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20th December 1998

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Minister turns deaf ear as ringing charges fill the air

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti - Lobby Correspondent

Parliamentary debates on media generally have nothing to do with media except provide the forum a chance to hurl abuse and score petty points. So our honourable peoples' reps did not disappoint anyone last Tuesday either when they attacked each other or contributed little to the quality of debating!

The votes on the Ministry of Posts, Telecom and Media as anticipated fell into this trap with amnesiac opposition members defending their record and Government members with equal zeal, their own drooping success in this arena.

It was UNP's Dr. Rajitha Senaratne who unleashed his pent up feelings with gusto- zealously attacking officials. For their part, the officials occupying gallery seats sat in stoic silence as the dental surgeon turned politician took each of Minister Samaraweera's secretaries to task.

"There was a clear case of overspending and misappropriation. To celebrate PA's fourth year in office, this Ministry obtained over Rs. five million and spent a colossal Rs. nine million on a Telecom tamasha. The minister's foreign trips did not come any cheap either," he thundered.

Clearly on a demolition course, he tackled the minister's colourful nine secretaries whose omissions and commissions he alleged were unpardonable- two had forged documents, then were interdicted and subsequently reinstated. Another had released his official vehicle without completing his term of five years, and one flouted the laws of the land by assaulting an SSP while a PA MP got his telephone bills paid by Telecom- which ran as high as Rs. 25,000.

Before the debate began two new UNP members, R.M. Chula Bandara and Harendra Corea were sworn in amidst thunderous applause. Mr. Fernando, the media whiz of the opposition fired a series of allegations-"This government has reduced the level of journalism at Lake House.All governments have used it as their official propaganda organ but only this government has taken it to abysmally low depths.

Paying Mr. Fernando a backhanded compliment about relative media freedom during his tenure was Minister of Provincial Councils Alavi Moulana.

"Media freedom was non- existent during the UNP rule. Our President was ridiculed at will but no goon squads were sent to attack them. Iqbal Athas of The Sunday Times was sent a wreath," he accused.

Coming out in defence of the UNP was John Amaratunge who opined that Mangala Samaraweera's singular achievement was the conversion of Lake House to a monumental mud slinging institution.

Lambasting the Government for selling the country's invaluable assets to corrupt foreign investors was firebrand Vasudeva Nanayakkara. The UNP having privatised 43 ventures without a hum and disallowing any protests were now shedding crocodile tears as it suited them to do so politically.

A bit of telecommunication jargon was introduced by the newly elected MP Harendra Corea who made his maiden speech. A former telecommunications deputy himself, he accused the PA of trying to steal the credit for expanding telecom services from the UNP!

"We paved the way and I was instrumental in its implementation. So do not discredit us" he said giving a bit of telecom arithmetics. "In 1977, there were only 57,000 telephones in the country and this shot up to 186,000 by 1994. Celtel, Mobitel and Lanka Bell were all UNP initiated projects. Of course luckily for the PA, it had the chance to cut the ribbons!"

Standing in stoic defence of his officials and the 'infamous nine secretaries' was Minister Mangala Samaraweera who while avoiding many media related questions, threw back that none of his secretaries were involved in killing sprees and corruption. He also chose to ignore the barrage of accusations levelled against his ministry.

"I can't always think of votes when development was the issue. Each letter was posted at a loss, and hence the reversal in stamp duty. Similarly, state radio and television stations were over-staffed while private stations managed beautifully with less. I might lose votes, but I will revolutionise these places and introduce voluntary retrenchment schemes," he promised.

NJC against changing religious ratios in schools

The National Joint Committee at a recent meeting decided to counteract the attempts being made by the government to change the present religious ratios being maintained in Buddhist schools

In 1961 when these Buddhist schools were taken over it was decided that the ratio of Buddhist students to those of other religions should be maintained. Yet this Government has changed this requirement recently, said Dr. Piyasena Dissanayake, Secretary of the National Joint Committee.

Meanwhile Upasena Senanayake, Additional Secretary, Planning and Management of the Ministry of Education when contacted by The Sunday Times said that they have not yet been informed of this issue and that they would then have to look into it.

Mr. Senanayake explained that at present the ratios being maintained in each of these schools were different as they depended on the situation in each school at the time of takeover.

One million to sign peace petition

Multiethnic and multireligious peace groups have launched a campaign to collect one million signatures urging the PA, the UNP and other parties to come together in finding a just political solution to the ethnic conflict.

Buddhist monks, Catholic priests and leaders of the Hindu and Muslim communities launched the campaign from five centres in Colombo last Wednesday.

Rukmal Silva, a spokesman for these peace groups said the Inter-religious peace foundation, the centre for society and religion, the national peace council and several other social justice group were throwing their weight behind the campaign to end the war and find a political solution.

He said thousands of people from all walks of life had started signing the petition from Tuesday and they hoped to reach the million target within weeks. One veteran social justice activist went to police stations in Maradana and elsewhere and got some three hundred policemen to sign the peace petition.

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