Debate on expenses for 25 institutions including the offices of the president and prime minister, parliament, judges of the superior courts and independent commissions kick-started the Committee Stage debate of the 2021 Budget on Monday. Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kirielle, joining the debate, said investors would not come to autocratic counties and where the judiciary [...]


President’s thrift sets example for Budget, MPs told, while Opposition questions treaty withdrawal


Debate on expenses for 25 institutions including the offices of the president and prime minister, parliament, judges of the superior courts and independent commissions kick-started the Committee Stage debate of the 2021 Budget on Monday.

Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kirielle, joining the debate, said investors would not come to autocratic counties and where the judiciary is not independent. He said the independence of the judiciary was compromised by the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has cut down the number of his security vehicles and reduced officers at his office from 2,500 to 250, setting an example of thrift, Minister of State Wimal Weerawansa said.

The Parliament Secretary General and officials listening to the Committee Stage debate on the Budget 2021

Had the Google Loon Project been implemented, schoolchildren would have benefited immensely from online learning, with country-wide 4G network coverage, SJB MP Harin Fernando said, charging that Google had moved the project out of the country because the President and his brother and Telecom Chairman Kumarasinghe Sirisena were uncooperative.

Having both the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC) as regulator and the industry as operator come under one person would affect the proper regulatory mechanism, Mr. Fernando pointed out.

Justice Minister Ali Sabry noted that the Government would not interfere with the independence of the judiciary and was committed to the safeguard it. More Supreme Court and Court of Appeal judges have been appointed to address the backlog of cases pending before the appellate courts, the minister added.

NPP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake accused President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of violating the Constitution on several occasions. Although the President, under the 19th Amendment, could not hold any ministerial position, he retained the post of Minister of Defence, violating the Constitution, he said.

Mr. Dissanayake also said the President had violated the Constitution by having obtained loans without parliamentary approval in the April to August period.

On Tuesday, the second day of the Budget Committee Stage debate, the Expenditure Heads of the Buddha Sasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs and Public Services, Provincial Councils and Local Government Ministry were taken up for debate.

The House became heated as the Opposition objected to the Speaker’s decision to prevent SJB MP Manusha Nanayakkara raising the appointment of a certain businessman to the Public Services Commission.

Mr. Nanayakkara said the appointment of the businessman, who is connected with a company bidding for the import of Corona Rapid Antigen test kits, would have a negative impact on the bidding process as public officers were involved in the evaluation.

The Speaker, however, barred him from raising the issue as the appointing authority was the President under the 20 Amendment.

Joining this debate, Minister Sarath Weerasekara expressed confidence that thorough implementation of the Budget proposals would set the country on the path of prosperity. He said despite the challenges of the pandemic, the government was able to strengthen the economy

He also said the Maveerar Commemoration was illegal as it would aid separatism.

MP Vijitha Herath criticised the Government’s move to allowing non-executive public servants to work after office hours. He also pointed out the existence of a category of public servants who do not belong to either the executive or non-executive categories and who could not undertake other work. He called that a violation of their fundamental rights.

SJB rebel Diana Gamage urged the Government to review the 15 percent VAT on sanitary towels. “Around 50 percent of girls find it difficult to go to school as they cannot afford them,” she said. “It is an essential item.”

On the third day of the Budget Committee Stage debate, the House discussed the finances of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Regional Corporation Ministry, and the Mass Media Ministry, Wednesday.

The Government and the Opposition accused each other of having agreed to hold a domestic inquiry into violations of human rights during the last stages of the war.

Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella, joining the debate, said former president Mahinda Rajapaksa had signed an agreement with the then UN General Secretary to hold a domestic inquiry on possible breaches of international law during the last stages of war.

The agreement was in force even today, he noted. He pointed out that the Government could not withdraw unilaterally from the Geneva agreement. He cautioned that the Government status quo prior to 2015 might resurface as the new US administration would back the UNHRC.

State Minister Tharaka Balasooriya raised objections and said there was no such agreement.

Foreign Minster Dinesh Gunawaradena stressed that what then President Mahinda Rajapaksa signed was a press release and not an agreement, and requested Mr Kiriella not to mislead the House.

