Sri Lanka has once again come under the microscope of the international community. The image of Sri Lanka has been and is being tortured by the global media organisations worldwide.
With the advent of the internet and online media, there has been a steady increase in the proliferation of news websites. The pro-separatist lobby seems to have made inroads into global media and adverse news reports have been and are being aired by the global media organisations. It would be an uphill task for Sri Lanka to counter each and every news story that is being hatched by the pro-separatist lobby.
The biggest canard that has been successfully floated against Sri Lanka was that there is a genocide Sri Lanka. This slogan gained currency when the country went in flames in 1983 as most of the diplomatic missions of Sri Lanka were being manned by diplomats from the minority Tamil population and their kith and kin were being targeted by the rampaging mobs and Tamil properties were being looted and destroyed.
The Government in power then did little to contain the growing violence upon innocent Tamils and it took days to declare a state of emergency in Sri Lanka then. All these actions had a very negative impact overseas.
The then Leader of the Opposition later Amirthalingam had a field day marketing the Tamil cause worldwide and the central plank on which the propaganda was based was that there was a systematic killing of Tamils in Sri Lanka and the apt word used was ‘genocide’. This much-maligned word has since been used by all separatist activists and unfortunately the Sri Lankan diplomatic missions overseas have not been able to dilute the impact of this word.
This writer had the privilege of watching a television debate about the post-victory political developments in Sri Lanka on an Indian national TV channel as recently as 2013, where the learned panellist were using the same word ‘genocide’ even now to describe the situation in Sri Lanka.
There has got to be a concerted effort by the Government of Sri Lanka to debunk this misconception and Sri Lanka needs a paradigm shift in its policy towards countering the international media. The Government must mobilise all resources at its command to organise an advisory commission comprising individuals who are versed in public diplomacy, strategic communications in order to advise the President of Sri Lanka on strategies that need to be adopted in countering adverse media reports about Sri Lanka.
Public diplomacy for Sri Lanka
The people of Sri Lanka are now enjoying the peace dividends thanks to the political leadership displayed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. If not for this great patriotic victory, we would still be under the clutches of the brutal terrorists. The diplomacy and the tenacity displayed by the President Rajapaksa in annihilating the LTTE amidst international pressure were unprecedented in contemporary politics and deserve commendation by the entire nation.
Now a new game of war is being waged overseas, targeting the leadership of our country. It is highly unlikely that the separatists would abandon their struggle for autonomy or the propaganda against Sri Lanka when another government comes to power. It therefore behooves on all citizens to contribute financially and morally, or provide their talents in defending the country. Countering foreign media and hiring lobbyist overseas are a costly business and citizen participation is therefore imperative and must be officially mobilised.
"It is high time a Presidential advisory committee was set up so as to advise the President of Sri Lanka on the strategies that need to be adopted in countering the separatist agendas overseas. The committee must comprise experts in the field of public diplomacy, strategic communications and psychological warfare"
Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga, an experienced public servant, seems to have undertaken the battle in Geneva this time. This is a battle in which every citizen must take part. This writer believes that the country requires the talents of the citizens who could articulate the policy alternatives and other snippets on public diplomacy. Sri Lanka is also being demonised by the State Government in Tamil Nadu and there is a greater need for public diplomacy initiatives targeting the Tamil Nadu population as well.
What exactly is public diplomacy?
Official diplomacy is about conducting political, economic and cultural relations between governments through diplomatic missions where public participation is not solicited and diplomatic communications are conducted often in secret. There is no need for public to know the communications between governments unless the governments themselves involved provide information to the public. The vast majority of the public does not even know the topics of discussions between governments.
Public diplomacy is little known and it is also called the ‘soft power’ using communications tools to create a wider public awareness about a certain causes in an effort to mould public opinion. Public diplomacy is often complimentary to official diplomacy.
Public diplomacy was first articulated by Edward Murrow, the then Head of the US Information Service (USIS), which is now replaced by Voice of America (VOA), but other agencies of the US Government are vigorously following the concept advanced by Edward Murrow. According to Murrow, “Public diplomacy differs from traditional diplomacy in that it involves interaction not only with governments but primarily with non-governmental individuals and organisations. Furthermore public diplomacy activities often present many differing views represented by private individuals and organisations in addition to official government views.”
Public diplomacy requires citizen participation along with government efforts.
The Foreign Policy Centre, a UK-based independent think-tank founded by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, has identified three dimensions of public diplomacy:
(1) Increase people’s familiarity with one’s country (making them think about it, updating their images, turning around unfavourable opinions)
(2) Increasing people’s appreciation of one’s country (creating positive perceptions, getting others to see issues of global importance from the same perspective)
(3) Engaging people with one’s country (strengthening ties from education reform to scientific cooperation; encouraging people to see us as an attractive destination for tourism, study, getting to buy our products, getting to understand and subscribe to our values)
Why is lobbying required?
Media reports indicate that a resolution against Sri Lanka will be moved by US where there is an organised political system captured by the interest groups. Washington DC is the epicentre of world’s lobbying industry and billions of dollars are involved in lobbying industry contracts. Washington DC has a unique system of political activism and provides a forum for advocacy groups to engage legislators on policy issues. This industry has grown over the years and no individual or an organisation can approach US legislators without an intermediary from the lobbying industry. Political influence plays a crucial role in shaping policy through legislation.
The US economy is the largest economy in the world and trillions of dollars are involved in government budget allocations and the bigger the slice, the bigger the contracts for private organisations. In order to secure a bigger slice, there has to be a justification and this requires sound reasoning. The private entities are therefore tempted to hire experienced and influential lobbyists in Washington DC to reason with US legislators so that legislative policy could be formed in favour of certain private entities.
There are thousands of lobbying organisations in Washington DC and it is important the Government of Sri Lanka to select the right lobbyist to garner support from US Congress. There have been efforts by the Government to hire lobbyists which is an essential exercise as the political process in Washington DC cannot be penetrated by the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Washington DC alone. There has to be a concerted effort not only in Washington DC but in London, Montreal and Brussels.
Israel is the only country which has successfully lobbied the US Congress. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has a permanent office in Washington DC primarily targeting US legislators and provides timely and updated information to the US legislators and undertakes many programs aimed at boosting relations between Israel and the US. There are other Jewish organisations with political influence being engaged in promoting US-Israel relations. Sri Lanka can learn many lessons from the Israel lobby.
Presidential advisory committee
It is high time a Presidential advisory committee was set up so as to advise the President of Sri Lanka on the strategies that need to be adopted in countering the separatist agendas overseas. The committee must comprise experts in the field of public diplomacy, strategic communications and psychological warfare.
(The writer is a freelance journalist and a political lobbying and public affairs consultant. He is a member of the American Association of Political Consultants.)