The Political Column

25th August 1996

Print media caned again

By Our Political Correspondent

Once again President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has come out with a verbal barrage on the national newspapers. This time she chose the Badulla meeting of the SLFP propaganda unit to do so.

But she happens to contradict her own words. Two weeks ago she spoke about the newspapers to the Parliamentary group. She attacked the Upali Group and threatened to close down newspapers allegedly carrying out propaganda against the government. There she mentioned about the Wijeya newspapers too, referring to them as "Ranil's Uncle's newspapers". She said though these newspapers were also carrying out a campaign against her, their approach appeared more acceptable. However in Badulla her thinking was entirely different. She said Ranil's uncle's papers were attacking her, using offensive language.

The President also referred to the Premadasa era and cited how President Premadasa threatened the Wijeya newspapers. She said her government would not stoop to that level.

But isn't the President unleashing her wrath on the newspapers who helped her ride to office two years ago? Some even question whether the President's remark was an indirect threat on the freedom of the press, which is an essential ingredient of the democratic system of government.

The PA could take the Premadasa regime as an example under which newspapers fought against oppression. That in itself paved the way for Ms. Kumaratunga to come to office with an overwhelming majority. People placed their faith in her not to erode the cornerstones of Democracy not to replace the democratic system with an authoritarian rule. The People's Alliance simply has no mandate for this. At present for President Kumaratunga, newspapers appear to be a stumbling block. Not only for her, but also this applies to some of her key ministers who without reason insist that there should be a blanket censorship on activities relating to the war in the North and East.

But the President at times has softened her stand on the newspapers. One such occasion was when she received a humorous birthday card from a newspaper owner in June which she showed some of her ministers.

Unfortunately she has occasion to change her mood when she reads the newspapers the next day.

Not only the newspapers, but also those in the People's Alliance who support the existence of a free press have been at the receiving end of criticism. Ravi Karunanayake is one MP in the People's Alliance who advocates a free press and speaks out in any forum supporting the removal of the censorship.

Mr. Karunanayake was taken to task recently at the government parliamentary group meeting.

But Mr. Karunanayake was at the time away at the Central Bank attending a seminar defending the government's privatisation programme which the General Secretary of the LSSP was vehemently opposing.

The issue relating to Mr. Karunanayake was raised by Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He said Mr. Karunanayake should not be allowed to criticize the government using government parliamentary time. He pointed out that it was with great difficulty the government obtains parliamentary time. In the circumstances, he has requested the President who was on the chair to take proper action against Mr. Karunanayake.

Subsequently, the PA General Secretary Minister D. M. Jayaratne in a letter to the leader of the DUN (Lalith) Front Srimani Athulathmudali states:

"It has been brought to my notice that during the debate held in Parliament on Thursday August 8 on the extension of the emergency, Ravi Karunanayake, a national list member of Parliament belonging to your party, delivered a speech containing inter-alia the following observations.

"Sir prior to venturing on to anther type of war, I on behalf of the DUNLF - Lalith Front - sincerely request the immediate lifting of this senseless press censorship which only leads to the truth being reported in a convoluted form and the untruth in any form which only leads to speculation and gossip. Our people are more wise and literate than we think. If we believe by not reporting, people will believe that it did not happen. We are only fooling ourselves.

"Sir, coming to this nonsensical Workers' Charter that has put this country in the reverse gear, economy in a downturn had basically had the figures dropping as I mentioned before.

"With all these negative factors we still have a ray of hope, we believe the PA is a government which is humane one - except for a few telephone tappings or press censorship which comes on and off. We have the hope that we will improve. Have hope in us and we will be able to do it.

"This is not something strange to our country. There is no pleasure before pain. Hope we are going through the pain."

"Sir we must look at the peace proposals once again. Proposals with less features, well accepted and tuned well is far better than a proposal with all features not accepted and at the wrong time sir."

Mr. Jayaratne referring to these remarks by Mr. Karunanayake states:

"These paragraphs which form part of the speech made by the member appears prima facie, to constitute a violation of party discipline and proper behaviour, so grave in its repercussions as to inflict damage on the solidarity and cohesion of the government. I shall be grateful if you would kindly consider taking appropriate action against the member concerned in the interest of protecting the government of which we are all members.

