ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday November 4, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 23
Columns - Political Column  

Abortive coup against free media

  • Tough censorship on war news gazetted and withdrawn after one day
  • Focus now on battle of the Budget: JVP on see-saw, UNP at crisscross road

By Our Political Editor

There were firecrackers in parts of the country as news came, from the LTTE 'capital' of Kilinochchi that their political wing chief S.P. Tamilselvan had died in an aerial attack by the Sri Lanka Air Force. The Government itself, correctly, remained muted, except for some remarks attributed to Defence Secretary Lt. Col (Ret.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa when he told wire services, "This is a message that we know their leaders' location… this confirms that our information is very accurate".

To Reuters, he went one step further saying, " I know the locations of all their leaders… that if we want to we can take them one by one..". The full political, and military fallout of the incident however, will unfold in the weeks to come. The Tigers will look for retribution, no doubt, and the Government is confident that it is equal to the task. But the immediate focus for the Government, no doubt, remains the upcoming Budget. The question raised this week is whether the posture of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a staunch backer of the military campaign against the LTTE, will veer around to support the Government in the budget. Though the thought preoccupied particularly the opposition political parties, the JVP maintained a stoic silence on the issue.

JVP front liners (From Left) K.D.Lalkantha, Wimal Weerawansa and Vijtha Herath addressing yesterday's news conference. Pic by Berty Mendis

In the run-up to the budget, there have been multiple price revisions. The price of powdered milk has shot up, dramatically resulting in a rise in the price of a cup of milk tea. In kiosks and restaurants, the haunts of the common man, the price has risen to Rs 25 per cup. LP gas prices were raised by Rs 15 per cylinder. Authoritative sources said major price increases, one in fuel and the other in electricity tariffs, would follow after the budget.

The JVP has been organising protests against the rising cost of living, with its MPs spearheading these protests against the Government. In these circumstances, to vote with the budget is going to make them look silly, to say the least. Their attempts to run with the hare and hunt with the hound may turn a cropper once the Common Man begins to feel that they are playing a duplicitous role in national politics.

Nevertheless, they are still in a pickle. If they vote for the Budget, they will look duplicitous. If they vote against the Budget, they open themselves to triggering a General Election, where they might end up with less than the 39 seats they won in 2004 coming forward in a no-contest pact with the People's Alliance (PA).

The Government has seen a window of opportunity to exploit in the circumstances. It unleashed its latest spokesman, Minister Rajitha Senaratne, to say that there are some UNP MPs waiting to cross-over to the Government, and that once that happens the JVP can be the largest single party in the Opposition, and even claim the Leader of the Opposition post.

The killing of Tamilselvan, some political analysts believe, will also embolden the Rajapaksa administration. With this being viewed as a major military victory, particularly in the light of the October 22 attack on the airbase at Anuradhapura, they believe getting the JVP's support to end the war with the LTTE will receive priority over the cost-of-living issue which the JVP is howling against.

There was a hint of this yesterday when the JVP held a news conference on the Tamilselvan's death. They were clearly happy over the incident. JVP's propaganda secretary Wimal Weerawansa had often referred to the LTTE political chief as the 'smiling cobra' as being party to killings after killings and smiling through all of them.

But importantly, it would appear that the pro-Government elements of the JVP, have used the incident as a handle to leverage the Party over the anti-Government elements who are raising other issues such as the C-o-L and corruption. Privately one of the senior MPs told The Sunday Times on the sidelines of the news conference; "We will consider the contents of the Budget, and also the political situation, before deciding on how to vote".

The important words there are… "and the political situation". The 'political situation' means the war against the LTTE - and whether to make way for the UNP to win a forthcoming General Election, the sine qua non to the Government losing the Budget vote. This is the licence the JVP is going to use to vote for the Budget.

Not to be outdone by Minister Rajitha Senarathne's proclamation about more UNPers crossing over to the Government , and the Leader of the Opposition seat going to the JVP, the UNP's National Organiser S.B. Dissanayake went public saying that there were 20 Government MPs willing to join the UNP with the Budget. He was clearly indicating that among the 20 he had in mind, most of them were from the 17 that left the UNP in February this year to join the Rajapaksa administration.

