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9th January 2000

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Farewell to a dynamic man

By Roshan Peiris

Tears cloud ones eyes and large lumps choke the throat, when bidding a final farewell to the once dynamic, vital Kumar Ponnambalam.Kumar Ponnambalam

This was a man who had so many miles to go and promises to fulfill. His life was filled with ideals and ambitions. His son Gajan, a barrister practising with Daya Perera, said "We did not expect this and still we wonder why he was killed." Gajan, choking with sobs, said "he had death threats daily, but he just laughed it all off."

There was an eerie silence shrouding the place as the Kural chanted religious texts by the side of the opulent coffin where Kumar lay, clad in a silk verti and kameez with jasmine garlands around his neck.

The silence was intermittently broken by cries emanating from grown women and men who were shattered by the death of this man.

Yogi, Kumar's wife of 27 years sobbed as she said, "can you bear to see Kumar, my dearest husband, being so still in a coffin. He was so vital a personality full of life."

"His horoscope was good and only predicted that when he approached the age of 62 he was 61 and a half at the time of his death he would meet with an accident, but it did not specify that it would be fatal", said Yogi.

Kumar and Yogi's daughter, Mirumalani, a doctor who studied medicine in the UK and is now practising at Durdans, said "there was an ola leaf prediction that something might cripple him, but there was no indication of death".

Kumar was a devoted family man. He once told this writer "I was a sort of playboy until I met Yogi. Her love which is so great and her supportive nature made me a reformed person." Yogi howled and cried when told this and said "we were naturally a very happily married couple."

Kumar's daughter burst into sobs when told that her father had once told this writer that "the only person to whom I cannot say no and who can control me effortlessly is my only daughter, Mirumalani."

"Why would anyone want to kill my dear father and leave my brother Gajan and me fatherless. We depended on him so much." she said.

Kumar was very emphatic in his views and about two months ago he gave this writer an interview in which he strongly aired his political support for the LTTE which he thought was the only hope for the Tamils now.

Despite his often aggressive views, Kumar was an endearing person full of life and bon homie.

It is difficult to think of him shrouded in the mystery of death. May he rest in peace in heaven, away from the trouble and turmoil with which he grappled daily.


POLICE PROBLEMS

In the name of peace

For Sri Lankans, the 20th century was full of contradictions. It left us with a war for peace hatred and violence being the tools used to achieve peace!

Bringing the century to a close was an all- important event: the Presidential election. There were flagrant examples of election malpractices, hatred and violence leading up to the election. The most diabolical act of hatred was the assassination attempt on the President by a suicide bomber.

There is no disputing the fact that the President just escaped the portal of death. And, it seems that such a life-altering event has brought about a spiritual transformation in her. After the assassination attempt, words of tranquillity replaced calls for retribution. Before her assassination bid, the President - under provocation- called on her supporters to hammer whoever came to intimidate them. However, after the attempt on her life, Ms. Kumaratunga found compassion and tranquillity in her hour of crisis. "This happened to me exactly seven days before the birth of the Prince of Peace I have been spared to live to talk of love and compassion and forgiveness": she said.

It is in that same spirit of tranquillity that she said: "The political fight is never an easy one. I, therefore sincerely commiserate with Ranil Wickremesinghe in his unsuccessful attempt to win the presidency. And yet I say to Mr. Wickremesinghe that he should take heart. He must take heart because the very significant support that he and his party commands can mean one thing and one thing only: that the people of this country still intend for him to play a major role in our effort to forge a new Sri Lanka of tranquillity and tremendous opportunity that stands so close at hand. I stretch my hand to you Mr. Wickremesinghe, I stretch out my hand to you to join this government, both you and your supporters."

The election was widely considered to be one which was not free and fair. In fact, elections in Sri Lanka have not been and never will be free and fair. This will be the case until independent commissions of elections, public services and police are established.

Had the election been free and fair, a different end result may have arisen. However, as things stand, Mr. Wickremesinghe already commands significant support. He too now has a major role to play in the effort to end the war.

