Columns - Political Column

Attacks on media: The story unfolds

  • General Fonseka and Gotabhaya exchange charges on who did what when journlalists were abducted and killed
  • UNP hit by internal squabbles as Ranil goes on another overseas visit , but SB's crossover shows UPFA's need for every vote
By Our Political Editor

"Are you confident," asked Robert Blake, the senior-most official in the Obama administration to visit Sri Lanka in recent months, from President Mahinda Rajapaksa last Tuesday. "If I am not, I would not have called for a Presidential poll," he replied and added, "come and see me again after I win."

Blake, the former US envoy in Colombo, is now Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs in the Department of State. His three-day stay in Colombo beginning Tuesday was his first under the new assignment.

Blake's question to Rajapaksa came when he discussed the political situation, among other matters, during talks at 'Temple Trees'. He was also keen to know from Rajapaksa when the ongoing State of Emergency would be lifted. "This is not the time. It will be done when it is appropriate," replied the President.

SB addressing the Ranil-bashing news conference. Pic by Gemunu Wellage

Despite reports that the US would seek "a more positive relationship" with Sri Lanka based on a bi-partisan accord reached by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Blake was on track. He raised almost all issues of concern to the Obama administration and later fielded questions from the media at a news conference on Thursday.

A significant aspect was references to the media though most outlets did not focus upon the fact. Blake declared in a prepared text, "An important element of reconciliation is safeguarding and protecting the rights of all Sri Lankans. In practice, this means that journalists should be able to write their perspectives and report on events freely, without fear of reprisal; that individuals should be able to voice their differences openly; and that people who have violated the rights of others should be held accountable for their actions."

The statement, the official viewpoint of the Government of the United States, assumes greater significance in the light of the buck-passing that is now going on. Gen. (retd.) Sarath Fonseka continues to insist he had nothing to do with murder, assaults, intimidation, harassment or the white-van abductions of journalists, democracy activists and others. More pointedly, he told the National Association of Lawyers on November 27 that he had nothing to do in the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunge, Editor of The Sunday Leader. He stood near United National Front leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, as he garlanded a portrait of the slain editor cum lawyer. Now the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which has taken over investigations, is to question Gen. Fonseka on the murder of Wickramatunge.

A response to those remarks by Gen. Fonseka came from Defence Secretary, Lt. Col. (retd.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, his arch foe now. He told our sister paper the Irida Lankadeepa (November 29) during a lengthy interview, "he (retired Gen. Fonseka) is now saying something else. He is belatedly talking of media freedom."

Asked why he remained silent when attacks on the media were carried out, Lt. Col. (retd.) Rajapaksa is quoted as saying, "We did not keep quiet knowing it. We do not say it even up to now. We are saying it now because he (Gen. Fonseka) is talking about media freedom. In my web site (reference is to the website of the Ministry of Defence run by the Defence Secretary) we have not reported these.

"We are saying it because (Gen. retd.) Fonseka is saying it. Particularly at that time, I accepted the accusations made by the media. I kept silent all throughout. I wanted to save the armed forces chiefs. The reason is because we did not think of personal matters since we had a common goal. My silence over the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunge and other issues thus led the blame being placed on me. My aim was to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)."

Lt. Col. (retd.) Rajapaksa's remarks to the Irida Lankadeepa were repeated in other interviews he gave both the print and electronic media thereafter. They were to draw the attention of the Colombo-based diplomatic community, particularly those representing western nations. If the issue was lost on media rights groups both in Sri Lanka and abroad, some of the western nations that release reports on human rights violations were to take note of the Defence Secretary's remarks. That was the fact that he was aware of what was going on but did not act in order to protect armed forces commanders.

For the United States, it appears to have answered questions raised with regard to the media in the State Department annual report on Human Rights. Similarly, for the European Union, though not intended, it provided the answers to the issue of attacks on the media. The EU too had raised the issue in two consecutive reports. These reports were a prelude to the EU Council of Ministers taking a formal decision later this month on whether or not the GSP Plus concessionary tariffs to a basket of Sri Lankan exports should be continued.

Blake arriving for a news conference where he explained US policy on Lanka. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

If the Government did not respond to the first report, a team of Ministers formulated a response to the second one. To say the least, Lt. Col. (retd.) Rajapaksa's latest assertions were at variance with the official positions taken by the Government. There is little doubt that the EU Council of Ministers will take note of these new developments. An EU diplomat who did not wish to be named told the Sunday Times "it is now certain there will be no extension of the GSP Plus after June next year. Not until the tough conditions the EU will place are paid heed to by the Government."

Here was a situation where Gen. Fonseka is saying he was not involved in any acts of violence against the media. On the other hand, here was the Defence Secretary strongly denying any involvement but significant enough, admitting he was aware they had occurred but yet acknowledging he had chosen to remain silent. That was to "save the armed forces chiefs" and to achieve the "common goal" of defeating the Tiger guerrillas. That silence was whilst the official web site of the Ministry of Defence brazenly named several journalists and branded them as "traitors".

