26th March 2000

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Little sparks of fire in dull debate

By Dilrukshi Handunetti our Lobby Correspondent

Any legislative debate on the media habitually draws blood and unearths skeletons- a reaction shared by both Parliamentarians and journalists alike.

The annual votes on the crucial Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has its own Gobbels and Hitler sympathisers.

But this year, the anticipated fire was missing, barring Deputy Justice Minister Dilan Perera's candid remarks on media freedom and the ensuing trading of insults.

Stressing on the necessity to ensure a free flow of information was former information minister Tyronne Fernando who dwelt on the infamous July 15 attack on media personnel. At this point up jumped Minister Mangala Samaraweera, ever ready to defend the PA.

"Are you justifying it,?" asked Mr. Fernando.

Quoting recent reports from the US-based Freedom House, Mr. Fernando drew a bleak picture referring to the press censorship, the PTA being used to invade houses of journalists and editors being charged with criminal defamation.

Hitting out at the designer-turned-minister with calculated barbs, Mr. Fernando noted that a Rs. 250 million fraud case has rocked Lake House.

Holding sway, he sniped that the state media was obsessed with the UNP ."It was always UNP this and UNP that," he said.

But defending the state media was Deputy Transport Minister Bennet Cooray, who touching on another aspect said it was mandatory for the state media to give publicity to state sponsored projects.

UNP new entrant Harindra Corea, himself a former deputy telecommunications minister was in a reflective mood as he spoke of the Gobbels' and Hitlers of the present day.

"This ministry propagates only the government's view point. As it always denounces opposition views it should be renamed State Promotion Ministry," he said.

Drawing attention to more serious matters Mr. Corea said that at a time there were moves towards a peace initiative, the state media should be more responsible.

The usually calm Nanda Gunesinghe was next firing salvos at Opposition members- reminding them that the media mafia had its origins in the UNP.

He reminded them that it was the late J.R.Jayawardene who spearheaded a vociferous campaign against the take-over of Lake House, but used the same institution shamelessly.

"He converted the state owned press into a veritable propaganda machine. 'Dinakara', the SLFP paper suffered a fate no other paper ever had to. It's circulation was stopped and the building itself attacked," he charged.

Sounding self-congratulatory, he listed the many things the PA had done for the media- such as the provision of houses, phones and even a pension scheme in the offing for journalists. He also said all the papers had their own agendas while the private media was the least free, with strings being pulled by owners.

Young Dilan Perera was the only one who injected some fire into an otherwise dull debate.

Analysing the role of the media, he said,"The truth is that media freedom is a fallacy. There exists only the freedom of the press barons who manipulate helpless writers. It is these ego- maniacal owners who promote the innuendo and salacious detail."

In a frenzied delivery, the Deputy Minister slammed the private media by claiming that anybody could become journalists for it required no qualifications.

"Where is their code of conduct, or training? This is why while some dedicated journalists have achieved iconic status many have fallen by the wayside."

Warming to his theme, Mr. Perera thundered that some were indisciplined writers with no moral stature. Some of them were even briefless lawyers, who take a pen and try to write. Using the same vitriolic turn of phrase he accused some writers of writing flashy copies lacking substance forgetting that facts were sacred.

Amidst the outburst against the private media he made a brilliant suggestion that each media institution should have a special national integration unit with reporters specialising on the ethnic conflict.

"It is a special area of study. And I plead with them not to carry stories specifying persons by ethnicity. People are arrested on suspicion and not for their ethnicity," he said, calling upon all media to play a contributory role towards the march of peace.

The state controlled Lake House and its Chairman became specific targets during the debate With most of the UNP's 'demolition orators' suddenly gone into hiding resulting in lacklustre debate, UNP's Sarath Ranawaka zealously attacked the state media.

"Having described the Lake House as a den of massive corruption, Minister Samaraweera even went on an inspection tour. But the Chairman remains while the entire Board of Directors has been replaced. It is a blow to the prestigious Wijewardene name to have such a person at the helm. I have no personal animosity towards individuals, but he won't leave until he is sent to Rome as Ambassador," he said.

Glossing over his self-assessed success story in telecommunications, and mildly provoking the Opposition with wisecracks was Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

He said he did not agree with his predecessor Tyrone Fernando about the UNP liberalising the media during Mr. Wijetunge's time. "It was a sigh of relief after Premadasa's claustrophobic rule. But expansion of the vistas came when Dharmasiri Senanayake laid the foundation for a vibrant media culture, even giving it an opportunity to thrash the government," he said. Himself reading reports to counter Tyronne Fernando's morning remarks, he said the Human Rights report by the American Department of State has claimed that the Government continued to own and control some of the pioneering media institutions. In the same breath, the report hails the editorial freedom today and the lack of political restriction on new media institutions.

"Journalists are not above the law. They are not a special breed. There can't be one law for them and another for the ordinary citizen". The minister went on to lambast the Commonwealth Press Union and its Executive Director Lindsay Ross.

And so drew to a close the final week of the budget debate. Baring the fact that the President presented the budget herself with much fanfare, it was a dull debate due to an obvious lack of zeal from the Opposition.

Security dilemma and stripping of a suicide woman suspectPolice Problems

The incident reported in the Sunday Times of March 19 of a woman suspect at a checkpoint in the Colombo city is a further eye opener of the inadequacies of the security infrastructure available to security personnel. This time, the Ministerial Security Division sleuths who spotted her suspicious movements, did not proceed to search her, as done in earlier cases, but informed the sector command which is under the Air Force, and experts from the Air Force took over from there. Experts of the Airforce carried on a physical search. Had the suspect been a real suicide bomber, the exchange of Air Force experts for MSD sleuths, but performing the same act of a physical search, makes no difference. Surely bombs do not respect experts! Nor do bombs distinguish between Airmen and Airwomen when even onlookers did not identify an Airwoman at the scene.

women susupect was asked to strip by the security forces.........What one is at a loss to understand, is the logic behind saving MSD sleuths and sending forward Air Force experts risking their lives all the same. It would appear that the so-called experts boil down to suicide cadres used by the government, judging from the way they are sent forward as cannon fodder to save others.

There is no sense in deploying experts without the required sensitive instruments to detect body-laden explosives. There is no training either, that could develop an expert's sense of perception to focus through clothes from a safe distance and discern explosives.

Hence electronic sensors are a must in the present situation to save security men; the suspects and the innocent general public; and also to save embarrassment to members of the public who have the misfortune to be suspected, as well as to security men.

It is awesome to ponder what would have been the position if something looking like an explosive jacket were to be seen by a security officer during the search.

The innocent suspect would have been shot dead. The same fate can befall any innocent person under similar circumstances. The security officers will be justified in law for acting in that manner within the confines of limited facilities available to them, on apprehension of imminent danger to life and property. This creates a very grave situation in the present context a situation as bad as terrorism itself. Unless and until the required instruments such as electronic sensors are made available to the security personnel for use especially when a suspect is singled out, nobody is safe. Are we to wait until all security men who are willing to risk their lives are gone and more innocent members of the public sacrificed, to think of these devices?

As stated in this column last Sunday, it is the security infrastructure and hi-tech training that has to be developed. Pushing forward Peter in order to save Paul is not the answer. Millions are spent on war machinery and we also hear ever so often, of unusable junk being purchased and massive commissions appropriated. It is a pity that it has still not dawned on the appropriate authorities to provide these essential items at least to the remaining enthusiastic security officers, while we still have such officers.

See Revealing tale  for more details.

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