Political pressure mounts on the media

*Acid test for SLFP Maithripala Group today
*Joint Opposition formalizes occupation of opposition space
*UNP in bid to shore up confidence with show of strength



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Relations between the government and a section of the media are obviously strained. For some time now the prime minister has been criticizing the media both in and outside parliament often naming names. The president joined the prime minister soon afterwards speaking critically in an interview with the BBC about the web based media saying that these websites were ‘kele paththara’ and that he does not look at websites anymore; this despite the fact that websites had done most of the spadework to bring this government into power.


When the president met the heads of media institutions last Thursday, the websites were not invited. This was followed by a furious article on the Sri Lanka Mirror website reminding Sirisena that the web media played a major role in toppling the Rajapaksa regime, and that this was the second time the web media had been sidelined by the president. (The first being a meeting last September.) The Sri Lanka Mirror said that during the Rajapaksa administration, the mainstream media gave step-motherly treatment to the opposition, which only had websites and the social media to carry its message to the people. It complained that web journalists were not invited to attend even cabinet and other government press briefings. SLM said that the last Thursday’s meeting with the heads of media institutions, had been organized by Shiral Laktilleke who had moved closely with the web media earlier but who now ignores them.


Speaking of the president’s meeting with the media heads last Wednesday, the audience listened to what the president had to say. They were then invited to ask questions. Breakfast followed and the president was available for further interaction before his departure. His opening speech dwelt mostly with the past and referred to the ‘dooshithayin’ and ‘thakkadin’ who were running the country earlier and he expressed regret that some media organizations were trying to restore the same ‘dooshitha thakkadiyas’ to power. He also impressed upon the media heads the fact that an election has to be held for a new government to be formed and that there was absolutely no chance of a change of government through a ‘parliamentary coup’.


It was in such a background that the new secretary of the Media Ministry Nimal Bopage issued a media release the very next day saying among other things that using the term ‘Joint Opposition’ was legally incorrect and that the media was promoting (pravardhanaya karanawa) the use of this term and that by doing so journalists may fall foul of the law. It needs hardly be said that this media release raised a hornet’s nest in Colombo. But Media Minister Gayantha Karunatillake moved fast to diffuse the situation by saying that the ideas expressed in that media release were the private opinions of the ministry secretary and did not reflect the views of the government. Deputy Minister Ajith P.Perera also went on record saying that ministry secretaries are appointed by the president and that it is the appointing authority that should look into disciplinary matters and that telling the media what names to use or not use was a ‘modakama’.


 This writer has known Nimal Bopage long enough to know that he is not a bounder. Bopage would not have put out a media statement like that unless he was told to do so by some higher authority. The ministry secretary is appointed not by the prime minister but the president. The media minister was unaware that his secretary was going to issue such a statement. If this statement had been thought of by Bopage personally, he would no doubt have consulted his minister before issuing it. The reason why he issued it without even consulting his minister was obviously because a higher authority had sanctioned it. The present writer’s guess is that it was a collective decision of the cabal around President Sirisena and probably drafted by them with Bopage only placing his signature on it. President Sirisena’s address to the media heads on Wednesday and the Media Secretary’s press release on Thursday are a close match.


 A crack down on the media is in progress. Some time ago, the government issued warnings that those posting abusive statements on the president’s facebook page would be hunted down and prosecuted. In fact the Chairman of the Southern Provincial Council Sampath Atukorale was arrested and remanded for a post about Sirisena that he had posted on his own facebook account. Last week a youth who had posted what was said to be death threats against the president on his facebook account had been arrested at the airport on arrival from Malaysia and later remanded. This became the talk in social media circles. The comments by readers posted below the Lankadeepa report about the arrest of this youth made interesting reading. The first post wanted to know what would happen if all those who criticized Mahinda in the past were also arrested. The next post asked even if a death threat had been posted, did this young man come to Sri Lanka to kill the president? Another post asked if the LTTE operative who came to kill the president was released, what was the point in arresting this youth? One commentator said that given the present situation it was safer not to make any comment at all!


