Ranil’s constitutional damp squib and Mahinda’s media mafia


by Rajan Philips

On Friday, the current parliament and the government showed themselves to be utterly unworthy beneficiaries of the Supreme Court’s ruling against the unconstitutional dissolution of parliament by an overreaching President. Only 28 UNF government MPs showed up when the House met as a Constitutional Assembly after an interval of over one year, to hear their Prime Minister present the proposals for a new constitution prepared by a panel experts. All total there were 56 MPs, with the UPFA (17), the TNA (9) and the JVP (2) making up the other 28 MPs who cared to show up. 19 more government MPs trundled in as the proceedings went on. That is a total of 75 MPs, just one third of the total 225 MPs, for a project that requires a two-thirds majority support for passage in parliament. That is before a referendum. The poor attendance is indicative of the pathetic lack of enthusiasm among the government MPs to Prime Minister’s prime project, and the even more pathetic failure of the government leaders to whip their MPs to show up.

Despite the depleted attendance, there was a lively exchange of claims and counterclaims among the leaders, the reinstated PM, the new and the old Leaders of the Opposition, and the JVP leader. The inscrutable Mr. Wickremesinghe was on a face-saving display of statesmanlike equanimity – leaving it up to the collective wisdom of the Constitutional Assembly (the absconding two-thirds, notwithstanding) to debate and decide on the experts’ proposal. The ever improvising Mahinda Rajapaksa simply asserted that this parliament has no authority to make a constitution. For him, there is no authority in the country until elections held and he emerges as the victor.

The TNA leader, R. Sampanthan, was his usual self, eloquent and articulate, but his special pleadings for a new constitution deserved a fuller house than what his government friends had managed to corral. The JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake took swipes at both the government and official opposition, justifiably blaming the government and the Prime Minister for the inordinate delay in the constitutional reform process. Those who are familiar with the makings of the 1972 and the 1978 constitutions will recall that both of them moved steadily from start to finish under the direct supervision of two exceptionally strong personalities, Colvin R de Silva and JR Jayewardene. There is no comparison between now and then.

The JVP leader even more justifiably took to task Mahinda Rajapaksa for the pack of lies about the constitution that the former President is unbecomingly and irresponsibly propagating in the south. Mahinda Rajapaksa has made more political statements in the few weeks after his unwarranted and short lived ended in December, than he has ever made in the many years of his political career. There are two recurrent themes in these statements. One is the now broken-record refrain that Sri Lankans are being deprived of their democratic right to vote despite all his valiant attempts to stage an election to suit his purposes. The other is the overtly communal messaging, in fact massaging, about the constitution that he got scolded for in parliament by the JVP leader.

The democracy refrain has no audience of consequence even though there is still some outlying misconception even among some jolly old fellows who should know their old and current history that even a constitutional timetable for elections is undemocratic and that a President elected directly in a national election should have the power to dissolve a legislature comprising MPs elected from scattered electoral pockets or from party lists. Suffice it to say, until the 19th Amendment Sri Lanka was the only country where the President had the arbitrary and the absolute power to dissolve any elected body. Not anymore.

The second refrain, the communal massaging, is more insidious and is intended to stampede the southern electorate. The two are interconnected which exposes Rajapaksa’s duplicity about democracy and his knavery about communal massaging. The question is whether Ranil Wickremesinghe is up to successfully calling Rajapaksa’s bluff, or if he is going to sleepwalk into the constitutional trap that Rajapaksa has already set for him. To his credit, Wickremesinghe began the constitutional reform process on a very high note and raising even higher expectations when he delivered the 2015 Sujata Jayawardena Memorial Lecture. I called it "the next frontier in constitutional voyage" in these columns. Three years later, disappointment has given way to expectations and there is no one else except the Prime Minister to blame for the current state of the constitutional file.

The media mafia

Tuesday, January 8 was the tenth anniversary of the brutal killing of Lasantha Wickrematunga. There was a flood of commemorative articles including a very moving and at the same very accurate piece by Keith Noyahr, breaking his journalistic silence for the first time after his own horrific experience of abduction and assault eight months before Mr. Wickrematunga’s murder. Mr. Noyahr’s contribution and scores of others isolated and exposed the less than a handful of deplorable attempts to take crass political mileage out of the painful individual and familial tragedy and still resolved murderous assault on the country’s media freedom. Officially, the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga remains unresolved. Unofficially, no one believes the formal denials of involvement as everyone knows that there is no need for denial if there is no actual involvement.

Two days later on Thursday, a curious protest took place in front of media outlets that apparently supported that constitutional coup that President Sirisena quite unpresidentially foisted on this country. These outlets took vehement exceptions to the protests and cried foul that their freedom of media expression was under threat. Nothing of kind! – although the counter-protestations by the subject media outlets found an unsurprising ally in the same political parties and individuals who participated in the constitutional coup, the same forces that had gone after not only journalists but also others whose ‘attitude’ was not compatible with the authority of those in power before January 2015. What was surprising was to see Mahinda Rajapaksa calling the protests against the media outlets an attack against media freedom.

The irony of Rajapaksa defending the freedom of the media during the anniversary week of Lasantha Wickrematunga would not have been lost even among his media supporters. It was not lost on the Reporters without Borders (RWB) organization that had ranked Rajapaksa when he was Sri Lanka’s President as one of the "world’s biggest press freedom predators." When Mahinda Rajapaksa was unconstitutionally sworn in as Prime Minister on October 26, the RWB saw the risk of Sri Lanka falling back to the old ways. True to form, the Rajapaksa supporters stormed the state media institutions, the Rupavahini and the Lake House, and took control of them soon after the swearing in.

The physical seizure of the state media institutions forty four years after the Lake House papers were nationalized through a legislative order is indicative of how far the country has slid back in the balance of power between state institutions and private repositories of thuggish power. In 1974, it was the state that nationalized the country’s biggest media company through a highly controversial but orderly legislative process. In 2018, private political thugs and their journalists took over the state media institutions with threats of violence.

After the 1974 nationalization, the state virtually monopolized the media ownership, and became both the primary owner and regulator of media. The winds of privatization after 1977 have completely transformed the ownership patterns across the different media. While the state has significant footprints in each of the media - television, radio and print, it is not the largest in any of them. And the wily Rajapaksas found a profitable alternative to deal with a hostile news organization. Rather than courting controversy by nationalizing the news organization, facilitate the purchase of it through a politically friendly wealthy family.

According to the Media Ownership Monitor operated by Reporters without Borders, there are over 100 print (dailies and weeklies) media outlets, 20 TV stations and 50 radio stations. But in each of them, over 75% of the market (audience or readership) capture is in the hands of about four organizations. With the exception of the state, every one of the media organizations with significant market capture is in family ownership.

Such a level of concentration of ownership and market capture in the country’s news media, is hardly conducive to what might be called democratic dissemination of news and opinion, although in the print media there is an established tradition of journalism that is rooted in independent news reporting and opinion forming. It is in the print media that journalists have mostly come under attack for reporting politically unfavourable news stories.

The three organizations which were the target of pro-democracy protestors on Thursday, namely, Capital Maharajah Organization (Sirasa), Asia Broadcasting Corporation (Hiru), and Power House (Derena), are the top three operators in TV and radio accounting for 60% of the audience share in each of the two media.

The consumers of their outputs have a right to express their opinions even in the form of protests so long as they are peaceful and orderly. The general public, who were not swayed by the private TV and radio but were galvanized by the more democratically disseminated social media. After October 26, democracy in Sri Lanka could not have received a better outcome.

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