The Political Column

12th January 1996

Media Minister doesn't know what's happening in the field

By Our Political Correspondent

The government put its top brass on TV to make a strong defence of the measures it took in the recent TNL case and the arrest of news director Ishini Wickremesinghe Perera.

In the wake of widespread protest by the media the government wanted to show the people that making statements and questioning at the fourth floor of the CID were part of a normal procedure and even Ministers visit the fourth floor without any hesitation.

As if to show this, Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte appeared before the CID to make a statement with regard to a complaint made by Anura Bandaranaike in connection with an alleged defamatory statement made by General Ratwatte at a public meeting in Ratnapura.

But the difference is, that the CID with its most efficient investigators took several months to obtain a statement from Gen. Ratwatte, whereas they knocked the doors of the TNL officials on the same night the controversial news item was telecast.

Obviously the circumstances in which the Minister of State for Defence, or for that matter any Minister, would visit the CID Headquarters, must be quite different to the reception that a member of the public would receive there.

Though the government boasts about its transparency and impartiality in matters of public importance, it has failed on many occasions to keep its commitment to be fair by the independent media.

The Minister's appearance before the CID was planned to eclipse the appearance of the TNL news director before the CID. But the questions raised by various parties are interesting. They want to know whether the government would allow other individuals also who visit the notorious fourth floor of the CID, to take in the media people, television news and the works. They wonder whether they too could meet strictly disciplined and courteous CID officials, instead of threatening investigators.

Gen. Ratwatte, in a media statement has said the TNL report on December 28 regarding the attack on the Vellavali STF camp was a canard.

He said that there had been instances earlier where the LTTE had spread rumours about attacks on military camps, drawn troops there from other camps, waylaid and attacked them on the way. He said such stories could be a plant or a trap by the LTTE.

The basic question that arises from the Minister's statement is how efficient our intelligence services are to fall into such traps of the LTTE. The most important thing appears to be strengthening the state intelligence making it more efficient with latest equipment and techniques rather than imposing draconian punishment on the media. More than anything, the security establishments should act on intelligence reports as far as intricate defence matters are concerned rather than on media reports.

On Wednesday and Thursday Gen. Ratwatte and top Police officers made a concerted effort to defuse the TNL issue, but things exploded with the LTTE launching a massive attack on troops in Paranthan and Elephant Pass.

In parliament on Thursday, Gen. Ratwatte made a statement but did not give details of the attack saying it was too early to analyse.

However the battle with the independent media will not augur well for the government, specially when it is trying to win public support for the Devolution Package.

It will be difficult for the government to go to the people through the media and at the same time have an ongoing battle with journalists.

In the circumstances it would be more meaningful if the government changes its attitude to the media if it is really keen on implementing the political solution to the ethnic conflict.

The matter relating to the TNL issue came up for discussion among the members of the Cabinet soon after their Wednesday's meeting at Temple Trees.

It was raised by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike who asked President Kumaratunga about the TNL issue.

The President said it was good that the Prime Minister raised the issue and explained the circumstances under which the CID was compelled to question top people in TNL.

The President said TNL had a habit of continuously attacking the government, but that was not the problem. "We don't mind them attacking us but they carry news items favourable to our enemies while we are in a delicate position waging a war against the LTTE.

She said General Ratwatte knows the circumstances that led to this flareup in the media.

Subsequently General Ratwatte moved to explain the whole episode and said at the time the TNL carried this news item the emergency regulations under which such offences fall had been revoked. He said the only provision of the law available was the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to deal with such situations and they decided to act on the PTA.

At this stage President Kumaratunga said "as this was happening Minister Mahinda Rajapakse put the government into a very difficult situation by issuing a statement".

What he should have done was to question me at this forum like the Prime Minister did.

With this the floodgates were opened and Minister Mangala Samaraweera came out with a scathing attack on Mr. Rajapakse.

He said it was a dirty thing that Mahinda did, he had become a pawn of the trade unionists and cheap journalists. "His main aim was getting cheap publicity over anything" Minister Samaraweera said.

Minister Rajapakse lost his cool with Minister Samaraweera's verbal barrage and rose to his feet to engage in a verbal duel.

I am trying to get cheap publicity, am I? What are you doing? Minister Rajapakse asked Minister Samaraweera.

"You are trying to get points by shouting here - there is no difference", Minister Rajapakse said.

Continuing, Minister Rajapakse said "Nobody knew who Ishini was, but now anybody knows who she is, even in Hambantota".

Another senior Minister who joined the fray said though it had happened in Hambantota, nothing of that sort had happened in his electorate in the south.

As the Ministers were absent to engage in a heated argument over the matter, President Kumaratunga intervened to stop them.

"Please stop Mangala, I have told Mahinda what I had to say. Hereafter please ask me before making statements to the press on issues such as this", the President told the Ministers.