While all this was going on, Colombo Telegraph ran a lead story stating "Crackdown On Free Speech Now Official: Social Media Critic Suspended". Following on the heels of the arrest of the youth who returned from Malaysia, an employee of the Mattala Airport, one K.L.K Priyankara had been suspended without pay pending an inquiry into him having made posts in the social media insulting the president and various ministers and criticizing the government. Of course we won’t know for certain whether these things are happening due to instructions from the top echelons of the government or whether some eager primate like individuals with swords and low IQs are doing what they think they should do to protect the interests of their boss.


Looking at the unfolding events, one cannot help but think that we should oppose with one voice the Right to Information Bill that is now before parliament. This Bill has been specifically designed to circumvent the need to divulge information that the government wants to keep under wraps. Since the economy is the Achilles heel of this government and they know it, the RTI Bill now before parliament has sought to exempt some of the most important economic agencies including the Central Bank from having to divulge information. This RTI Bill is not the only horror that the government has lined up for us.


At a press conference held in Matara recently, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera mooted the idea of regulating the electronic media. He said that while there has to be a free media in a country, it is the duty of the government to see to it that this media freedom is used ‘responsibly’. He said that in advanced countries like the USA and UK, while there is complete media freedom, there are also independent bodies that have been set up to ensure that media ethics are not violated and that the media acts fairly. America has the Federal Communications Commission and the UK has the Broadcasting Authority. Samaraweera said that a similar institution should be set up to make media freedom ‘more meaningful’ and a body which can accept complaints about the media and make decisions about them should be set up in accordance with international laws after discussions with the Sri Lankan media and drawing upon international experience. The minister added that this was only an idea at this moment. However it must be said in fairness to the government that there has been a sea change in the State media and publications of the government controlled press are readable. This is also true of the state electronic media under the new dispensation.


Filling the opposition space


History will be made before the day ends today on May Day and we Sri Lankans will be seeing a phenomenon that no previous generation has seen hitherto. This will be the occupation of the opposition space by a new political entity. There have been breakaway groups from the government earlier as well in 1951 when S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike broke away from the UNP to form the SLFP. However Bandaranaike was then going in as a newcomer into an opposition space then already occupied by the LSSP. It was the same when Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake broke away from the UNP in late 1991 to form the DUNF – they were going into an opposition that was then occupied by the SLFP. In fact in the 1992 joint opposition May Day parade where the SLFP and the DUNF joined hands, one of the slogans shouted by the SLFP contingents was "megolloth den api passe." The term ‘megollo’ referring to the UNP dissidents who had broken away to join the opposition who were marching in the opposition May Day parade.


This time however by holding a separate May Day rally, the Joint Opposition will be formalizing and consolidating their virtual monopoly of the opposition space which they had been occupying since last year. In this the parties and individuals who make up the joint Opposition have been fortunate. Their task is much easier than that which confronted Bandaranaike in the 1950s and the Lalith-Gamini duo in the 1990s. In both these instances the new entrant into the opposition had to fight on two fronts – they had to confront the government that they had just left and at the same time jostle with the dominant parties that had been occupying the opposition space up to that time. Banda managed to elbow out the LSSP to become the biggest opposition party but the DUNF was not able to elbow the SLFP out because the leaders of both the DUNF and UNP were assassinated by the LTTE within days of one another and the rationale for the split in the UNP was lost. So the DUNF finally ended up rejoining the UNP.


The Joint Opposition is being given a hard time by the two governing parties, but whatever they do they cannot prevent the Joint Opposition from assuming is the mantle of the main opposition party – which is just as well because if the Joint Opposition does not occupy that position the only other candidate left would be the JVP. No person in his right mind will want the JVP to become the main opposition party in a situation where the government is not only deteriorating in popularity rapidly but making a right royal hash of day to day governance. Though the fact will not be appreciated by the government given the state of mind they seem to be in, the Joint Opposition is actually a stabilizing factor in the country from which the government also benefits directly. If the JVP had been the main opposition party there would have been a rush by both investors as well as individuals to get out of the country while they still can.


