Columns - Political Column

Mahinda R in the eye of a storm

  • Lasantha's killing like an Agatha Christie mystery with conspiracy theories
  • Rajapaksa M reassures media amid fears of secret groups with different agendas
By Our Political Editor

The media-friendly alleged 'Reporter' of yesteryear became the bete noir 'Rapier' of media freedom this week.

It was most unfortunate for President Mahinda Rajapaksa that he, of all politicians, should have his effigy burnt and stand accused of suppressing media freedom in Sri Lanka.

He was a great friend of journalists, both while in Opposition and in Government. In Opposition, especially during the tenure of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, he was in the vanguard of human rights issues, including the battles for media freedom. In Government, he took no part in the media witch-hunt during the Chandrika Kumaratunga-Mangala Samaraweera joint stewardship when journalists were murdered, thrashed, baton charged, or tear-gassed on the streets by underworld elements or men of the Presidential Security Division, when serial indictments of criminal defamation were filed against editors, presses sealed and censorship imposed on the reporting of military-related news. He may not have spoken out against Government action, but Rajapaksa stayed aloof and was not associated with any of the anti-media actions.

Rajapaksa knew his politics well enough not to rub the media on the wrong side, especially as he was climbing to the top of the greasy pole where the crown of the Presidency was.

Like many before him, though, Premadasa and Kumaratunga particularly, who courted journalists as Opposition politicians only to lose their trust while in power and in place, Rajapaksa this week, more than ever before in his relatively brief incumbency, seemed heading the same way as those predecessors of his. The assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, last week, even more than the burning down of the MTV/MBC television station, was the reason for the accusations on the Rajapaksa administration. For a certainty, Rajapaksa himself must have surely been stunned by the murder of Wickrematunge.

Media meeting

It was only moments earlier, that he had been in long discussion with the head of Swarnavahini tv station Jeevaka Edirisinghe and ANCL chairman and Swarnavahini breakfast show host Bandula Padma Kumara. They had been talking essentially about the media and media personalities that fateful Thursday morning. Rajapaksa had even referred to Wickrematunge and said that they were friends once again. He said that he was not too concerned about the criticism of his administration in Wickrematunge's newspaper citing the limited number of copies sold in the rural areas where his power base remained. He said how he had been invited for Wickrematunge's wedding at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel a fortnight earlier. There were inquiries from within his own Government as to whether he would attend, but that he had said that he would not be doing so because he had refused attending so many weddings at this hotel on grounds of security. He was not in a position to make an exception.

Rajapaksa said he had patched up differences with Wickrematunge and lamented the fact that Wickrematunge did not attend meetings or functions at Temple Trees to which he had been once again invited after the two had patched up differences.

German Ambassador Jurgen Weerth delivering his eulogy which got him summoned to the Foreign Office. Pic by Sanka Viddanagama

It was shortly after the media duo left that Rajapaksa got the news that Wickrematunge had been shot. He swung into action requesting government medical units to give all possible assistance to the grievously wounded journalist. By afternoon, and Wickrematunge's subsequent death, Rajapaksa was only too aware that he and his administration would have to face the music. He knew that the fallout would be on his administration, and on him, because not many knew that there had been a rapprochement between Wickrematunge and him after having fallen out, bitterly, not so long ago. Both parties seem to have preferred to have kept it that way too.

Obviously shaken by the sudden turn of events, Rajapaksa was to make some telephone calls that afternoon to other media friends, and say " Balannako wechcha weday" (See what happened), and go on to explain how he was even keeping Wickrematunge's wedding present to be given to him when he visited him next. His brother, Gotabhaya, the Defence Secretary, was in Jakarta at the time on an official assignment. Once he was given the news that same afternoon, he had remarked "Than ithin maawa allai" (so, now they will accuse me of this).

The Opposition United National Party (UNP) lost no time in turning the Wickrematunge murder into political capital. Wickrematunge had been a close associate of the party, and made no bones about the fact. So much so that when his assassins swooped on him to do what they did, Wickrematunge was on his phone talking to the party's ex-chairman Malik Samarawickrema. He had a scheduled meeting at 11.30 - about an hour after the incident, with the party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He liked to be in the thick of the policy-making and decision-making process of the UNP, and had his own likes and dislikes among the hierarchy.

The UNP knew that the Government's popularity, now on a high with the capture of Kilinochchi would plummet with the Wickrematunge killing. Making a shindig out of the incident would have been the ultimate tribute they could also pay to an absolute political animal that was Wickrematunge. So much so, that when funeral arrangements were being worked out, some of the party members were unhappy that they could not start the procession from Kotahena, Wickrematunge's childhood place of residency so that they could parade his body through the crowded areas of Colombo North, Colombo Central and Borella before coming to the cemetery.

As usual, conspiracy theorists have a field day when such tragic occurrences of public figures take place. They range from the credible to the ridiculous. One recalls how some asked if it was possible that the Lear jet in which the founder of the Upali Conglomerate, Upali Wijewardene went missing over the seas of the Straits of Malacca 25 years ago, was actually a submarine and if he was living inside it. Conspiracy theories apart, no matter what, the finger pointed at the Government, though not necessarily the President. This was because of a series of similar attacks on media personnel in the recent months, which the President was aware of, but did not - or - could not deter.

