The curious case of The Economist article on Sri Lanka

In what can only be described as a bizarre turn of events, a recent article on the blogs section of The Economist website went missing for about 4 days. No – not just inaccessible in Sri Lanka – but completely missing. The article in question was in the blogs section of The Economist website – the ‘Gulliver’ column – and was titled ‘Sri Lankan Tourism: Post-Tiger Economy’. From some point on February 4th 2014 (a day after the article was published) up to mid day February 7th, the article was not available online, even though the title would come up on Google search.

economist article

Strangely, the error message that kept appearing was ‘Access denied / user login – You may need to log in to access this page’ (see screen shot below). This error would appear when one logs in with a regular subscription sign in. Moreover, all other articles requiring a subscriber login worked just fine – so it clearly had nothing to do with a problem of the individual subscription.

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Assuming that, like we have often experienced before, the article was blocked just in Sri Lanka, I tried using VPN and proxy sites to access it. The same error message would appear. I then asked friends abroad to try access it. One in the UK and another in UAE. They couldn’t either. This was becoming quite curious. The article wasn’t blocked, but appeared to have been completely pulled by The Economist itself.

Sri Lanka is no stranger to curious and dubious ways of state-supported and/or initiated censorship of online news and commentary over the years. This was amply demonstrated recently with what happened to the Colombo Telegraph website. The Economist is no stranger to it either. In 2010, the print copies of an Economist edition were seized at Sri Lanka Customs and prevented from being distributed in the country.

Yet, the case of this Economist article, is different. Analyzing the contents of the article (as it originally appeared) would leave one confused as to why the article would be made inaccessible. It didn’t contain a scathing attack on the head of state, or any other arm of the Sri Lankan government. It didn’t paint the country in a particularly horrible light. Unlike other previous articles on Sri Lanka in The Economist newspaper, including this pre-CHOGM one which threw everything it could at GoSL, this new article in question was far from what you could describe as ‘unfavourable’ to GoSL or Sri Lanka. 

It talked about booming post-war tourism (“Today, five years after the guns were silenced, Sri Lanka is staking its hopes for peace and prosperity on a more benign form of aviation: commercial flights delivering holidaymakers”) and extensively quoted the CEO of the state-owned national airline, SriLankan, on plans for expansion to cater to this boom. While the article makes some mild (some might also say meek) mentions of ongoing issues in the country, they are of a general and superficial nature. Nothing incisive or scathing. It mentions ‘issues with official stats’, ‘unrealistic tourism targets’, a tricky ‘domestic political landscape’, etc.

So, what then happened? And why was the article not available for the better part of 4 days, shortly after its original publication?

Bizarrely, this time, it appears that the article was inaccessible not because of Sri Lankan government censorship action. But rather, forces outside the country. And it all seems to come down to the fact that the article may have been too favourable of GoSL and might have made a major boo-boo in a critical area. An area critical to the run up to Geneva and the UNHRC sessions in March. What was this? The writer’s choice of number of civilian deaths in the ‘last stages of the war’. We all know how controversial this has been and continues to be. ‘Gulliver’, in the original version of the article, refers to 7,000 civilian deaths – the number touted by GoSL. Most other international sources quote a number of 40,000  – stemming from the UN Secretary general’s ‘Panel of Experts’ report (In fact, three previous articles in The Economist on Sri Lanka had used the 40,000 number – this one from November 2013, this other one from November 2013, and  this one from November 2012). Mid-way into the second paragraph, the article notes, “An estimated 7,000 civilians died during the last four months of the war”. This must have been what caused the ruffling of feathers overseas. The Economist newspaper, choosing to use the GoSL figure in its article – now that’s something. This wouldn’t have gone down too well at all, and one can only assume is the key reason for this article ‘disappearing’ from The Economist website for several days. Bizzarre indeed.

The article is now back up online, and readily available. But, in an amateurish move rather uncharacteristic of The Economist, the new version of the article has conspicuously changed the 7,000 number to 40,000. The same sentence (highlighted earlier) now reads – “An estimated 40,000 civilians died during the last four months of the war.”

Moreover, the new version now has a (rather revealing) addendum which reads:

Corrections and clarifications: Although there are no definitive figures for the number of civilian casualties in the war, the best estimate is that 40,000 died in the last three months of the conflict, not 7,000 as we originally stated. We have also amended the article to clarify that official government statistics cannot always be relied upon and that India-Sri Lanka relations are currently poor. 

The revised version of the article is available on The Economist website here. A cached version of the original article is still available on Lankapage.

A curious case indeed. 

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2 thoughts on “The curious case of The Economist article on Sri Lanka

  1. They have carried addendums and changes to previous articles on other subjects before. The number being quoted most widely now is the 40,000 number,, which is probably why it was changed.

    • Also, it was a Blog, by an Economist staffer, not an official Economist article. I think the Economist says that these are the writers own views, but lightly edited. There may have been a conflict with the official editorial policy on this one which went unnoticed at first.

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