutts’ decision on Nigel Farage’s account did not involve considerations about his political views, stating “Nigel Farage fell below the financial threshold required to hold an account at Coutts, the prestigious private bank for the wealthy, the BBC has been told.” They did not name the source but, considering the timing, suspicion fell at the highest level and was considered by many a serious breach of client confidentiality. Further, Farage maintained that at “no point” had Coutts given him a minimum threshold.

Undaunted, Farage submitted a subject access request to Coutts, forcing out a 40-page document which he released to the press. This internal document from the bank, which contained minutes from a meeting of the bank’s Wealth Reputational Risk Committee, describes Farage as a “disingenuous grifter” who promoted “xenophobic, chauvinistic and racist views” and states “his views were at odds with our position as an inclusive organisation” with “risk factors including controversial public statements which were felt to conflict with the bank’s purpose”. Interestingly, it states that financially his account’s “economic contribution is now sufficient to retain on a commercial basis”. It refers repeatedly to Brexit, Trump and also Djokovic with known opposition to Covid vaccination!

The release of this document caused a furore, earning universal condemnation for the actions of Coutts’ from the Prime Minister downwards. I am sure most politicians were more concerned that ‘Freedom of Speech’ seems increasingly a farce in the UK!

On 20 July, Dame Alison Rose wrote a letter of apology to Farage and a cynic’s view is that she did this to save her job rather than to express her regret for the injustice to Farage! Interestingly, she states that the documents prepared for the Wealth Reputation Risk Committee “do not reflect the view of the bank”!

On 21 July, BBC changed the title of the original news item with a correction and on 24 July chief executive of BBC News and the business editor apologised to Farage. The following day, Alison Rose was forced to admit that it was she who had given information to BBC but said she was under the impression that she was just reiterating what was common knowledge! At this stage, the chairman of the NatWest group stepped in to say that though she had made a serious error of judgement, her continuing services are needed for the benefit of shareholders and hints that she could be punished by other means, perhaps reducing the annual bonus! However, following an emergency board meeting, Alison Rose resigned in the early hours of 26th morning.

It is rumoured that the resignation was due to government pressure. The city minister, who oversees financial institutions stated, “It’s not the job of the bank to tell us what to think or what political party we should support.” Freedom of speech seems to have got a reprieve!

British government is hurrying up with legislation to protect bank customers, which is yet another achievement of Farage, whilst Coutts, the Queen’s bank, is eating humble pie!



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Opinion

Transformation of agro-food system:

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A culture-based local solution for Sri Lanka

BY Prof Nimal Gunatilleke

The Thirty-seventh Session of the UN-FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific (APRC) is being held as a high-level Ministerial in-person event in Colombo, Sri Lanka from 19 – 22 February 2024. This was preceded by the Senior Officers Meeting (SOM) held virtually from 31 January to 2 February 2024.

This year’s conference, themed “Transformation of the Agro-Food System,” will delve into key areas such as promoting nutritious food production, ensuring food security, enhancing food production, safeguarding the environment, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigating climate change risks.

This regionally significant meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is being held in Colombo at a time when Sri Lanka is struggling to keep its head above water in the post-COVID era knocked down for the second time in quick succession by her economic crisis.

A government report and data from the health ministry quoted by Reuters indicates that the people in Sri Lanka are currently burdened with soaring prices, including food, largely caused by its worst economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948.

According to the Central Bank Report ‘rising malnutrition among children has become a forefront policy concern in Sri Lanka amidst heightened food insecurity of households caused by the host of economic and social issues that exacerbated during the economic crisis in 2022’.

The following human health statistics extracted almost verbatim from the Reuters report on Jan 18, 2023, are equally disturbing, to say the least.

The number of children grappling with various forms of undernutrition in Sri Lanka has increased for the first time in at least six years in 2022.

More than 43.4% of the country’s children under 5 years of age are suffering from nutrition problems, according to the report released in October, with 42.9% suffering from some form of undernutrition.

Data available on the website of the health ministry’s Family Health Bureau indicate that the percentage of children under five who are underweight, stunted (low height for age), or wasting (low-height for age) increased in 2022 after dropping steadily since at least 2016.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition refers to deficiencies or excesses in nutrient intake, imbalance of essential nutrients, or impaired nutrient utilis ation.

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC REGIONAL OVERVIEW OF FOOD SECURITY AND NUTRITION STATISTICS AND TRENDS

According to the World Bank statistics, Sri Lanka ranked the second worst affected country in the South Asian region in terms of wasting among children under five years. Further, underweight among the same group of children remained around 20.0 percent since 2000, while no significant advancement was reported in terms of children with stunted growth.

