A leaked copy of the Committee of Experts appointed by the Government to make recommendations on whether it was safe to bury victims of Covid-19 has explained a relentless campaign against the chair of the committee, Professor Jennifer Perera.
Professor Perera is chair of the department of microbiology at Colombo University’s Medical Faculty.
A copy of the report that leaked on social media earlier this week revealed that the Prof. Perera’s committee was recommending both burials and cremations as being appropriate in the case of Covid-19 related deaths, provided adherence to certain safety protocols for disposal. The Committee recommended that the bodies be disposed within 24 hours and placed within a double layered body bag prior to being placed in a coffin. The Committee also determined that there was no evidence that the virus could be transmitted by cadavers coming into contact with ground water, a myth rolled out by pro-Government experts and Buddhist monks in a bid to justify the regime’s forcible cremation of Muslims who die of Covid-19. The committee was set up on December 24, 2020 to provide its recommendations on the controversial disposal issue, as outrage grew both locally and internationally over the Government’s refusal to review its mandatory cremation policy.
Over the past week before the report became public domain, several Buddhist monks were rolled out to criticize Professor Perera’s credentials especially on the Derana network. The Buddhist clergy split hairs over Professor Perera’s scientific specialty, claiming that as a bacteriologist, she could not proffer expertise on Covid-19, a virus. Other hardline monks have insisted that despite the experts report cremation was the only method to dispose of Covid-19 victims. Government Minister Dilum Amunugama hit back against the now public report on Saturday, saying no matter what the experts said, it would be the government that makes the decision on burial Vs. cremation. World renowned Sri Lankan virologists have offered similar opinions on the thorny issue, insisting that burial of covid-19 victims was perfectly safe, to no avail with the Government that has refused to change the policy.
The Government is acutely conscious that the forced cremations issue is fuelling emotions in their rabidly nationalist electoral base against the Muslim community, which is being portrayed as unreasonable and irresponsible over its demand for burial rights, political observers told Colombo Telegraph. Government affiliated media and propaganda units have amplified the issue and widened the rift, the observers told Colombo Telegraph.
The Derana media network is owned by high net worth businessman and media tycoon, Dilith Jayaweera. Jayaweera is Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s staunchest loyalist and the brain-trust of the Gotabaya candidacy and campaign.
Jayaweera’s advertising agency Triad and its affiliated social media teams were behind the monumental PR and image building campaign that portrayed the former Defence Secretary-Lieutenant Colonel-Software Engineer-711 Franchise owner as a clinically efficient administrator and political outsider who could become the Lee Kwan Yu of Sri Lanka. His broadcast network Derana, with its formidable islandwide reach, played a vital role in propagating that image of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the antithesis of the Yahapalanaya administration that was fraught with dysfunction and mismanagement. When the former Defence Secretary had been indicted in the High Court on charges of corruption and financial misappropriation, was under investigation for money laundering by multiple law enforcement agencies and facing murder charges in the United States, Jayaweera wielded his media empire with exceeding skill. The Derana network and its affiliates regularly discrediting police investigators and judicial processes against Rajapaksa and playing up his band of “intellectuals” and professionals in the Viyathmaga who would set and execute policy under a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency. Political insiders said Jayaweera’s efforts were so well-designed and successful that Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the SLPP candidacy to contest the 2019 presidential election in spite of grave reservations within the party, including his own brother and political patron, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Over the course of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency, Jayaweera’s media empire has taken on a greater Goebbelsian role to prop up the Government and its agenda, at times even protecting it from its own, as is the case of the experts committee on Covid-19 victims disposal. The network’s reach, especially in areas where alternative news sources are limited, has made it an unassailable weapon in the Government’s propaganda arsenal. Despite repeated ethical and regulatory violations by the network, including its propensity to incite hatred against minority communities and spread Islamophobia and fake news, the Yahapalanaya Government failed to act against the powerful media mogul and his empire in their five years of rule. “Instead Yahapalanaya leaders actually cozied up to Dilith Jayaweera, and even gave his advertising agency political campaigns to manage for the UNP at a price of hundreds of millions of rupees. Dilith’s role in stock market manipulation and the infamous pump and dump schemes were never investigated properly because they were afraid of alienating Derana. They never understood that Dilith was always Gota’s man, through and through,” a former UNP backbencher told Colombo Telegraph. Actor turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake was the only one who ever called Derana out on its antics, but he was repeatedly hushed up and admonished by the UNP leadership for taking those positions, the backbencher added. (By Chinthika De Silva)