Had Mr. Wickremesinghe got an edge over President Kumaratunga, he would have been in the same situation as the President and would have required the support of Ms. Kumaratunga. What people now want is for these two leaders to bring about peace and end the war without indulging in vituperative politics. It is the provocative utterances made by political leaders that lead to hatred and violence among their supporters. Therefore it is up to both of them now to honour the commitment to peace that they pledged to the nation.

President Kumaratunga for her part, has been magnanimous enough in victory to recognize the support that Mr. Wickremesinghe commands and to seek his support.

Now it is up to Mr. Wickremesinghe, to take heart and humble himself for the sake of this country and its people. It is up to Mr. Wickremesinghe to take the election result gracefully and to co-operate with the President.

Winning the presidency is certainly more rewarding and satisfying from a personal viewpoint. But any humiliation Mr. Wickremesinghe and his supporters feel about the defeat is nothing compared to the humiliation and agony the 'Prince of Peace' had to suffer before his final victory.

Mr. Wickremesinghe should not delay in grabbing this opportunity to work together for the common goal of peace even if it like 'clinging to the Old Rugged Cross' the way the Prince of Peace did.

If Ms. Kumaratunga and Mr.Wickremesinghe avoid the cancer of vituperative politics and sincerely unite in the pursuit of peace, they will succeed in uniting the people of this country. Both of them will experience adverse winds blowing in different directions, generated by lesser mortals with personal interests. However, just as mountains are not moved by hurricanes or tornadoes, so it must be with these two in whose hands the destiny of this country lies. They must now act with wisdom and forsake those clever but unscrupulous tactics resorted to during election time. Greatness is not in the person who utters high-faluting words, but in the person who acts with restraint and paves the way for better understanding.


Focus on Rights

Black and white won't do, more grey is needed too

By: Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

Contemplating the dawn of the millennium in this country right now, it is that catchy one-liner from an American film of the fifties which comes irresistibly to mind, "Fasten your seatbelts, folks, it's going to be a bumpy ride ahead". Certainly, for media and civil activists in this country, the warning is timely. Witness thus the sadly personal outbursts, before and after the December 21st Presidential Elections, against selected individuals seen as opposing the Government, notably in the pages of the state owned print media, statements of Ministers and most regrettably in this Monday's 'Address to the Nation' by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

It is this 'address" in particular which captures one's fascination.

Incidentally, it so transpired that the 'address' turned out to be a discussion between the President and two media men, which latter term also became singularly inappropriate for what ultimately amounted to an appalling tirade ill befitting the first citizen of this country. Let us, in any event, examine what the President said, particularly in relation to the media. President Kumaratunga's anger is against certain members of the private media who have, in her eyes, shown themselves to be blatantly partisan. The President is entitled to her anger, justified or otherwise.

The President is also entitled to state that she "would take remedial action by the powers vested in me as President to bring to book in a legal manner, infringement of the media laws of this country". This is so despite the statement pointing an unashamed arrogation to herself of a Presidential authority once sworn by her to be only temporary, taken together with an equally unashamed reliance on current media laws once promised by her to be reformed.

However, what the President is wholly not entitled to do is to descend to unwarranted levels of personal vituperation to drive home her point, even in the immediate backdrop of an election that has proved to be traumatic in more ways than one. What the President is also not entitled to do is to embark on a profitless hate campaign against all the private media for the partisan or perceived to be partisan actions by sections of the media or to approve the enacting of further stringent laws to 'control' the private media with all their attendant consequences. And what the President is undoubtedly not entitled to do is to use the public media for spreading this type of vitriolic message to the people. This, in fact, brings us to the gravamen of her message. In drawing strictly black and white lines between the private and the public media, her complaint was that the private media, taken as a whole, was biased while the public media, taken as a whole, was balanced. While much could be found fault with the latter view, as pointed out above, it is the former assertion that colloquially "take the cake". In fact, the very 'balanced' nature of the state electronic media in reportage on the December elections has been well tabulated in a report released this week by INFORM, a Colombo based information documentation centre which specialises in monitoring performance of the Sri Lankan media and disseminating it nationally and internationally. The report contains an evaluation of news bulletins by the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), the Independent Television Network (ITN), the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and Lakhanda, over a period of 20 days, starting from the 1st of December to the 20th of December. While the Sinhala and English news bulletins of all these stations have been comprehensively examined, only the Tamil bulletins of the SLBC and a portion of the ITN newscasts are included due to technical difficulties. The survey concentrates on news bulletins in particular and does not cover the statutory allocation of time (90 minutes respectively of radio time and television time) for all candidates.