Mangala Samaraweera, MP and one of two spokespersons for Gen. Fonseka's polls campaign charged that the Defence Secretary had withheld information and asked why the CID had not recorded a statement from him. He said he had violated the Penal Code by disclosing in interviews that he was aware of attacks on journalists but remained silent. He was speaking at a UNF news conference on Thursday. Samaraweera said that the Defence Secretary was a senior Government official and therefore could not engage in politics nor give lengthy political interviews to the print and electronic media on behalf of his brother. He claimed this went against the ruling of the Commissioner of Elections that no Government officials engage in political activity.

"We will come with answers to those issues (attacks on the media) at the right time," said a UPFA campaign official. He said some television programmes and booklets to answer the issues raised were now under preparation. "They will be aired and distributed respectively after our polls campaign begins in Anuradhapura on December 18. They cannot get away by placing the blame on Gotabhaya," the official added.

Amidst this controversy, state-run television networks have provided wide coverage to allegations that a member of Gen. Fonseka's family profited by military deals with the Government, a charge that is dismissed by the former Chief of Defence Staff as "baseless and malicious".

Even before the official polls campaign is set to begin after nominations on Thursday, both the UPFA leadership as well as the main Opposition parties have begun to woo the media. Last Tuesday, for the fourth time, President Rajapaksa invited a thousand media workers, journalists, library staff, printing personnel among others, to dinner at 'Temple Trees'. Rajapaksa had only walked to a few tables to smile and say "hello" to his guests when some confusion broke out. Beer was served and some left the tables to help themselves to the brew preventing him from his regular public relations routine,

Those media events have also become the subject of debate. Gen. Fonseka was asked, at his first news conference to announce his candidature, on November 15, his policy towards consumption of liquor. He said he did not object to the consumption but added that he would crack down on drug abuse. Sections of the pro-Rajapaksa Buddhist clergy tried to make an issue of these remarks.

They argued that whilst the UPFA Government spoke of Mathata Thiththa (full stop to alcohol and drugs), Gen. (retd.) Fonseka was talking about consumption of alcohol. Loyalists of the 'common candidate' were quick to point out that alcohol was freely served during Rajapaksa's media events. If it was only beer for the thousand that gathered on Tuesday night, there was premium whisky, brandy and other liquor at the previous event for the media at the Colombo Hilton, they pointed out.

It is now Gen. Fonseka's turn now to wine and dine the media. His campaign staff was busy yesterday making arrangements for a major event tomorrow evening. The Sunday Times has learnt that tomorrow's event at the Taj Samudra will assume greater significance for another reason. Besides the entertainment aspect, the Opposition's 'common candidate' for the Presidency is to spell out his media policy and make commitments to practitioners should he be voted to power.

According to one source, "he will go beyond assurances of media freedom" but declined to elaborate saying matters were still not finalised. "I can only tell you he has some interesting surprises," the source added. Though he will not put forward a manifesto, as reported earlier, a common minimum programme of sorts will incorporate the policies towards media which Gen. Fonseka is expected to announce tomorrow.

Both the UPFA and the main opposition parties appear to have taken a leaf from US presidential election campaigns by choosing one-liners. The UPFA campaign is based "Subha Anagathayak" (or a better future) whilst the main Opposition parties will focus on "Mata Pera Rata" (or country before self).
UPFA leaders will take part in religious ceremonies at the Sri Maha Bodhi before the launch of their campaign on Friday. President Mahinda Rajapaksa who will address the rally will spell out his policy objectives. Since the improved version of Mahinda Chinthana (or Thoughts of Mahinda) is still under preparation, copies are to be released only at a later date. The task is under the charge of Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa who is also the Campaign Manager.

JVP's Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the co-spokesperson for their 'common candidate' described their campaign as "deveni meheyuma" (second offensive). He said the first was to defeat Tiger guerrillas. He said their "main objective" was to abolish the Executive Presidency where the current incumbent is holding 65 per cent of the country's finances. Some of the JVP posters connected to the campaign were to cause confusion. In Tangalle, the home town of the Rajapaksas, Police arrested and later released a group who carried posters which said "SF meheyuma arambai" (or SF begins operation). The fact that 'SF' also used to mean Security Forces and sometimes Special Forces, the elite unit of the Army that won the hearts of the masses for their successes against the Tiger guerrillas was not lost on those it was aimed at.

On Friday, the New Democratic Front (NDF) handed over the deposit to the Commissioner of Elections for Gen. Fonseka's candidature. Officially, he is contesting from the NDF whose symbol is a swan. The NDF is an offshoot of the DUNF (Democratic United National Front) of the late Lalith Athulathmudali. The symbol is registered in the name of Sharmila Perera, a lawyer and close associate of late Athulathmudali. The NDF, headed by Ariyawansa Dissanayake, is a constituent partner of the United National Front (UNF), which together with the JVP is supporting Gen. Fonseka.