Meanwhile, the persistent disparities in malnutrition prevalence across regions and economic sectors in the country suggest that nutrition anomalies remain unresolved for a prolonged period. Across residential sectors, the estate sector has become the most vulnerable sector with the highest prevalence of stunting and underweight children under five years. According to the DHS-2016, around 31.7 percent of children in the estate sector are stunted, compared to 14.7 percent in urban areas and 17.0 percent in the rural sector. Particularly child malnutrition represents a deep concern that carries a generational burden.

UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY: SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.1

A yet another alarming set of nutrition statistics has been published in the Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition, in December 2023 in addressing the Sustainable Development Goal 2.1: UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY.

The percentage of people unable to afford a healthy diet in Sri Lanka was 54% in 2020 and the figure has been increasing ever since.

Prevalence of undernourishment in Sri Lanka is 5.3% (cf. India 16.6%)

The prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity during the period 2020–2022 in Sri Lanka has been 10.9% (cf. Bangladesh 31.1%)

Undernourishment is defined as the condition of an individual whose habitual food consumption is insufficient to provide, on average, the amount of dietary energy required to maintain a normal, active, and healthy life. The indicator is reported as a prevalence and is denominated as “prevalence of undernourishment”, which is an estimate of the percentage of individuals in the total population who are in a condition of undernourishment.

People affected by moderate food insecurity face uncertainties about their ability to obtain food and have been forced to reduce, at times during the year, the quality and/or quantity of food they consume due to a lack of money or other resources.

MALNUTRITION: SUSTAINABLE

DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.2:

This section reports on four global nutrition indicators: stunting , wasting in children under 5 years of age, and anaemia in women aged 15 to 49 years.

The prevalence of stunting among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka in 2022 has been 15.9% (cf. India 31.7%).

The Prevalence of wasting among children under 5 years of age from 2015 to 2022 in Sri Lanka has been 15.1% (cf. India 18.7%)

The Prevalence of overweight among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka is 1.3% in 2022 (cf. 2.8% in India).

ANAEMIA AMONG WOMEN AGED 15 TO

49 YEARS

Prevalence of anaemia among women aged 15 to 49 years in Sri Lanka in 2019 has been 34.6 % (cf. India 53%).

HEALTHY DIET AT NATIONAL SCALE

In this regard, notable transformations in the country’s food system are essential to deliver a healthy diet for people at an affordable price. These include improving productivity in the agriculture sector along with more innovations and research and development, reducing post-harvest losses, more value addition in the agriculture sector, reducing import dependency on food systems, introducing climate-resilient food crops, promoting a wide range of nutrient-rich foods, particularly through the popularising integrated farming, rebalancing agriculture sector subsidies, and tax policies and improving agronomic practices as well as maintaining adequate food buffers to face food emergencies.

Among the solutions provided at the national level include the provisioning of school meals, provisioning of food/cash allowances for pregnant and lactating mothers, the Thriposha program, school water sanitation, and hygiene programs, and the salt iodization programme, among others. Reflecting the impact of these efforts and commitments spanning over several decades, malnutrition among children declined remarkably during the period from 1975 to 1995, with stunting among children below five years of age almost halved to 26.1 percent in 1995, compared to 49.9 percent in 1975, while the underweight child population declined to 29.3 percent in 1995 from 57.3 percent in 1975. However, these trends have reversed since the double whammy started in 2021 with COVID-19.

In addition, some of the small-scale community-level initiatives established under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture such as Hela Bojun Hal (Native Food Courts) are gaining popularity in several provinces in Sri Lanka. These food courts serve a variety of nutrient-rich native food preparations using rice flour, finger millet, local vegetables (leafy porridge), and many other sweetmeats prepared by local womenfolk and sold at an affordable price. Also, there are many beverages and local fruit drinks that are equally popular among the customers.

These food courts providing healthy and nutritious meals are making steady inroads into the food and beverage trade among the health-conscious public from all walks of life including schoolchildren, university students, and blue- and white-collar workers, alike which is indeed an encouraging trend.

If these types of Hela Bojun food courts could be promoted in rural as well as urban schools with the participation of the parents of the schoolchildren under the direction of the school administration and local health and agricultural authorities, it may help to address some of the issues under discussion at the on-going UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference such as undernourishment, food insecurity, and malnutrition. At the same time, it may give a shot in the arm for promoting nutritious food production while ensuring food security befitting the theme of this year’s UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference, which is “Transformation of the Agro-Food System”.