UNP allegations

If it was 'did not' it was bad enough. If it was 'could not', then it must have been worrying for no less a person than the President himself. That is probably why he looked somewhat distraught when he addressed the Nation on Friday, the day after the Wickrematunge killing, when our troops marched into Elephant Pass, the gateway between the mainland and the Jaffna peninsula, recapturing the town from the LTTE.

He said there were elements - both external and internal - who were trying to discredit his administration due to the heroic deeds of the soldiers.

In Parliament, UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe went to the extent of saying that there was a separate unit in the Army that was carrying out these strikes against the media. He asked the Cabinet of Ministers themselves to be careful. What was patently noticeable to parliamentary lobby correspondents was that there were no denials or protestations from the front benchers of the Government.

On Monday, the UNP's Colombo district organisers, especially those from Kotte (Ravi Karunanayake, a personal friend of Wickrematunge), Colombo East (Bodhi Ranasinghe), and Borella (Jayantha Silva), swelled the procession of journalists, publishers and activists as well as those from civil society organisations, by getting their slogan-shouting supporters to attend. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) offered limited support by getting its cadres to paste posters condemning the Government and calling for media freedom.

There were more than a dozen funeral orations and that of Ranil Wickremesinghe was probably the most forceful. He said that they were not burying Wickrematunge, but media freedom that day. But it was the speech of German Ambassador Jurgen Weerth that caused the most concern to the Government. Weerth has not been a favourite with the Rajapaksa administration for quite some time now. He was summoned to the Foreign Office the next day where Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona read the riot act to him regarding his conduct.

That same night, Rajapaksa called the Foreign Correspondents Association (FCA) members for a dinner in a bid to assuage the media practitioners. The foreign media were already painting a not too rosy picture of the Rajapaksa administration vis-à-vis media freedom in Sri Lanka, and souring all favourable media on the military victories in the Wanni.

Rajapaksa said "why should we do it when the Government is popular", and explained that next month, the Government's popularity will be endorsed at the provincial elections. When journalists drew his attention to Wickremesinghe's statement that there was a group that the Government had no control over, the President simply ruled that possibility out.

The Head of State spent over two hours with the journalists over dinner, and one of the requests from the journalists was that the President give a re-assurance to journalists that they could perform their duties without murders and threats. The President initially said he would issue a statement, but later said that he would be meeting newspaper publishers and owners of tv and radio stations where he would speak to them.

On Wednesday (Thai Pongal), Rajapaksa called newspaper publishers, tv and radio station heads for a meeting at Temple Trees. The publishers had also wanted to meet him to express their concern at what was happening. By all accounts, it was a masterly performance by Rajapaksa, which actually precluded any real discussion on the threats to media practitioners and media freedom in Sri Lanka, as he indicated his thinking at the outset. He gave all the alternate theories of how Wickrematunge could have been killed, and other attacks that had taken place.

It is quite possible, given the complexity of Sri Lankan politics for Wickrematunge to have been killed by, for that matter, any group of persons. As the several newspaper organisations said in expressing their condolences on his death; "In the spider-web of facts, many a trust is strangled". It is quite possible that those who wish to discredit the Government would have committed this heinous act and rob it of the fruits of victory on the battllefields of the Wanni.

On the other hand, we know that Wickrematunge had said he was being followed by motorcyclists from his house in Nugegoda, to Battramulla to his office in Ratmalana, which is no mean distance. It must speak terribly for the security of the Colombo city, and those in charge of it, for four motor cyclists armed as they were to roam the city at ease - commit their criminal act, and get away so easily then.

At the meeting with the President, Uthayan publisher V. Saravanapavan made a pointed accusation on who masterminded the attack on his press in Jaffna. Basil Rajapaksa, MP who attended the meeting claimed the Government had investigated the attack on Uthayan and cleared the alleged perpetrators.
Rajapaksa spent a lot of time on how many visits and how close Wickrematunge was, and all the information he gave him. Wickrematunge had kept Wickremasinghe informed that he was meeting Rajapaksa, but Rajapaksa said that Wickrematunge was his informant of what was happening inside the UNP. He said that Wickrematunge gave him details of UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya's actual cross-over date (from the Government back to the Opposition). The problem however is that whether this is kite-flying or true cannot be verified because Wickrematunge is no more.

Some of the publishers cautioned the President of not allowing a Premadasa re-play, and for the police to pay some special attention to complaints. They asked for a hotline. Rajapaksa virtually offered to man the hotline himself saying he does not sleep till midnight.

Amunugama committee

Soon after the attacks on journalists Keith Noyahr and Namal Perera mid last year, and the howl of protests that followed, the Government instead of going after the perpetrators, appointed a Ministerial Committee headed by Sarath Amunugama to go into these matters. It even set up a Police hotline of sorts. Nothing, really, came of this committee and the police hotline. The media knew that both, the committee and the police, were up against much more powerful forces within the Government.

