The Political Column

4th May 1997

Mediamen on same wavelength

By Our Political Correspondent

The proposed Broadcasting Authority Bill came under heavy fire, when Media Min ister Dharmasiri Senanayake called a meeting of journalists to discuss the crisis over the issue.

In a rare show of unity, the journalists including those from the state media were unanimous in their view, that the government should withdraw the Bill forthwith to save the freedom of thought and expression as guaranteed by the Constitution.

Though the Minister said the government was willing to accommodate amendments proposed by media groups, most journalists were of the view, the Bill was so bad, it could not be amended and thus should be totally withdrawn.

They said the government must enter into a free and open dialogue with media personnel to set up an independent broadcasting authority.

They also felt the authority should be independent of political control so that it would function in a manner that would protect public interest and the independence of the media.

The Media Ministry, in working out the list of those invited for the meeting had left out some leading newspapers and broadcasting stations which officials felt were against the government.

When Minister Senanayake was questioned about this, he implied that if he spoke to anti-government media groups he might not be able to persuade the Cabinet to reconsider the Bill.

Minister Senanayake during the meeting with media representatives, had said Bill had put him in trouble.

Some surmised darkly that the President’s Media Adviser Sanath Gunatilleke was behind this legislation, while others felt it originated from the days of the UNP regime.

In fact the whole Bill originated from a report submitted by a committee headed by Additional Presidential Secretary Chandra Wickramasinghe to which several private broadcasters were signatories.

This committee was appointed by President D.B. Wijetunga after the then UNP felt that it was necessary to have a regulatory body to issue licences and regulate frequencies, rather than making it a business of several institutions, including the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.

The Attorney General’s Department points out that the original Bill drafted in 1994 bore the Attorney General’s certificate, and was tougher than the present Bill.

Subsequently the Bill was amended to suit the present day requirements, a government legal expert said.

However former Attorney General Tilak Marapana denies any knowledge of such a Bill. Mr. Marapana who was AG in 1994 said, “I can’t recollect going through such a Bill and I don’t think that it was there.”

Now it appears that the Attorney General has taken a legalistic view of the Bill. He says in the absence of such a regulatory body to issue licences and allocate frequencies to private TV and Radio stations the full discretionary authority will fall on one person and that is the Minister. There would be many confrontations if the Minister decided not to issue licences.

Furthermore he argues that the Minister could impose conditions depending on the individual broadcasters and if these provisions or conditions are violated the Minister would come into a course of confrontation which would end up in litigation.

As things stand today the government could cancel all these licences overnight and argue it is better to hand it over to an independent authority.

The government also feels that the Minister should be removed from the scene and hence an independent authority is required.

However the irony is that every time the People’s Alliance hold office, it finds itself in confrontation with the media.

It happened in 1964, in 1973 and somewhere in 1976 and again the PA is running true to form.

If the government feels that the functioning of all broadcasting stations should be regularized, it should discuss this with journalists and others concerned to arrive at some consensus.

Among the opposition parties the UNP had taken a strong view about the Broadcasting Authority Bill and is taking steps to block the Bill.

The media committee appointed by the party had extensive discussions on the matter and is likely to launch a massive protest campaign against the Bill.

Besides this, the return of UNP strong man Sirisena Cooray to Sri Lanka has created a sensation in political circles, since there is a warrant out for his arrest by the commission probing the assassination of former DUNF leader Lalith Athulathmudali.

But the legal position is vague on whether he could be arrested under the warrant issued by the commission, since it has concluded its sittings.

However, the Special Presidential Commission has found Mr. Cooray guilty of contempt for failing to appear before it.

Yet no law enforcing authority could take any further step against Mr. Cooray since it was not clear as to whether the Special Presidential Commission had reported the matter to the Supreme Court to take action against Mr. Cooray.

If the Commission has not reported the matter, the Supreme Court is unable to invoke its jurisdiction and issue a rule on Mr. Cooray to show cause as to why he failed to appear before the Commission.

Mr. Cooray who celebrated his birthday on Wednesday said he was not sure what action would be taken against him. “We will just have to wait and see. When I was in Sri Lanka, I was not given an opportunity to appear before the Commission, but as soon as I left I was summoned. I sent an affidavit and explained the situation and the reasons as to why I could not be present,” he said.

On Wednesday evening, Mr. Cooray was seen at Sucharitha where there was a religious ceremony to commemorate the fourth death anniversary of President Premadasa.

Mr. Cooray spoke to many politicians who were present at the ceremony. He was also present at the main meeting held in Hulsftdorf to commemorate the Premadasa anniversary.