Both partners in the government indirectly acknowledge that the Joint Opposition is in fact their main political adversary. Minister P.Harrison appeared on the news bulletins on Friday night, with photos of the Hyde Park grounds where the Joint Opposition had its last rally, the Kirullapone grounds where the Joint Opposition will be having their May Day rally and the Campbell park grounds where the UNP will be having its rally and claimed that the Campbell Park grounds were much bigger than both. He was talking about the crowds that would be attending the UNP rally as against that which will attend the Joint Opposition rally. There was no reference to the SLFP rally in Galle. The same news bulletin showed Sajith Premadasa also referring to the ‘good guys’ who will be going to Campbell Park and the ‘horu’ who will be going to Kirullapone. He too did not make any reference to the Galle rally.


The protagonists of the Galle rally also seem to be intent only on seeing the crowds going to Kirullapone reduced, not those going to Campbell Park! The Galle rally will be an interesting experiment to see whether the SLFP as a political party can retain at least a significant part of its base. The results will of course be skewed by the fact that SLFP organizers and members are being coerced to attend the Galle rally with very public threats of disciplinary action, removal from their organizer positions and denied nominations at future elections. However it will be only those who attach some value to the SLFP name and symbol and SLFP nomination and who have no issue with the fact that the SLFP is serving in a government with the UNP who will attend the Galle rally.


On what basis does the vote divide at elections - is it according to the name and symbol of the party or on a pro-government and anti-government basis? As of now, the SLFP is divided down the middle with one part of it serving in the government and another part in the opposition. Those seen at the Galle rally will have no hope of getting the opposition vote. So only those who wish to avail themselves of the governmental pie will be seen in Galle.


President Sirisena’s removal of Geetha Kumarasinghe and Salinda Dissanayake from their electoral organizer positions last week may have been counterproductive as it was a reminder to everyone in the opposition that they have to be rid of this yoke if they are to function as an opposition party. Parliamentarian Bandula Gunewardene was making light of the fact that he too will soon be sacked from his electoral organizer post. That one can take one’s impending removal from such a position in one of the two main political parties in such a cavalier fashion is an indication of the trend of the times.


IMF rescues Sri Lanka


The fact that the IMF has agreed to lend 1.5 billion USD to Sri Lanka has been met with much rejoicing as can be seen by the upbeat mood in the stock market. But 1.5 billion USD by itself is just peanuts compared to what SL needs. The actual advantage to SL will be the conditions and the discipline that the IMF imposes before giving their loan. The IMF agreement to provide an Extended Fund Facility will be subject to the completion of certain prior conditions which will have to be completed within the month of May before the IMF Executive Board meets to discuss SL in early June.


Among the reforms called for by the IMF are ‘fundamental changes’ to tax policy to reverse a two-decade decline in tax revenues. This will mean increased taxes on the people with all the resentful mumbling and complaining that such a process entails. The IMF also wants the elimination of tax exemptions, tax holidays, and special low tax rates – which will lead to more complaints from various industry sectors. The target given is to raise the tax-to-GDP ratio to near 15 percent by 2020 and to bring down the fiscal deficit to 3.5 percent of GDP by 2020. Economically speaking perhaps every Sri Lankan should do his bit to see that these targets are achieved because the country needs this kind of financial discipline.


The IMF has also called for the reform of state owned enterprises. Sri Lankan Airlines has been specifically mentioned as a drain on public finances. The government is also required to ensure that the pricing of electricity and fuel is done on a ‘commercially viable’ basis. The Central Bank has been asked to stop intervening in the foreign exchange market and move to a flexible exchange rate regime which means the value of the rupee will fall further. Needless to say though such measures are absolutely necessary to get Sri Lanka out of the present mess, they will not be popular among the people and will give much grist to the Joint Opposition and JVP mills. The opposition is going to be on a feeding frenzy in the month of May.


 


 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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