Though the Ministers were back at their seats with this, Media Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake raised a point.

He told his colleagues though he was not aware of any of these incidents, he had to face the media and was answerable to them as the Media Minister.

"There are many things happening in the media field without my knowledge. Please keep me informed even after doing these things so that I could face any situation arising from these decisions", he said.

Minister Ashraff also made his observations on the issue. He said that the Government's decision to act under the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act to deal with journalists was unreasonable and unfair.

He said he was not saying thus just because a wife of an SLMC parliamentarian had been involved.

The Minister said such acts would only bring discredit to the government.

However when Minister Ashraff made his observations nobody opposed or raised their voices and the matter ended there. But at the Cabinet meeting, Minister Ashraff faced a formidable task when trying to get an extension for an assistant director of the Muslim Cultural Affairs Department which comes under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

The opposition came from none other than Minister A.H.M. Fowzie who is looking after the interests of the Muslims in the SLFP.

There was a long drawn battle between Minister Ashraff and Minister Fowzie for the portfolio of Muslim Cultural Affairs which was under State Minister A.H.M. Azwer during the UNP days. But the President was wise enough to keep it under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs without making problems between Minister Ashraff and Fowzie. Last Wednesday when Minister Ashraff presented his Cabinet Paper, Minister Fowzie did not take it kindly and opposed the move, since the matter did not come under the purview of Minister Ashraff.

Now it appears that Minister Ashraff is facing many problems within and outside the government. The Deegavapiya issue is one he has to battle out with the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress and the Maha Sangha. With his Deegavapiya controversy there seems to be a flutter of political activity among the Muslims.

Muslim opinion seems divided on Minister Ashraff's controversy.

In this backdrop the Muslim Rights Movement presided by former Minister A.C.S. Hameed had a representative meeting of delegates from various parts of the country at the J.R. Jayewardene Centre last Sunday to talk about the rights. The number of delegates exceeded 500.

Mr. Hameed explained that the aim of the Movement was to educate Muslims about Rights due to them and also to protect them and promote them. He maintained that Rights should be achieved through a democratic process and not through confrontation. Mr. Hameed said it was time that the Muslims had thought of establishing a powerful lobby which would have the support of all Muslim members in Parliament, irrespective of their Party affiliations so that it could take up issues which affect the Muslim community. Mr. Hameed maintained that the Muslims, as a result of their political graduation and entering the mainstream of politics, have lost their political clout since their votes were distributed amongst various political parties, while Minister Thondaman wields much more power since his vote bank is intact. Mr. Hameed maintained that this was the price that Muslims pay for their maturity in the exercise of the franchise.

While all these activities are taking place and the government was engaged in a virtual battle with its opponents from various fronts, the Maha Sangha has raised its voice against vice that is prevailing in the country.

It has also linked vice with politics and had stated that the Supreme Council of the Sangha has been transformed to political control.

At the same time section of the Supreme Council of the Maha Sangha had apparently put the government in a difficult situation by tendering their resignation and subsequently expressing their disapproval over the latest political developments in the country, including the devolution package.

Ven. Palipane Chandananda Mahanayake Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter said the constitutional status given to Buddhism under article 14 and 15 of the Constitution was a farce and emphasised that nobody needed to give the foremost place to Buddhism which ranked as the No. 1 doctrine, throughout the world.

While some Buddhist prelates expressed their vehement opposition to the devolution package Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera said Ministers Thondaman and Ashraff had become so powerful that they direct the government according to their whims and fancies.

"Minister Thondaman makes statements according to his wishes while Minister Ashraff is doing what he wants". He also said the EPDP leader had a private Army while having armed guards around him and his office.

In short, he said the country's polity is such that today Velupillai Prabhakaran, Ashraff and Devananda have become powerful people in the country.

The Maha Sangha also blamed the UNP for its inaction and its lukewarm reaction to the package saying the UNPs' only wish is to grab power by any means.

The UNP indirectly expressed its stand over the package when General Secretary Gamini Atukorale said in Angunakolapelessa last week that any solution without the LTTE would not be fruitful.

There is some logic in what the UNP says when one looks at what happened when the UNP introduced the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Though all the other fending Tamil parties agreed to accept the 13th Amendment, the LTTE rejected it at a later stage making it difficult to implement the 13th Amendment devised under the J.R. - Gandhi Indo-Lanka accord in 1987. This situation continues as long as the LTTE remains powerful and it is up to the government to decide whether it should crush the LTTE militarily before arriving at a political settlement.

The stand that the UNP should take with regard to the package was once again discussed at the UNP's Working Committee meeting last week.

Many members expressed their views on the matter including W.J.M. Lokubandara, Jayawickrama Perera and Stanley Kalpage.

The view of the members who spoke was that the UNP should publicise and educate the people on its stand on the proposed devolution package.