For the United National Party (UNP), the main constituent of the UNF, the troubles appeared far from over. If its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was on a European tour, notwithstanding the fact that the Presidential Election is just round the corner, a group which had flirted with UPFA leaders was to cause problems for him and the party. On the one hand, some party stalwarts complained Wickremesinghe had allowed the situation to develop without dealing firmly with the group disloyal to him and the party. If he could not do so, at least he should have made efforts to retain them within the party, say a section of the party. On the other, they were more disconcerted, that their leader was not in the country when there were grave issues for the party and the country. Wickremesinghe is due to leave for India today. No formal announcements are made about these visits leaving Government leaders questioning his motives, party supporters bewildered, and the country simply nonplussed.

The first move came from S.B. Dissanayake. Whilst maintaining a healthy dialogue with President Rajapaksa all along, Dissanayake lobbied hard to become the UNP's Presidential candidate and claimed he could win. Some party members were strongly suspicious. They said he could not win and that his aim was to seize control of the party leadership by edging out Wickremesinghe. Some even went to the extent of saying Dissanayake's plans had the endorsement and support of UPFA leaders.
It was widely known in UPFA circles that Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa was opposed to the move of having Dissanayake back in the fold. Thereafter, Dissanayake had a one-on-one with Wickremesinghe where differences were resolved and he had agreed to support Gen. Fonseka's candidature. However, Dissanayake was miffed once more when he found he was not invited for the UNF news conference where the entry of a 'common candidate' was announced. He knocked at the UPFA door once more and succeeded this time. It was also an indicator that the Rajapaksa camp had come to terms with the fact that every vote mattered now.

It was only in October, this year, Dissanayake hailed Gen. Fonseka as the "man of the match" for winning the separatist war. Here is a report that appeared on October 26 in

"The honour of winning the war should go to former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka, said the National Organiser of the UNP, S.B. Dissanayake on Saturday.

"The Man of the Match" in this victory achieved on the battlefield is General Sarath Fonseka. If someone says that this is not so, then that is just being envious and evil-minded. Sarath Fonseka has now been thrown into the gutter. He is hurt and those in the forefront in battle have been dispersed all over the place," said S.B. Dissanayake addressing a function in Akuressa.

"Today, we have a golden opportunity after Independence. The war that had gone on for 43 years is over. The world economy is just beginning to show signs of recovery. We too should keep pace with the world. India is doing that today. China is also doing the same.

"Those in the north, despite the war coming to an end, have fallen from the frying pan to the fire. They have to be rehabilitated as soon as possible. Their children have to be given an education to be productive citizens. We must convince everyone - Sinhala, Tamil, Burgher, Malay etc. - that they are all Sri Lankans.

"That is exactly what is not happening, said Mr. Dissanayake. The function was organised to welcome Buddhika Pathirana who was appointed Opposition Leader of the Southern Provincial Council recently……."

However, last Monday, at his first news conference after crossing over to the Government, Dissanayake said it was a "foolish idea" to field Gen. Fonseka as a 'common candidate'. He claimed it was also foolish to believe that the General will call for immediate parliamentary elections if elected President. Armed plainclothes officers from the Ministerial Security Division (MSD) had turned up to frisk the media at Dissanayake's news conference at the Taj Samudra.

The setting for the event bore a cloth poster with an Elephant symbol bearing the words United National Party. Using a booklet titled "My Responsibility" which was later distributed to the media, he went on to give the reasons why he quit. His main target was Wickremesinghe whom he blamed for all ills of the party. His arch rivals Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Mangala Samaraweera and the JVP were also not spared.

Dissanayake said he was "fit enough to contest the Presidential election." Asked whether he had ambitions of becoming Prime Minister, he replied "No. I have given up all those ambitions. I have put a wall and stopped these ideas."

Following Dissanayake with a news conference at Hotel Nippon on Tuesday was Johnston Fernando (Kurunegala Distrcit), another from the group who were talking to UPFA leaders. He said he was "personally opposed" to Gen. Fonseka as a candidate. He charged that their leader Wickremesinghe "and a few others" were responsible for ruining the party. Until Thursday's nominations, Fernando said, he would campaign for UNP to nominate another candidate. He said he was expecting Sajith Premadasa to take over the party. Premadasa has been playing a non-committal role and did not attend the party's Working Committee meeting last week.

The polls campaigns, which will become official after Thursday, will see the largest sums of money ever spent on such occasions in post independent Sri Lanka. The two major contenders, the UPF and the main opposition parties, are pouring in millions of rupees. Of course, for the ruling party the advantages like the use of state resources including buildings and vehicles seem a distinct advantage.

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