The Sunday Leader

Credibility And Freedom Of Speech

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) have been crossing swords in recent times over many issues which have also resulted in the question of the right of free speech.

Wickremesinghe points out that his government has received a mandate from the people to implement various pledges such as the creation of one million jobs and that the GMOA has no right to obstruct him.

The GMOA is essentially a trade union dedicated to protect the interests of government medical practitioners and their involvement in issues such as prevention of students of the private medical school SAITM (South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine) being taught in government medical hospitals is being questioned not only by government leaders but also by members of the general public.

The issue appears to be whether the GMOA is transgressing its limits of a trade union and is openly opposing government policy or whether Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is suppressing the organization’s right to free expression.

A more detailed look at the two current issues in dispute would be relevant.

The people are suffering due to a severe dearth of doctors both in government and even private hospitals where they have to wait for long hours for doctors to turn up. Students aspiring to be doctors find it extremely difficult to get into government sponsored medical faculties even if they obtain the best possible grades at the GCE (O) Levels and (A) Levels. The cost of putting more doctors through MBBS courses is too prohibitive for a government.

In this context the argument of the GMOA that they are protecting the Free Education System is stupid. Also the fear in the drop of standards in medical education is hogwash considering the number of medical faculties that have been opened up so soon in state universities. If a drop in standards is feared adequate steps to redress the issue are not impossible to be made.

When the Colombo North Medical College was commenced, also as a private institution, there were a great many conscientious medical objectors who expressed similar fears such as a drop in standards of teaching and the quality of the products. Now graduates of that college are not only working in government hospitals, but also members of the GMOA and even practicing in prestigious medical hospitals abroad.

A more contentious issue going on in recent times is the GMOA’s objections to the proposed Indo-Sri Lanka Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA). This proposed agreement covers a vast range of activities from shipbuilding to areas of commerce, trade and agriculture. The agreement has not yet been made public but the GMOA has gone ahead opposing it on the grounds that it is a repeat of a similar agreement called the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which was rejected by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.

Their basic objection is that Sri Lanka will be inundated with Indian medical practitioners and other professionals while prospects of Sri Lankans being employed in India are scarce.

Some of the fears of the GMOA are justified considering recent indo-Lanka relations, particularly the Indo- Lanka Agreement of 1986. But the fact that even the proposed agreement has not yet been officially announced and that the GMOA is claiming that it is a repeat of the CEPA agreement which the Rajapaksa government rejected and taken to public protests, rallying round other professional organisations, lends credence to Wickremesinghe’s allegation that this medical organisation is playing ball with Mahinda Rajapaksa and trying to bring back the twice defeated ruler.

All the evidence that the GMOA is going on against the ETCA is a so called cabinet memorandum on a proposed ambulance project for Sri Lanka sponsored by an Indian organisation. This allegation was demolished  by Minister Ajith Perera on Thursday night in a talk show where he pointed out that the agreement specified only Sri Lankans be employed in this ambulance project. It is common knowledge that ambulance services are woefully inadequate in this country.

While the Prime Minister has to implement the mandate he received from the people, he has also to keep to the commitment to safeguard the right to free speech. Last week it was pointed out in our columns that even the TV commentator who unjustly vilified a Sri Lanka soprano of international acclaim for ‘caterwauling at night’ was exercising his right of free speech.

The GMOA is straying out of its depths when it takes on the entire ETCA at public meetings. It certainly has the right to express its opinion on dangers posed to their profession but they can’t be too sure of even that when the official version is not yet been released.

Freedom of expression has its limits. Opinion should be right or appear to be reasonably right to be accepted. All professionals make mistakes. It is said that doctors’ mistakes lie buried six feet underground, the lawyers’ float in the air while journalist mistakes are out on the streets in black and white in thousands of newspapers.

Journalists are not specialists but their statements and speculations have to be reasonable and credible. If not they will be out of business soon. All professional organisations, including those of doctors, should be credible even if they are unable to tell the truth and the whole truth.


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