DUN(L)F Leader Srimani Athulathmudali has sent a reply under her signature stating that the DUN(L)F had endorsed what Mr. Karunanayake said and therefore taking action against him did not arise.

The letter from Ms. Athulathmudali is as follows:

"Thank you for your undated letter of August 1996, the contents of which are noted.

"In the context of what has transpired, I wish to point out that Ravi Karunanayake brought up the issue of telephone tapping, at the group meetings, on several occasions to which he had not got a proper answer. However I am made to understand that the Minister of Post and Telecommunications has denied this allegation at the group meeting held on 19.08.1996. I would therefore like to request, for an investigation to how a conversation between Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and myself was reported verbatim in a Sunday Newspaper. As the Leader of a constituent party of the People's Alliance Government, I feel I am entitled to this courtesy.

"Further I am informed that two members of the SLFP, i.e., a Deputy Minister and a Minister had criticised my Ministry and myself on national television during the period I was away from the Island. The issues they raised on the Transport system have been discussed at length with the Cabinet, the Treasury and has been brought to the attention of the President. I have also submitted several Cabinet memos, on the Transport crisis and have kept the government apprised of the situation. Therefore it is unfair for these MP's to make public criticisms of a Cabinet Minister.

I am of the view that certain comments made by the MP are constructive and I believe they should be taken in the spirit, in which they were made. I have been assured that no malice was intended in his speech."

However when Mr. Karunanayake received this letter he had several telephone calls from the PA backbenchers asking him about the current situation. He told his colleagues in Parliament that the Governor of the Central Bank and BOI chief had already spoken of the downward trend in the economy, and asked as to why the government was trying to muzzle MPs when bureaucrats were talking freely on these issues.

LSSP firebrand MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara was among the callers. The irony is that he had received a similar letter from the People's Alliance but he is determined to defy the PA ban. He spoke to some UNP MPs also and Mr. Nanayakkara has taken up the view that he has spoken in Parliament in keeping with the government's policy while the government speakers were infact violating these accepted principles. They have also taken up the view that the PA's decision to send letters to the party leaders asking for appropriate action is a gross violation of the agreement reached when they formed the People's Alliance and such a letter should have been sent not after consultations with the government group but with the Executive Committee of the People's Alliance.

As this was the position taken up by the DUN(L)F, Mr. Karunanayake met Minister D. M. Jayaratne in Parliament casually. Mr. Jayaratne had disassociated himself from the letter sent to the DUN(L)F leader under his signature. He said that this was the work of some ignorant backbenchers.

Apart from Mr. Karunanayake's conduct in Parliament the PA group also discussed the matter relating to telephone tapping. They had been raised by the same member.

Replying, Telecommunications Minister Samaraweera denied the allegation. He said that the government was not doing this the same way the previous regime used to do, but he said the Intelligence people may be tapping telephones the usual way they were doing earlier.

At the same meeting Bandula Basnayake made it a point to criticise the prevailing transport system and the Transport Ministry. He said the transport problem was more severe than the North East problem and charged that the Ministry was giving jobs to the UNPers rather than to government supporters.

Bennet Cooray explained the threat posed to the people by the Oil Tank Form in Orugodawatte and said that the leaders were not bothered about the safety of the people.

Amidst all this, the main objective of the government during the previous week was to ban the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The position taken up by some ministers is that the government could not ask any other country to act against the LTTE without proscribing it here.

The Foreign Minister last week met European Ambassadors to apprise them on the government's position and to tell them that the Sri Lankan government was moving to proscribe the LTTE and taking a hard line indirectly asking them to act in a similar manner.

The Security Council also discussed this matter at length at a meeting presided over by President Kumaratunga.

All argued in favour of the decision and it was unanimous.

Just prior to Wednesday's Cabinet meeting, Attorney General Sarath N. Silva was summoned by the President to go into the legal aspects of the matter.