Regarding Rupavahini, ITN and SLBC in particular, the report concludes that it was very evident that news bulletins were being used as a tool for carrying out political propaganda for the Government. News bulletins that educate the public and provide accurate and balanced reportage of national and international affairs and current political events were non existent during the election campaign period. Thus, the idea that daily news bulletins of a state owned television or radio station should reflect all diverse shades of opinion seemed to be absent. During the period under review, English and Sinhala Rupavahini news bulletins had carried a total of 197 news items supporting the PA candidate, spending 342.(min.) 18 (sec.) airtime while the combined opposition got only 84 mentions in 151(min).33 (sec.) airtime. The entirety of election related news items in this respect totalled up to 335, thus seeing the state owned television channel approximating more than half of this time in propaganda for the PA candidate. Similarly, Sinhala and English news bulletins of the SLBC broadcast 252 news items in 341.(min) 43(sec.) airtime on PA campaign activities, granting only 149 news items to the combined opposition with an airtime of 75.(min.)01.(sec.). Overall, the total of campaign election related news items by SLBC in their Sinhala and English bulletins came to 569 items. ITN meanwhile fared no better with its Sinhala and English news bulletins containing 156 news items in favour of the government over 255.(min) 57.(sec.) airtime and a meagre 74 news items for the combined opposition (115.(min.)56(sec.) airtime). Special attention is given in the report to special programmes and news bulletins having the effect of propaganda for the PA candidate broadcast/telecast over these channels subsequent to the December 18th bomb blast at the PA electoral meeting, with little space given to the UNP's Ja-Ela bomb blast. Lakhanda is however specified to be marginally better in its news coverage with 90 news items for the PA candidate and 66 news items for the combined opposition.

Indeed, these conclusions would come as no surprise to many notwithstanding Presidential assertions to the contrary. The INFORM report goes on meanwhile to recommend that all public owned electronic media institutions be under an independent authority that would monitor their performance and subject them to guidelines that compel fair and balanced reportage. Interestingly, it is also suggested that all those responsible for news telecast/broadcast (including news editors and working directors) be held personally responsible for any deliberate failure to follow basic principles of news in their respective news departments. Similarly, it is suggested that if any candidate of his/her agent has knowledge of or is directly or indirectly involved in the abuse of state owned electronic media, such a person should be subject to prosecution with serious consequences, affecting among other things, the candidacy. So much therefore for the "balanced" nature of the state electronic media, now refuted statistically and analytically in the INFORM report which is only one of many reports coming out in this respect.

Meanwhile, the less said in this respect about the state print media, the better.

All this is not, of course, to say that the private media is lily white. On the contrary, there is a very definite need right now for a reinforcing of the fundamental principals of balanced reportage and commentary by the private media as well as the public media. As recommended by the group of international election observers recently in this country, a viable Code of Conduct should be introduced both for the state and private media during election time in particular. Hopefully, come the next elections, one might have a detailed evaluation of how the private media responds to their professional responsibilities as well. In general, the setting up of a voluntary Press Complaints Commission, which is presently underway, should also contribute towards addressing these issues.

In this backdrop, threats to broadbase ownership of Sri Lanka's private electronic and print media, as announced by Sarath Amunugama, Minister of Special Assignments, whose one particular assignment appears to involve a constant trespassing on the turf of the Minister of Media, come as most inopportune. The country has had one lamentable example of broadbasing ownership of a newspaper company in what happened to the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon, where the requirement by law directing the Public Trustee to sell shares to the public at regular intervals have yet not been complied with after some twenty seven years. Recommendations by the government's own committees have not been carried out in this respect.

Instead of announcing counterproductive moves of this nature therefore, current state policy towards the media should deviate from its black and white policy and acknowledge shades of grey in the process. It should also not confuse constructive criticism for partisanship. It is in this context that a happier working arrangement towards a government that the private media now loves to hate could well be possible.

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