Earlier, he is reported to have told the UNP hierarchy that if its Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe could offer the Deputy Prime Ministership to former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, were he to bring over 20 MPs from the Government to the Opposition, should not the same offer be open to him (S.B. Dissanayake) if he could perform the same magic.

The numbers game is now in full play, with the minority parties joining in the party. The passage of the Budget in Parliament is certain to strengthen President Rajapaksa's hand in the year ahead. Thus, these analysts say that will allow the Government to adopt a tough line in tackling day-to-day issues.

On Monday, the Government issued a horrendous Gazette notification that was going to, in effect, impose a censorship on military-related news. It came exactly a week after the Tiger guerrilla attack on the Air Force base at Anuradhapura. Emergency Regulations promulgated last Monday prohibited media reportage of any "matter which pertains to any proposed operations or military activity to be carried out by the armed forces or the Police (including the Special Task Force)." That in effect was a total censorship that would have left Sri Lankans and the world outside to believe only what the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) says as the sacred truth on military matters including operations.

That is not all. The Regulations also prohibited reportage on "proposed acquisition of arms, ammunition or other equipment, including aircraft or naval vessels by the Armed Forces or the Police Force (including the Special Task Force)." The Regulations said, "this is for the purpose of maintaining or protecting national security, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka."

The drama that followed the printing and distribution of the Prohibition on Publication and Transmission of Sensitive Military Information Regulations No. 6 of 2007 is a chapter by itself on governance or the lack of it in Sri Lanka. The Ministry of Defence sent the draft regulations to President Rajapakasa. He signed them. When it went to the Government Printer, they were told to go ahead and print it immediately. In view of the hurry, no proof was required they were informed.

Number 1521/3 was allotted to the Gazette Extraordinary under the signature of President Rajapaksa. It was dated October 29, the day he had signed it. Copies were ready on Wednesday. Early copies were to reach the media. News agencies moved stories worldwide that spoke of a total censorship and ban on reportage of military procurements. It was the talking point in diplomatic and political circles. Questions were raised as to why such a drastic step was being taken by the Ministry of Defence. The Government came under pressure. The news soon reached the President.

Government officials were telephoning the Government Printer again. This time they wanted to know whether the printing of the Gazette Extraordinary could be halted. When told it was not possible, they asked whether the distribution could be stopped. That too, it was pointed out, was not possible since numbers have been allotted, the Gazette printed and some copies have gone out. Then officials at the President's Office began informing the media that the Regulations were being withdrawn.

Later in the night, a statement from the Presidential Secretariat claimed the Regulations were promulgated "to enable taking necessary legal action, with regard to the false and incorrect information about national security and matters relating to defence, recently reported by ABC Radio and other electronic media organisations with a view to misleading the public…." It noted that…….."it is now observed that the media is acting with responsibility and greater care…"

Firstly, the ABC radio, by its own admission, had reported erroneously that a group of guerrillas had attacked a village in the boundary of Yala. This had caused an exodus of civilians to the Tissamaharama town. But, the Regulations deal with "any matter which pertains to proposed operations or military activity…." Hence, the ABC radio report has no relevance to Monday's Regulations. In fact, as punishment, five different broadcast networks of ABC have been shut down even before the new Regulations were promulgated.

Secondly, the statement from the Presidential Secretariat is completely silent on why a ban was clamped down on reporting the acquisition of "arms, ammunition and other equipment" for the Armed Forces and the Police. Thus, the reasons given and the learned judgement that the media is now "acting with responsibility" is much worse than the Regulations themselves.

An entirely different explanation for the introduction of the Regulations came from Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. He said it was intended to prevent communal clashes. That again was comical enough. How could reportage on impending military operations or other military matters prevent communal clashes? Strange indeed are the contradictory signals that come out of the Government.