Being an eminent lawyer Mr. Silva pointed out that there were three ways of proscribing the LTTE.

(i) By an act of Parliament,

(ii) Using Emergency regulations,

(iii) Reactivating Act No. 16 of 1978.

However, he pointed out that an Act of Parliament would take at least one month whereas the President could immediately issue a proclamation banning the LTTE under Emergency Regulations.

The other option was re-activating the Act of 1978 proscribing LTTE and similar organisations. A good part of it had been drafted by the present Attorney General when he was an officer in the AGs Department. But with the enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act No. 49 of 1979 the then J. R. Jayewardene regime repealed this act and until now, and in spite of, intense lobbying for the banning of the LTTE, no government wanted to do so.

However the Attorney General did not forget to give some political advice also in addition to his legal advice.

He suggested to the President that it would be more advisable if the government discussed this matter with the Tamil parties.

The President who was to announce the ban on the LTTE to her Cabinet of Ministers on Wednesday temporarily put off the move. Instead, she had an informal discussion with some key ministers, including Minister Ratwatte, Kadirgamar, Peiris and Pathirana.

There the President told the ministers the need to speak to the Tamil party representatives. In any case they thought that it would not be necessary to talk to the TULF since they would oppose this move.

When the meeting was in progress Minister Pathirana undertook the task to talk to the Tamil parties but later the government decided that notwithstanding the decision of the Tamil parties, to go ahead and proscribe the LTTE, and keep the Indian government informed of the latest development.

To announce the latest decision the President summoned a special Cabinet meeting on Thursday evening.

But at the eleventh hour and for some reason yet unknown the President changed her mind and did not discuss the LTTE issue at all. Instead, they discussed the rising cost of living with the local elections round the corner, which is not really a matter for a special Cabinet meeting.

Some ministers believe that some international pressure had caused the government to put off the decision, at least temporarily.

However if the government decides to ban the LTTE, it would strengthen the President's position in the south, specially when the local elections are almost at hand. The people may tend to think that the President had moved in the correct direction. It would also have legitimised the claim of the government for the closure of the LTTE offices abroad, which are openly involved in a fund-raising campaign for their war effort in the North and East of Sri Lanka.

The case of Murali arrested by the Swiss authorities for allegedly collecting funds for the LTTE cause was recently brought to the notice of the Sri Lankan authorities, as they had not known what they should do with this person in custody. The Sri Lankan authorities were asked to produce evidence to take appropriate action against the man in custody and finally the government had been able to get at a document where Lawrence Thilagar of the LTTE's international office in Paris had authorized a fund-raising campaign for the Eelam war effort. In the same document Thilagar has called for the immediate release of Murali who was under arrest in Switzerland.

Though the government has made headway internationally as for as the LTTE is concerned, economically difficult times are ahead of us.

The President's well publicised Korean trip on which hopes of renewed economic activity rested, has not brought much in the way of positive commitment to the country. The absence of the head of the Bureau of Investment was felt at the first seminar held for the investor. President Kumaratunga attended as the chief guest. With Thilan Wejesinghe not present, there was a problem of who should read out his speech. Lakshman R. Watawala who at one stage headed the BOI was available, but President Kumaratunga preferred Nanda Godage of the Foreign Ministry to read out Mr. Wijesinghe's speech. At the end of all the presentations there was none to answer the question posed from the audience and the Korean investors were unable to get a clear idea of the investment climate in Sri Lanka.

Though Tilan Wijesinghe was replaced by one of his deputies, on the whole the BOI's efforts did not obtain the expected results.

More than thirty businessmen who went along with the President as part of the trade delegation came back disappointed and even frustrated about the way events were conducted there.

Some of the businessmen speaking to this column, were caustic in saying that it was a waste of money, time and energy and the chances of Korean investors coming here were slim.

The President, however has felt differently and she informed the government group meeting that her mission to Korea was successful. She said she had been able to secure nearly 30,000 jobs for Sri Lankans.

She also said Korean investors had expressed their willingness to come to Sri Lanka and the MPs had an important role to play to encourage these investments.