The Minister pointed out that the country now follows the non-aligned foreign policy of “Kalyana Mithra” or the admirable or good friend.

He noted that the country withdrew from co-sponsoring the Geneva resolution against Sri Lanka on the advice of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in February.

“The UN Human Rights Commission knows our position,” the minister said.

ITAK MP M A Sumanthiran argued the Government could not unilaterally walk out of international agreements as they were commitments made on behalf of the country.

Mr. Sumanthiran queried as to whether Sri Lanka could inform India and on its own withdraw from the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord. “These undertakings are binding,” he said.

The MP also raised the issue of commemorating the dead in the north and said families had a right to remember their dead. “Sovereignty is with everybody, not just with the majority,” he said.

Discussion later this week centred on the financial heads of the Agriculture Ministry and of state ministries dealing with paddy and grain, organic food, vegetables, fruits, chillies, onion and potato cultivation, seed production, agricultural technology, production and supply of fertiliser and regulation of chemical fertiliser and insecticide use, livestock, farm promotion, dairy and egg-related industries, development of rural paddy fields, tanks, reservoirs and irrigation, and Mahaweli zones development.

SJB frontliner Ranjith Madduma Bandara, opening the debate, said paddy production exceeded rice consumption but there were market shortages because of the monopoly of mill owners and inadequate control of rice prices.

As a result, even after five gazettes to control rice prices, rice was either not available or prices were higher than the stipulated control prices, Mr. Bandara pointed out.

A national policy for water resource management will be formulated to address the imminent water shortages the country is facing, Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa said.

He said Sri Lanka faced severe water scarcity and the Government would implement number of irrigation projects in the next five years.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that 25 percent of the population would face food scarcity, the minister said, adding that the Government had restricted imports of 16 food items to encourage farmers to cultivate them locally.

NPP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said farmers were debt-ridden and socially and economically impotent and stressed the to empower them.

He noted that only 2,000 small and medium-scale reservoirs were in good condition while 12,000 reservoirs could not be used. He urged the Government to repair those tanks to address water scarcity.

Media freedom: Hailed in theory, gagged in practiceFor the first time in history, a Budget was presented in parliament without a journalist being present, pointed out the Samagi Jana Balawegaya Parliamentarian Manusha Nanayakkara, taking part in Wednesday’s committee stage debate on the vote on the Information and Foreign Ministry.“Why is Parliament out of bounds for journalists? Are they the only ones who could carry the coronavirus? Are the Police, the staff and MPs immune to it,” Mr. Nanayakkara, who was once a journalist, fired question after question.

He then questioned about the operation of the cameras used in the telecast of parliament proceedings.  “The camera is not focused on the opposition MPs when they reveal something controversial and important,” he charged, and asked whether it was being done to prevent the issues raised by the opposition being reported in the media.

Manusha Nanayakkara

Reminding the House of the killings of Journalists such as Premakeerthi de Alwis, Richard de Zoyza and Lasantha Wickrematunga, he said the dark chapter of country’s turbulent history came to an end with the change of Government in 2015.

Mr. Nanayakkara alleged the investigation files related to the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga, the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, the assaults on Keith Noyahr, Upali Thennakon, Namal Perera and attacks on certain media outlets had mysteriously disappeared and the Yahapalana government had to start inquiries afresh.

He claimed that the inquiries were completed but the authorities arrested SSP Shani Abeysekera before he could initiate legal action. He charged the previous Rajapaksa administration made no effort to probe the killings and disappearances of journalists.

“Although there is nothing in the Budget for the professional development or welfare of journalists or the industry,” he said, “space has been created to certain private media outlets to make millions in return for what they had done to bring the present government into power.”

The media industry depends on quality journalism and journalists, but a vacuum has been created with successive governments neglecting the Sri Lanka School of Journalists which was intended to function as a degree and post-graduate degree awarding institute, the MP said adding that the degrees awarded by state universities lacked professional training.

Mr. Nanayakkara highlighted the lack of in-service training for mid-career journalists. Drawing the MPs’ attention to the criticism of media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the SJB MP said the Government should take the responsibility for failing to train journalists on journalistic ethics. He said it was not journalism when media crews with cameras join armed police officers to stigmatise the unfortunate COVID-19 positive people while they were being taken to hospitals.