Sri Lanka as the host country’s special ministerial event for this conference has put forward her theme as ‘Agro-tourism in Asia and Pacific – accelerating rural development and enhancing livelihoods’ showcasing agrotourism most likely in the world-renown Kandyan Spice/Home Gardens and as a spin-off of this, the local food courts utilizing these home garden produce too, can be highlighted at the same time.

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Opinion

Harin batting for India

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The Minister of Tourism, Harin Fernando, has stated that the Sri Lankan Government will be handing over the operation of Mattala International, Ratmalana International and Colombo International Airports to India. He has added that Sri Lanka is a part of India! Has he lost his senses?

Separately, should it not be the role of the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva to make such a far-reaching decision?

Mattala, Ratmalana and Colombo are the three main airports of entry to Sri Lanka. Giving their management over to Indian organisations is tantamount to putting the proverbial snake inside one’s sarong and complaining that it is stinging.

What then will be the future of Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL)? They are, in any case, a ‘service provider’.

It is the responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka through its regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), to adhere to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements and regulations. Will this be compromised?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines for airport governance declare that the State (in this case Sri Lanka) must be accountable irrespective of national, legal or regulatory framework, or airport ownership and operating model. Could that be ensured under this recently announced arrangement?

Such accountability must be guaranteed by enactment of primary legislation in the aviation sector, mindful of the adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I believe that the Legal Draughtsman’s Office will take an inordinate amount of time to deliver this guarantee, amongst other things.

There is also the matter of establishing an effective regulatory framework with CAASL to monitor technical/safety and economic performance of the aviation sector, and compliance with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) obligations, Standard and Recommended Procedures (SARPs), and policy guidance.

In my opinion CAASL is not yet capable of that. In a combined operation such as this, IATA stipulates “Awareness and mitigation of potential conflicts of interest inherent in the regulatory framework or ownership and operating model through clear separation of powers, for example conflicts between economic oversight and shareholding arrangements, and separation of regulatory and operational functions”.

So, it is not an ‘open-and-shut case’, as Fernando believes. It is complex. His optimism is amazingly unrealistic, to say the least.

Remember, certification of aerodromes by the technical/safety regulator under ICAO requirements will continue to be carried out by CAASL as at present. According to the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), report Sri Lankan regulators tend to be more “obstructive” than “facilitative” when it comes to certification. CAASL needs to be revamped for greater efficiency.

Other refinements involve the independence of regulatory authority (CAASL) from government, and striving for separation of economic regulation from technical/safety regulation. CAASL was formed under the ‘Private Companies Ordinance’ but unfortunately it has drifted back to conducting its business as a regular government office, with political interference and all.

Besides, it is vital to establish an Aircraft Accident Investigation Authority, preferably independent of the CAA. Annex 13 to the ICAO convention says: “The State shall establish an accident authority that is independent of the aviation authorities and other entities that could interfere with the conduct or objectivity of an investigation.”

That, I believe, is what ‘checks and balances’ are about.

Meanwhile, the silence of the Aviation Minister is deafening.

The proposed ‘Indian involvement’ is a sad state of affairs when we have aviation experts in this country who have retired from careers in many parts of the world, and are now capable of sharing their knowledge and experience to good effect.

There is already an Indian-managed flying school at Ratmalana catering to Indian students. Maybe the camel has already put its head in the tent, and only money will talk.

GUWAN SEEYA

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Opinion

Pledges to abolish executive presidency

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With the presidential elections around the corner, the abolition of the executive presidency has come up for discussion once again.

This time around, the proposal for abolishing the executive presidency has come from former President Chandrika B. Kumaratunga. She pledged to scrap it first when she ran for Presidency in 1994. But she did not fulfil her promise.

Former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena are also now for scrapping the executive presidency.

Almost all the former Presidents came to power promising to scrap it but once in power they swept it under the carpet.

The Opposition parties claim they are for the abolition, but after the next presidential election. which, they say, they are confident of winning.

Mahinda has recently said it is preferable to abolish the executive presidency because he has already held it twice. However, he seems to have forgotten that he was greedy for power and he failed in his third attempt. For him and most other past Presidents, executive presidency is sour grapes.

They are now trying to have the executive presidency abolished in the hope that they will be able secure the premiership.

Ironically, Anura K Dissanayake, NPP leader and presidential candidate is against the abolition of the executive presidency as he is confident of winning the next presidential election.

So, all of them are in the same boat and one thing is clear; whoever becomes President will never have it abolished.

The campaign for scrapping the executive presidency will go in circles, forever.

Dr. P.A. Samaraweera 

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