Sadly, it appears that the PA is not geared to face the present economic crisis or the other problems faced by the government in their day to day affairs.

A lack of organization and team work seems to bedevil the People's Alliance. The poor show by People's Alliance on Wednesday in Parliament was another example of this.

Parliament met on Wednesday to debate the supplementary estimate of Rs. 650 million required for the Samurdhi programme of Minister S. B. Dissanayake. The attendance of the government benches was poor but the opposition UNP had quite a number of MPs present in Parliament. Simultaneously EPDP Leader Douglas Devananda shuttled across to the government and the opposition until he received an assurance that Samurdhi officers would be appointed in the liberated areas of the North and East. Though the President had given a written direction on the matter Minister Dissanayake acted slowly and reluctantly on the matter. However during his speech in Parliament the assurance was given to the Tamil parties. Hence they decided to vote with the government, but elsewhere in the parliamentary complex some members of the smaller parties of the People's Alliance, including K. P. Silva, Y. P. de Silva, Gajadheera, Rauf Hakeem and M. M. Zuhair were agitated that Minister S. B. Dissanayake was not, according to their perception, giving Samurdhi appointments on an equitable basis. When Deputy Minister Alavi Moulana heard about this he came along with Deputy Minister Jeevan Kumaratunga and gave them an assurance that the matter would be satisfactorily resolved within one month. On that assurance the members walked into the chamber for the vote.

When the vote was taken the government had only 90 votes, while the opposition UNP abstained. When the final tally of 90 for the government was announced by the chair, opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe made it a point to ask the chair again for the final tally.

Perplexed by Mr. Wickremesinghe's question, SLMC's M. M. Zuhair asked him as to why he inquired about the final tally for the second time. Both of them were walking towards the MPs canteen when Mr. Zuhair posed this question. Mr. Wickremesinghe said his purpose was to show that Minister S. B. Dissanayake was not popular among the government benches. On the other hand Mr. Wickremesinghe wanted to send the message that it was the lowest that the government secured during its two years in office.

Soon after the vote, Minister Richard Pathirana called for the names of those who were not present for the voting and it was found that some MPs were not there since they were attending the wedding of another fellow MP Amaraweera.

The UNP was satisfied with what happened in Parliament and if the EPDP decided to abstain the government would have faced an altogether fresh problem with the full strength of the UNP present in Parliament.

As far as the UNP is concerned there seem to be problems brewing within the party due to the carelessness of certain members. At the group meeting held on Tuesday former Minister John Amaratunga raised a matter.

He said some remarks made by former Minister P. Dayaratne had hurt the feelings of the members of the Catholic Bishops Conference. Mr. Dayaratne had reportedly told the House clearing the Emergency debate that LTTE activists came to Colombo along with the pilgrims who came to see His Holiness Pope John Paul II when he arrived in Colombo.

Mr. Dayaratne said the Bishops had taken certain words out of context and misunderstood what he told the House. He said his speech should be taken into before making such comments.

At this stage Joseph Michael Perera said the matter had to be resolved amicably since the Bishops had expressed their concern over the statement.

Ultimately party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe intervened to say that it was not the position of the UNP that the LTTE activists came to Colombo along with the pilgrims who flocked to Colombo to see the Pope. He said they came before that and are still continuing to come and advised that the matter be resolved amicably with the Catholic Church and directed Mr. Dayaratne to explain his position to the Bishops. However Mr. Amaratunga said a statement to clear the air would be sufficient.

Though the matter ended there, both John Amaratunga and Joseph Michael Perera who represent the Catholic belt, will have to convince the Catholic Bishops of the UNP's position which is very important for these two politicians in the long run.

The UNP group spoke about other matters but did not refer to a somewhat less than successful meeting at Hyde Park though M. H. Mohamed had assured the party leader of a very substantial presence at the meeting. Meanwhile party General Secretary Gamini Atukorale has sent a letter to the Colombo district organisers stating that they had failed to bring the people as promised.

Mr. Atukorale has given a list of names of the organisers and the number promised by them. He had further said that only Hema Premadasa and Susil Moonesinghe were able to bring the number of people promised.

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