Mr. Cooray is expected to leave for Madras shortly to visit his son who is undergoing some ayurvedic treatment there.

The other topic given much prominence in the national media was the impending Cabinet reshuffle.

Though observers anticipated several changes before May Day, no reshuffle took place. The rumours that did the rounds in Colombo were that Labour Minister Mahinda Rajapakse would be moved out and given a portfolio of lesser importance.

Recently Minister Rajapakse had to face a shocking experience when he boarded a passenger liner to Malta from Tripoli.

He, along with several other MPs including A.H.M. Azwer and Ali Zaheer Moulana participated in a Spring Festival in Tripoli, Libya where President Colonel Gadaffi presided.

Since there is a UN embargo on Tripoli, airlines are not flying out of there. The Libyan government made arrangements for the state guests to reach Malta by a passenger liner. Altogether there were about 300 passengers on board when the liner slipped into stormy and turbulent weather in the Mediterranean sea. The choppy high seas did not allow the passenger liner to proceede to its destination but took them elsewhere for three days, making it an agonizing experience for the Sri Lankan delegation.

The Minister and others who had access to the Captain’s deck asked him to steer the ship to the nearest port but the Captain said, if he did that against the high surge the ship would split into pieces. There was no option, but go with the gale force winds.

After three days, there was a sigh of relief when the sea began to calm down and the passenger liner headed towards Malta.

When Mr. Rajapakse arrived in Sri Lanka political winds were blowing against him. So far he has managed to pilot his vessel through a storm, but now the situation could be uncertain.

On Wednesday, minutes before the weekly Cabinet meeting, some Ministers were talking about the reshuffle and told the President that nothing was being done in the ministries in view of a possible Cabinet reshuffle.

The President snapped back to say that she had not told anybody anywhere that there was going to be a reshuffle. If the Ministers are good and hardworking there was nothing to be excited about, she told them. Other than that she told the Ministers that she felt that some injustice had been done to D.P. Wickramasinghe who was a long standing member of the SLFP.

Mr. Wickramasinghe at present is the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and keeps a low profile unlike most senior politicians.

The President’s hint to the Ministers was that she would be willing to accommodate Mr. Wickramasinghe in the Cabinet.

In a separate incident the President has also found fault with her erstwhile Lieutenant Managala Samaraweera for allegedly leaking out a story on the proposed Cabinet reshuffle to a weekly Sinhala newspaper.

It said two Deputy Ministers were likely to be elevated to Cabinet status. They were Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and Jeevan Kumaratunga.

The President wondered as to how the outcome of an initial discussion leaked out to this weekly and queried Minister Samaraweera as to how it happened.

Besides this the President has called upon the Mayor of Ratnapura to tender his resignation before February 28 next year.

Originally, the President gave him six months time, but when Saliya Mathew, the Governor of Sabaragamuwa told the President it would reflect badly on him, she gave him time till February as the Mayor would be seeking nominations to contest the Provincial Council elections scheduled for March next year.

The President met the Ratnapura Councillors after there was dissatisfaction among them over the manner in which the Mayor was appointed when there were members who polled more preference votes than him.

Amidst all these, there are rumours floating in Colombo that Colombo would soon be converted into a metropolitan administration encompassing Kotte, Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia and Kolonnawa.

There was a resolution in the Colombo Municipal Council sometime back and the matter was referred to the Provincial Council after being approved by the CMC as a formality.

However, it appears that the PA group in the Council is trying to revive them through legislation after leader of the opposition of the CMC K. Ganeshalingam failed to gain entry to the Finance Committee.

Despite repeated requests by the PA group in the CMC, the UNP group decided to appoint Ananda Vasantha Nanayakkara to the Finance Committee on the basis that he polled the highest number of preferences at the recent elections. But the PA has brought pressure on Mr. Nanayakkara to resign to facilitate the entry of Mr. Ganeshalingam. However the UNP is also determined to appoint Mr. Nanayakkara once again as a strategic move to counter Mr. Ganeshalingam.

Meanwhile Mayor Karu Jayasuriya had a chat with Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and Deputy Minister Alavi Moulana when they visited the Town Hall premises to inspect the work in progress for their May Day rally at the Town Hall ground.

On hearing that the two Ministers were there, the Mayor invited them for tea. It was promptly accepted.

In the ensuing discussion Minister de Silva promised to co-operate with the Municipal Council to improve the city.

The Mayor, it is learnt, has already begun his work in this connection and hopes to see a marked improvement in the city within 100 days.

In the minority political scene there was serious disagreement between the President of the TULF, M. Sivasithamparam and Mani Shankar Iyer who arrived in Colombo to deliver the S.J.V. Chelvanayakam birth centenary oration.

