Varuni Amunugama dreams of shutting down Sri Lanka’s social media platforms because the traditional print and broadcast media pay absolute obeisance to the politically powerful media tycoon and partner at Triad, media observers noted after she forced a newspaper to publish a right of response to an Editorial on 14th July 2021.
“The time has come to stand up to cyber-bullying. I believe my stand will auger well for all social media users because a few bullies will not be able to over shout and intimidate those with opposing viewpoints in the future,” Amunugama said in her right of reply.
Her response was issued in tandem with Nimal Perera, a corrupt businessman and stock market manipulator implicated in the Airbus procurement scandal and money laundering in connection with the Krrish Deal. The pair have faced strong criticism on Twitter over their public remarks and bullying tactics to curtail the freedom of speech of some users of the platform, by calling up parents and employers. Many of these young social media users have been intimidated into deleting their tweets regarding Perera’s involvement in the Airbus corruption scandal and issuing apologies. Returning to Twitter after a long hiatus, Amunugama slammed users as “Twitter Maggots” and accused them of “patriotic paralysis” for daring to criticize her interview with host Alanki.
Despite these efforts the Twittersphere has remained fired up and relentless in its mocking criticism of Amunugama and Perera. Perera has since “taken a break” from Twitter and made his account private. Sources said the duo were incensed that they have failed to crackdown on the criticism on the social media platform.
“People like Varuni Amunugama and Nimal Perera command unstinted loyalty in the mainstream press because Amunugama holds all the trump cards by virtue of being Managing Director at Triad. Newspapers and TV channels that stray out of line could face a sudden drop in advertising, if Triad advises their clients to stop advertising with a particular outfit in retaliation. But what they have found is that this strategy doesn’t quite work on social media because most people active there are free agents,” a media analyst who did not wish to be named told Colombo Telegraph. “Therefore now they are resorting to threats about legal action and Varuni is claiming that her fundamental rights have been violated. FRs can only be violated by state actors, not social media users,” the analyst explained.
Ironically, Amunugama’s reply to the editorial published on Cyberbullying in Daily FT came out the same day that the women’s newspaper Dharanee that she owns was embroiled in controversy over the unauthorised publication pictures from cartoonist Shanika Somatilake social media as part of an article penned by Keele University Professor of Psychiatry Athula Sumathipala, implying the artiste was “mentally ill.” Sumathipala is also an editorial member of Royal College of Psychiatrists Magazine. Despite multiple complaints to the University, Keele University is yet to respond to the article penned by a faculty member castigating women for posting photos in swimwear on their social media profiles. (Complaints should be addressed to the Communications Department firstname.lastname@example.org)
Cartoonist and musician Somatilake posted a series of hilarious videos parodying Amunugama’s remarks in the interview that enraged the media tycoon.
“So while Amunugama forced Daily FT to issue clarification on her behalf, that same day, the whole conversation on Twitter that day was about how Varuni had used her Dharanee newspaper to bully and slander Shanika Somatilake,” the analyst said, explaining that the whole strategy had backfired badly.
Amunugama seeks a Goebbelsian hold on the social media space in Sri Lanka, because like the President she created, she realizes this is the one realm SLPP backers cannot control. Like Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Amunugama has also revealed her dismay about criticism of the President on social media, perceiving it as “not giving him a chance”.
Sources said inner circle members like Amunugama who seeks full authoritarian control over the formal and informal spaces for expression in Sri Lanka, could be driving the Government’s new laws to crackdown on social media with regulations and threats of arrest. Several users have been arrested for posting criticism against the Government and the president on social media, but despite this intimidation, the mocking continues unabated.
At a March 2021 Women’s Day event, Amunugama smiled cherubically as she delivered chilling remarks about how she would run the country if she ever had political power.
“Discipline is one key area. I will introduce military training at the age of 18 to ensure that this country has a disciplined generation. Finally, finally, finally, because I am from the media background. Misinformation is killing the future generations. I will have a war room, where first I will control social media, maybe bring in censorship – this is unpopular, but I will do that. Then I will ensure that the war room will gather information, assimilate it and I will control the flow of information. For one reason I will lead by example with honesty and integrity, and I will ensure that the future generations of this country will do the same. I will impart information every day, positive news about the country, so that we end up creating a positive Sri Lanka where the people, the citizens are proud to live in this country.”
During her remarks, she claimed she was not a “card carrying member” of any political party, but expressed fawning praise of the president she had a hand in creating, saying Gotabaya Rajapaksa was a “humble” leader with integrity. She also praised the Government’s handling of Covid-19, implying that Sri Lanka was doing better than New Zealand and Australia.
Amunugama also defended President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s disastrous Gama Samaga Pilisandara (Conversations with the Village) programme, praising him for going to the village to learn about the people’s problems. The programme was suspended after the President’s visits to villages became a laughingstock and offered him too many opportunities to speak off the cuff, threaten media organisations and opposition politicians and critics and display his ignorance on national television every other week. Every single programme became a public relations disaster for a President whose image was carefully constructed in the run up to the presidential election in 2019.
Varuni Amunugama is one half of the media/advertising power brokers with the greatest proximity to President Nandasena Rajapaksa. Dilith Jayaweera, her business partner was instrumental in constructing Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s image as an efficient, clinical bureaucrat and it was a marketing strategy that was so successful that it hoodwinked 6.9 million people, political analysts have pointed out.
Varuni Amunugama is the daughter of veteran politician Sarath Amunugama and cousin to Dilum Amunugama, the thuggish Kandy district SLPP MP who broke the Speaker’s microphone during the 2018 coup riots in Parliament, was implicated in stirring and organizing the Digana anti-Muslim riots in March the same year and recently encouraged Gotabaya Rajapaksa to become “Adolf Hitler”.
See full video of Varuni Amunugama’s Goebbelsian remarks at iLead Women’s Day event here from the 55th minute onwards here.