President Rajapaksa signed the new Regulations only a day after his brother and Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, gave a lengthy live television interview simultaneously to three different networks, Rupavahini, ITN, both state owned, and the privately owned Swarnavahini. Referring to the Tiger guerrilla attack on the Air Force base at Katunayake, he said "if there were some kind of losses, the President needs to know, the Cabinet needs to know and Parliament needs to know.

There are some things that need not be revealed. Is there any use of this information to the people? What they want to know is if this is going on well. People don't need to know about the nuts and bolts. This is not done in any country. There is no need for it as well." Was this a forerunner that the Emergency Regulations were being signed the next day?

The Defence Secretary also made it a point to say he does not read The Sunday Times because it was not good for his "morale." However, he made comments on last week's Situation Report in The Sunday Times after being told by someone that our newspaper had reported that eight Chinese-built K-8 trainer aircraft were destroyed. He claimed the Air Force had only one K-8. However, The Sunday Times account was accurate. It said one K-8 was destroyed and five others inside the hangar were damaged. Hence, whoever said that to him has not read The Sunday Times.

The Defence Secretary's assertions raise more questions than they seek to answer. Does that mean that the people who are funding the Government's 'war on terror' need to know only about only "successes"? Should the setbacks be kept away from them? It has never happened during the near two decades of fighting between Security Forces and the Tiger guerrillas except for periodic censorship being in force. Not even during the worst debacles in the Wanni in 1999. Those who run the military machine should avoid trying to run the media machine too. Contrary to claims, military losses are indeed reported in other countries too, i.e. the democracies.

Despite assurances that the regulations would be rescinded, they still remain. A government source said a gazette notification rescinding the regulations was ready but it had not yet been signed by the President as he was away in Tangalle.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Regulations saw the light of day underscores a clear message - that a formidable if not influential section in the defence establishment is not in favour of sharing the bad news with the people who support their efforts. This is ostensibly on the grounds of troop morale, an easy shield to hide their embarrassment and shortcomings not to mention the adverse publicity. Even before the news media reports on setbacks or debacles, it is the troops who get to know it first. So, if the argument is that it affects morale, the best way to avoid them is to prevent such incidents from taking place.

Even if they are not legislated for, it is an accepted norm among media worldwide that no impending military operations are reported in advance. There are exceptions, like for example, when an ambitious politician or top military official declares his intentions. Why then make provision in the Emergency Regulations? The danger lies in the fact that it is a Competent Authority, without doubt a Government nominee, who determines the violations that can send media persons to jail terms ranging from three months to five years. It is he or she who will order presses to shut down or seize broadcast equipment. Even an innocuous report on a passing out parade, it could be argued, could be construed as one that involves passing information to the enemy.

The move to ban reportage of "proposed acquisition of arms, ammunition or other equipment" by the Armed Forces and the Police is more pernicious. On July 30, 2007 through a Gazette Extraordinary, the Government promulgated the Restriction on the Procurement of Certain Items Regulations No. 5 of 2007. This prohibits Sri Lankans from engaging in any military procurement.

Those doing so will be guilty of an offence punishable with rigorous imprisonment for a period not less than three months and not more than five years. With this move, the sole authority for all military procurements is the state owned Lanka Logistics and Services Ltd. This company does not come under the purview of the Auditor General.

With the monopoly in Government hands, any move to prohibit reportage on all military procurements will mean such activity will be carried out in absolute secrecy. That is without any need for transparency. Under such circumstances, the media will be debarred from exposing any corrupt activity. The best example is the procurement of MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine - a deal which is allegedly tainted with serious irregularities and corruption. A Parliamentary Select Committee is now expected to probe this matter.

The Government's touchy reactions to matters military, particularly when there are setbacks for the military, is not without reason. In the light of the mounting cost of living, with prices of essential consumer items rising rapidly, it is pinning its hopes almost entirely on the war effort. At least this week, the pendulum has swung back in Government's favour with the killing of LTTE Political Wing leader, S.P. Tamilselvan, and five other senior members of the LTTE Military Wing.

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