Take the case of Wickrematunge. Given the fact that he had befriended Rajapaksa once again, it is easy to imagine that he felt that he was out of harm's way, at least physical harm. That is probably why, despite knowing that he was being followed right from home in Nugegoda, all the way to Battaramulla and then to Ratmalana, all he did was telephone people and say that he was being followed. One of the persons he called that fateful morning was Eliyantha White, the man who was treating Wickrematunge. He had been introduced to him by Rajapaksa no less. White has a 'hotline' to Rajapaksa, but whether he used it he did not say when he came on tv and said how he had treated Wickrematunge. In fact, White turned up at the Kalubowila hospital and said that he can even treat the mortally wounded Wickrematunge. His medicine is his supernatural powers and special herbs grown in the foothills of the Himalayas.

That same Thai Pongal night, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, back from his visit to Indonesia, went on national tv. Newspaper advertisements said it would be a simulcast, i.e. that all channels will run the interview. Eventually, it was Rupavahini, ITN, Derana and Art TV that aired the interview. In that interview, Rajapaksa G. with four national flags as a backdrop, praised the Security Forces, and then, not surprisingly went on a tirade against sections of the media which he referred to as being 'anti-national'.
At one point, he referred to a CNN telecast he had just seen half an hour before he started his own interview where someone had inferred that the arson attack on MTV was a Government job, and posed the question as to why the Government which was successful in taking over Kilinochchi could not find who brought a claymore mine into the MTV premises the night it was burnt down.

He referred to that person as a 'kotiya' (Tiger) and said he would imprison him. He then went on to say that the burning down of MTV was an insurance ruse undertaken by the company itself.

So, while Rajapaksa M. was trying to douse the Wickrematunge-MTV fires by throwing some ice-water into the embers, Rajapaksa G. had no qualms in throwing more petrol into it. The latter was conspicuously silent though on the Wickrematunge killing.

That same Thai Pongal night, the police was despatched on the search for the CNN 'tapes'. The man who had given that statement about the claymore mines at the MTV premises was its news director Chevan Daniel, who went into hiding pronto, and is now learnt to have left the country.

Significantly, it was not only on media freedom that Rajapaksa G. showed he was in a different mind-set from Rajapaksa M. When asked what must be done should the Security Forces capture LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Defence Secretary had no hesitation in saying that Prabhakaran should be tried and hanged for the crimes he had committed. The friendly interviewer then mildly reminded the Defence Secretary that the President has said that Government would hand-over the LTTE leader to India (where he is also wanted for the murder of one-time Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi). The Defence Secretary broke into a half-smile and said that the decision is with the President, but re-iterated his own position that Prabhakaran should first be tried in Sri Lanka.

The day after the interview, TNL tv station head Shan Wickremesinghe telephoned the President and asked him if Chevan Daniel was wanted for questioning by the police, and Rajapaksa M. said that he was not wanted for questioning. But a news item published in this newspaper today quotes the CID chief as saying the police are on the lookout for Daniel. Is this another fearful case where the President is not fully aware of what is happening or what those under him are doing.

In another post-interview scenario, Minister Milinda Moragoda and a businessman close to MTV bosses, met Rajapaksa G and asked what was wrong in what Daniel said on CNN. The defence secretary said he found nothing all that bad in it.

Poya programme

However, it seems clear that the way the police are handling the inquiries into the burning of the MTV station, the direction of the investigations is towards it being an 'inside job', and MTV will not get the outcome it wants. Already, a UNP municipal council member has been taken into custody - and even remanded, in connection with the attack.

The President has already been somewhat pressurised to distance himself from MTV. He has publicly made it known that it was MTV that gave him air-time when he was Prime Minister to have the monthly poya day sermons at Temple Trees when the then Government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga blocked Rupavahini and ITN, the state channels from giving that opportunity.

In December last year, state tv telecast a group of Buddhist monks coming and telling Rajapaksaa that MTV was a pro-LTTE station and for him to stop this practice which he continued as President. Rajapaksa was seen telling the monks that it was MTV that gave him its services when even the state media refused this at a time he was the Prime Minister. Having made that clear, he went ahead and stopped MTV from airing poya programmes at Temple Trees beginning from this month. MTV head Kili Mahendran's decision to write to the President, nor the President's own recognition of MTV's offer then was of any avail.
But what of the Wickrematunge inquiry? Will it also go, like all those other inquiries before into the limbo of forgotten things? It looks very much like it would. The residue of all this, of course, would remain to haunt the Rajapaksa administration. Many have begun comparing the Rajapaksa administration to the Premadasa administration even though, now, many killings and abductions once attributed to Premadasa himself have been found not to have any connection to him either by way of having his decree or his prior knowledge.

One of the high-profile killing's pinned on Premadasa at the time was the abduction and murder of playwrite and journalist Richard de Zoysa. Premadasa was the first accused by public opinion. De Zoysa's friends now exonerate Premadasa of the killing, but it remains a legacy of the Premadasa's regime, probably more for his role in the cover-up than anything else which made him even more a suspect.

Rajapaksa will not want history to judge him one day in the Premadasa Class on this score, surely. Well-wishers told him so this week.

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