Dr. Kalpage expressed the view that the party should arrive at a decision on the matter, after carefully studying the earlier stand taken by the party with regard to the same issue. He proposed that the party should take the same line as expressed in the party manifesto put forward during the previous elections.

Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would soon take a decision on the matter.

Thereafter the party leader said Chief Opposition Whip Wijeyapala Mendis had informed him of a leak to a Sunday newspaper of a confidential committee report of the UNP.

The Committee was appointed to determine as to who should be appointed to the Western Provincial council to fill the vacancy created by the death of Davindra Mendis (son of Wijeyapala Mendis).

Mr. Wickremesinghe said the report was in the custody of General Secretary Gamini Atukorale.

Mr. Atukorale said though he had the report, all the other members of the committee had a copy each for their perusal and he did not know as to who had leaked the report to the press.

A member of the Working Committee at this stage proposed that all confidential reports should be sent to the Party Chairman for safe keeping.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said he would have to explain matters to Mr. Mendis who is now abroad that the leak was not deliberate or intentional.

At the same time he said with the dawn of the New Year, UNPers should be more concerned about discipline. He said the UNP was a party with discipline and he expected his members to meet this requirement.

He also said he had reports of some Parliamentarians patronising the city's casinos and called upon all the members to stop these habits forthwith if they were involved in such acts and said he would take stern action against miscreants in the party.

The UNP at the same time is planning to launch a severe attack on the government during the new year, based on economic factors and social issues. The PA government too, is mindful of the fact and planning a counter attack on the UNP specially putting forward the non-binding referendum as a trump card to push the UNP to support the package.

At the same time Minister G.L. Peiris explains the circumstances of holding such referendum and emphasises that it is not an exercise to bypass Parliament.

In fact a referendum will be held to ascertain the public opinion on the package Minister Peiris explains.

The Select Committee on Constitutional Reforms meanwhile, is scheduled to meet within the next few weeks to decide on outstanding issues such as land, law and order, and union of regions and hopes to arrive at a consensus soon.

Dr. Peiris who presided over the Select Committee explained that the government would be publishing the issues that have been discussed in the Select Committee which are not directly related to the Devolution Package - issues such as Human Rights and other areas - so that the various Institutions that are interested in them would have an opportunity to study them. A.C.S. Hameed said once they are published it should not be wrapped up without giving the Committee a final opportunity to discuss the matters which would be released to the public, because he said it was likely that fresh views may emerge which may need consideration.

The government has decided in earlier proposals to provide for a second chamber but the proposal was dropped and since then there has been a rethinking on the issues, Dr. Peiris said. This has prompted the government in view of the interest shown by various parties, including the UNP and the Tamil Minority Parties and the Muslim Congress to reconsider the proposal. The Committee is awaiting a draft paper prepared by the government. Dr. Peiris explained to the Committee the main features of the proposed second Chamber and according to the draft paper every Provincial Council would be entitled to elect three members on a single transferable vote. There is no provision for nominated MPs and Parliament would also elect a certain number of members and that too on a single transferable vote.

The proposal had mixed reactions in the Committee. Earlier the issue was examined and there was broad support but now, however, some of the minority Ministers and Members in the Committee seem to question the suitability if the Second Chamber was not going to provide some special representation for the minorities. Mr. Thondaman said he did not see any reason why this Second Chamber should be constituted if it did not have a special role for the minorities. Mr. Hameed maintained that the shrinking of the former Constituencies into Districts had already reduced the weight of the minority voters in the country. Ronnie De Mel though, of course, had different ideas. He maintained that if a Second Chamber was to be created it should have specific functions.

With all these issues booming above her, the President however did not forget to meet a close relative during the New Year season. She chose the last weekend for that and an outing at the President's House in Kandy.

The second generation relatives of the Ratwatte - Bandaranaike clan gathered in Kandy for the function which was graced by President Kumaratunga who was in a green lungi. She danced and moved with her relatives talking to them while music was provided by the special musical ensemble attached to the Mahaweli Reach Hotel.

Many of the top people from the Hill Country were present including Mr. & Mrs. Nissanka Wijeratne, Mr. & Mrs. Lakmini Ratwatte Welgama, Mr. & Mrs. Rajit Ellepola, Hulangamuwas, Divitotawelas and Ratwattes.

It was fun and little frolic with a cricket match and other contests such as selecting the person with the biggest pot (belly) and person with the best bald head.

The two prizes were won by Kamal Ratwatte and Arjuna Dharmakeerthi respectively while the prize for the best dancer went to Asantha Hulangamuwa.

The President also had an opportunity to talk to her first cousin Lakmini at this get- together. "It was an arrangement between the Editors and Journalists. We as the management has nothing to do with that", was the reply given by the Chairperson of Upali Newspapers Lakmini Welgama.

By 4 o'clock in the afternoon the party came to an end on a happy note and a promise to meet again probably next January.

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