One of the saddest aspects of the determination of some journalists to denigrate Sri Lanka is the failure to distinguish between truth and falsehood. This has been sadly true of the ‘Sunday Leader’, though it should be noted that there are great differences between the various people who write for it.

In some cases, there is no obvious reason for statements that are not true, except perhaps sheer carelessness, in a culture that is not concerned with truth provided some sort of specious political point is made. Thus, on the front page of the ‘Leader’ that appeared immediately after the General Election, a lady called Nirmala Kannangara wrote that the UPFA won 115 seats, the UNF 45 and the TNA 15 from the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The real figures were 117, 46 and 12 respectively.

 Another story on the front page, discussing the absence of Muslims on the UNP ‘ticket’, claimed that ‘The Muslims in Colombo, however, appear to have abandoned their links to the UNP – the former UNP stalwart Azaath Salley, polled a mere 10,000 votes in spite of being part of the government machinery’.  Apart from the misleading nature of Faraz Shauketaly’s headline (there were Muslims on the UNP ticket, it was just that none of them were elected), the failure of a former UNP stalwart to poll more votes is hardly evidence of the Muslims of Colombo abandoning their links to the UNP.

If all this is just shoddiness, the main picture on the front page exemplifies deliberate deceit. There is a photograph of a camera poking through iron bars, designed to prove that ‘Lawlessness prevails’. The claim is that photographers were permitted to take pictures of the President inside a polling booth, but were forbidden to go in as far as Ranil Wickremesinghe was concerned. Such a claim hardly justifies the assertion that lawlessness prevails, whereas the graphic picture will doubtless prove grist to the mill of some readers of the ‘Leader’, who are convinced that we live in a police state. However, since I was at the polling booth when Ranil Wickremesinghe cast his vote, and since the gate was wide open and packed with photographers who were certainly not operating through bars, I believe the photograph on the front page of the Leader to be a deliberate sham.

The Leader’s American import meanwhile was more subtle in what seem efforts to ensure that Ranil Wickremesinghe ceases to be leader of the UNP. In addition to asserting pressure already against Wickremesinghe, to urge him to step down, Michael Hardy vividly juxtaposes the dramatic increase this time  in the percentage of UNP votes that Sajith Premadasa received against the continuous decline of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s percentage.

None of these would perhaps have been noteworthy in themselves, were it not for the falsehood that the Leader deliberately perpetrates in several places in this edition, beginning with the front page. It claims there, in a story by Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, that ‘just 50% of the electorate’ made an effort to cast their vote.

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s cousin’s son, another R Wijewardene like the cousin whose victory in Gampaha will doubtless be extolled in the Leader as well as the newspapers the family owns, repeats the 50% in a long analysis of the election. That article is full of blunders, sending Karu Jayasuriya to Colombo, and twice claiming that Bandula Gunawardena (described as a ‘veteran of corruption’, which is certainly not something I had heard of before) was not elected.

It also twice declares surprise that the government won the Nuwara Eliya District, ‘leaving a host of observers scratching their heads’. This host, if it is not Mr Wijewardene alone, probably includes only his cousins and his uncles and his aunts, as in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, since I did not see it in the other Sunday papers I perused. It is also scarcely surprising, since the vote for the government is in fact smaller than that the President received in January. Of course this is true of the country as a whole, but Mr Wijewardene is less intelligent than I had taken him to be if he does not realize that of course CWC voters would have had a greater incentive to turn up for this election than they did for the Presidential. 

The same applies to Jaffna and, while I would hesitate to describe Mr Wijewardene’s claim that the government made ‘massive gains even in Jaffna and Nuwara Eliya’ as a deliberate lie, the alternative explanation is that the boy needs a course in critical thinking, perhaps from Michael Hardy. That might help him to realize that percentages change not only because one side gets more, but also because the other side gets less. He would also realize that there are surely good reasons for those who voted against the government in January, hyped up perhaps even in Jaffna by the Leader’s decision to support Sarath Fonseka, feeling let down badly by each and every one of the bizarre Fonseka coalition (including the editor and presumably all her faithful staff). They would understandably enough have abstained this time from voting against the government with the lemming like fervour that Ms Jansz and her staff still sadly evince.