During his oration the guest speaker had four different points to make. He told the Tamils in Sri Lanka that there should be a composite nation instead of a two nation theory.

He also emphasised the need to include something like Article 356 of the Indian Constitution in the Sri Lankan Constitution. Article 356 empowers the centre to dissolve regional governments. He said this clause held India together.

The TULF however was not supportive of his clause right throughout and they are totally against the centre having the power to dissolve regional administration.

The other point made by Mr. Iyer who was in the Indian Foreign Service was that there could not be any problems in places like Trincomalee and Batticaloa where there was a mixed population. What he said was there are problems in mono-lingual areas like the Jaffna peninsula. In other words he invited the authorities to colonise the Jaffna peninsula to the very disappointment of TULF leader Sivasithamparam and other TULFers who were there.

The final point Mr. Iyer made was that when the IPKF arrived in Sri Lanka they were stunned when they saw the infrastructural and other facilities provided to the people in the North and they apparently had asked as to what they were fighting for.

At the end of the Iyer’s oration it was time for the vote of thanks to be delivered by Mr. Sivasithaparam.

Mr. Sivasithamparam who used the occasion to disagree with the guest speaker outlined the TULF perception on the matter. For most people who were invited for the occasion it was a hilarious affair.

One observer said it was like a witness for the prosecution or defence turning out to be an adverse witness of the enemy in court.

At a subsequent dinner held at the residence of the Indian High Commissioner, members of the TULF told Mr. Iyer that he put them into deep trouble. They told him that the concept of a composite nation would not fit into the Sri Lankan political composition.

Dr. Sarath Amunugama however expressed a different view and said that the concept of a composite nation was very important for a country like Sri Lanka.

The dinner was also attended by Speaker K. B. Ratnayake.

On the following day Mr. Iyer was once again hosted to lunch by the Speaker. Dr. Neelan Thiruchchelvam and Dr. Sarath Amunugama were also invited. There they spoke about Indian politics and how the regions were influencing the centre.

Mr. Iyer, a strong Congressman said he lost the previous election in Tamil Nadu because he tried to go against the tide where ethnic politics played a vital role.

He said India’s new concept would be to allow the regions to play a vital role in maintaining good relations with their neighbours.

It means that while Tamil Nadu has to maintain good rapport with Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Bengal will be called upon to do the same with their neighbours Pakistan and Bangladesh.

While all these developments were taking place in the Sri Lankan political fabric, in Britain John Major’s Conservative party suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Labour party as Tony Blair takes over as Prime Minister after a historic victory.

The British Election result has its impact on Sri Lanka too, since the Chandrika/Ranil Accord was brokered by the Tory Government. Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind has even lost his seat, while his Deputy Dr. Liam Fox’s position was still not clear by Friday. It is very unlikely that the new government is going to engage itself over the situation in Sri Lanka in the immediate future. The Pact now remains without the Broker and the British High Commissioner in Colombo will not be able to make any contributions without definite instructions from home. Some are wondering in Diplomatic circles about the Sri Lankan government’s prudence to have agreed to an accord or harmonization plan proposed by a government that was facing an election. Surely the government should have considered as to what the situation would be if the government went down with its brokers. Both the government and the UNP have friends in Conservative circles and now will have to start cultivating the leadership in the new government.

Meanwhile, at the last UNP Parliamentary group meeting John Amaratunge said the party should make a statement saying that the accord signed between the government and the UNP did not mean that the UNP supported the Devolution Package. This, however, was not received favourably by Ranil Wickremesinghe who said the General Secretary of the party had already made a similar statement earlier and that he did not see any reason why this point should be further rubbed in. He maintained that certainly the UNP cannot win a general election with only UNP votes, and that it was essential that the UNP was able to also attract the floating vote.

At the same time the opposition to the Devolution Package within the UNP certainly has not abated. Susil Moonesinghe, and Tilak Karunaratne are in the forefront and if one is to judge from all that one sees and hears, even if the Conservative party had won the elections, it would not have been successful in bringing the government and the UNP to agree on the Devolution Package.

All told, what has happened in Britain at these elections gives food for thought for the UNP and for the PA. Of course, the UNP can find consolation in the thought that after 17 years of rule, it did not suffer the same defeat the Conservative party has suffered - perhaps in a District system leaders do not lose their seats - they only lose their constituency but still find themselves happily seated in Parliament. So who wants to say good-bye to the District Parliamentary Constituency? I think it is a safe bet that the District Constituency system in Sri Lanka will continue and the deliberations in the Select Committee may be only an intellectual exercise.

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