He said some media outlets created a “devil” out of the pandemic. He said the delay in coming out with a set of guidelines for the media resulted in some COVID-19 patients committing suicide and the Government should be held responsible for their deaths.

Mr. Nanayakkara accused the government of allocating Rs. 100 million for pandemic related publicity expenditure. He said the money could have been spent on PCR testing.  He also claimed that from this allocation, Rs. 23 million had been given to the Government’s media friends to make advertisements on the importance of face masks and other guidelines.

He also called for the setting up of a legal framework to streamline the allocation of frequencies to channels and said that in the absence of such a mechanism, for the past 20 years radio and TV frequencies had been given to friends of the governments without following due process. The MP also stressed the need for electronic media owners to form a self-regulatory body, just as the print media companies have done, and appoint an electronic media ombudsman to whom the affected people could petition regarding fake news or harmful content.

Imtiyaz Bakeer Markar

Government MP and State Minister Charitha Herath said that during the Yahapalana Government that state controlled Rupavahini and ITN channels incurred billions of rupees in losses. The MP who was the Government Information Chief during the previous Rajapaksa administration, expressed hope that the state-run channels would perform better under the new government.

The SJB’s senior Parliamentarian Imthiaz Bakeer Marker began his speech by quoting Nobel Price-wining Indian Economist Amartya Sen said. He said the renowned economist had said that hunger would not exist in a vibrant democratic society. He claimed that sections of the pro-Government media did not report the plight of the people under lockdown in places such as Modera, even though they had been agitating for food for one month. “Had there been a functioning democracy in this country, the dire straits could have been brought to the surface as and when it happened and a solution could have been found before they were pushed into starvation and abject poverty,” he said.

“Allow them to express their grievances as democracies do.” Otherwise, if their opinions and ideas were suppressed, there would be an explosion, he warned.

Mr. Bakeer Markar, a former Media Minister, said that the absence of a free media and an active democracy would lead to a situation where the people’s voices would not be heard while the ruling elite with their arbitrary actions would establish authoritarianism.

The MP also highlighted the economic hardships the journalists were going through. He said about 500 journalists had lost their jobs during past five years and a majority of them had not received a single cent in compensation. He said most freelance journalists “go home empty handed.” He called on the Government to increase journalists’ salaries and set a minimum pay for them.

National People Power Parliamentarian Dr. Harini Amarasuriya called upon the Government to seriously reconsider the moves to regulate websites as such platforms played an important role in “hosting controversial and critical perspectives,” while the traditional mainstream media — both state owned or private – were known to promote political agendas.

“Can a regulatory mechanism be implemented in two weeks, without obtaining the views of all stakeholders,” she asked. She warned that the Singaporean model which the Government was promoting would not work for Sri Lanka as it is, “extremely and tightly controlled, with the idea of dissent and protest so essential to democracy being not tolerated.” This could be highly detrimental to the country’s democratic space.

Expressing her party’s deep concerns over the proposed mechanism to regulate websites, Dr. Amarasuriya said the move was an attempt to stifle dissenting views.

In response, Information Minister Keheliya Rambukkwella said that Dr. Amarasuriya was totally misled as there were no moves to regulate the websites. The Government only wants the websites to be registered and to levy an annual fee.

The Minister said that many MPs talked about the unpleasant memories of the murder of Richard de Zoysa and the disappearance of the Island newspaper photographer during a previous United National Party administration. He added that a book had been compiled detailing 46 such disappearances.

He said there were disappearances of persons in the North and East. Though the Government expressed regret, they took place during the civil war period. “That dark era is now over. Everyone has a responsibility not to allow such things to happen in the future,” he said adding that he himself would bear that responsibility to prevent such things in the future.

Mr. Rambukwella, however, said the Yahapalana Government was vindictive. Though it spared the journalists, it hounded the peoples’ representatives from the then opposition. He pointed out that Johnston Fernando, Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Namal Rajapaksa were put in remand, but they were later acquitted.

The Minister said that instead of playing the blame game, both the government and opposition MPs should engage in elevated and enlightened politics.

The Minister also praised role played by the Information Department during the current pandemic. He also revealed that the Government had plans to set up 25 media schools in all the districts.

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