Frederica Jansz - editor Sunday Leader

And then, on centre stage on the centre page, Ms Jansz also gets into the act and produces an editorial that declares that ‘Democracy is Dead’. In her usual scintillating prose (‘Switch off the lights. Rend your hair. Don only white.’) she describes democracy as an aunt who was ‘strangled by corruption, stifled by authoritarianism and finally snuffed out by the disinterest and apathy of the general public’. And what is her evidence? – ‘this week we finally saw democracy die in the hearts and minds of voters. The turn out for the 2010 general election stands as the lowest in history – only 50% of the country’s people made the effort to participate in the country’s electoral process’.

What is the reason for this? Not the supposed death, since democracy is alive and well, as some at least of the Wijewardenes will doubtless claim, if only as far as their latest scion is concerned, topping the Gampaha list, with only fabulous advertisements in his father’s papers to help him snuff out the apathy and disinterest the general public would surely have felt if he had not been standing.

No, what we should look for is the reason for this false figure. Where did it start? Who perpetuated it, and why? What is the principal use of it? In short, the interesting question is not, who killed democracy, but who killed the truth?

That 50% is a total lie is obvious from the article opposite Ms Jansz’s editorial in the Leader itself, by a Kusal Perera, which notes that ‘on Thursday evening, most  monitoring outfits claimed, the percentage polled would not exceed 50 to 53%’ (note that even for them, 50% was the lowest end of the estimate, contrary to the pronouncements of Ms Jansz and the rest of her old Fonseka groupies.) Mr Perera goes on to say that ‘By Friday morning, the figure was said to have crept to about 60%’.

The Sunday Times suggests the answer as to where the falsehood started, in its own account of varying assessments which declares directly that ‘The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) said the turnout was less than 50%’. CMEV, it should be remembered, is the outfit headed by Dr Saravanamuttu, who has been in the centre of the campaign that began at the time of the Presidential election to cast doubt on the Sri Lankan electoral process.

Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu speaking at news conference of Center for Monitoring Election Violence.

He it was who declared on January 26th, when everyone else was remarking on the smooth conduct of the Presidential poll, that the country was in a state of ‘dysfunction and breakdown’. Sure enough, this time too he began his critique early, on the morning of the poll, and went on to claim that ‘questions will be raised’ if a robust mandate given to any particular party were ‘founded on a low turnout’. In short, avoiding the passive voice, that Orwell taught us is used to conceal much, Dr Saravanamuttu gave early notice that he would raise questions about the mandate the government was likely to receive.

On whose behalf was he doing this? As if on cue, parroting his language, Ranil Wickremesinghe announced at a press conference on April 9th that ‘For the first time, we have a parliament that does not have a mandate from the people. Though the government has a majority they do not have a mandate from the people.’

Unlike his nephew, Mr Wickremesinghe seems to have granted that 55% had voted. In actual fact 55% is a bit less than the total of votes that were obtained by the various parties contesting, while about 4% of votes were spoilt, which explains Mr Perera’s figure. But the fact that Mr Wickremesinghe did not go for the big lie, while still claiming on Saravanamuttu lines that the government did not have a mandate, suggests that he does not quite understand the technique the media experts were employing.

Leader of the Opposition - Ranil Wickremesinghe

This is to Mr Wickremesinghe’s credit. He will not, or perhaps cannot, play along with the ploy so carefully prepared early on by Dr Saravanamuttu, and promoted by the UNP family journalists and their hangers on, to challenge the legitimacy of the election regardless of the truth. He may challenge it, but he will do so fitfully. And perhaps he is wiser in the end than the foreign educated troops who had earlier thought that General Fonseka could be presented as Mr Moussavi, deprived of an election victory that had been confidently predicted by his national and international supporters in media outlets they insisted were objective.

 For you need at least plausible figures if you are to claim that a mandate is not genuine.  Had the President defeated General Fonseka by less than a 5% margin, there would have been chaos, orchestrated by the media outlets trained and ready for the purpose.  And had the vote at the General Election been well under 55%, it would have been claimed that fewer than half the people had exercised their franchise, and therefore Parliament was not legitimate.

But given the massive level of the President’s victory, given that nearly 60% did vote in the general election, a reasonable number given that there was nothing crucial at stake and a healthy mandate had already been granted to the President, it is clear that this particular game is not worth the candle. Mr Wickremesinghe will I suspect go back contentedly to fulfilling his ambition of being the longest serving opposition leader ever, and leave Dr Saravanamuttu and his other media stars to think out a different strategy with which to attack democracy in Sri Lanka.