By Amrit Muttukumaru –
The role of the mainstream media is to be an unbiased watchdog and encourage public opinion on issues of good governance and combating corruption. Hence, why is our mainstream media which ‘went to town’ on the ‘Pandora Papers’ reference to Thirukumar Nadesan and Nirupama Rajapaksa, fighting shy of exposing the more than 60 Sri Lankans names in the 2016 ‘Panama Papers’ some of whom are movers and shakers in the country’s private sector? Is it because the Nadesan/Rajapaksa duo styled as the ‘Power Couple’ are ‘outsiders’ in relation to the Colombo centric ‘elite’ circles or is it because they do not bring any advertising revenue?
The world owes a debt of gratitude to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for its painstaking work resulting in the landmark ‘Panama Papers’ and ‘Pandora Papers’. Its efforts would count for little unless the media in the respective countries honestly continue from where the ICIJ left off.
The media demanding accountability from Nadesan/Rajapaksa are doing their damnedest to distance ‘elite’ circles from them.
The mainstream media which ‘went to town’ on the Nadesan/Rajapaksa duo, did not report let alone release in the public domain the ‘personal letter’ dated 15 October 2016 written by Nadesan to then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe which was attached to the ‘Pandora Papers’. In his letter, Nadesan is “proclaiming his innocence” on the contentious “mansion” allegedly built on his Gampaha property by one of the ruling Rajapaksa siblings – Basil Rajapaksa who is presently Minister of Finance.
Also ignored by the media is that Wickremesinghe was Cabinet Minister of Industry, Science and Technology during the Ranasinghe Premadasa presidency at the time the duo’s ‘shell’ companies, Pacific Commodities Ltd. and Rosetti Ltd. were set-up. It is alleged that the main source of income of these ‘shell’ companies is by providing “consulting” services to the Sri Lanka government “mainly in relation to inward investment into Sri Lanka”.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is the nephew of Ranjit Wijewardene – owner of Wijeya Newspapers Limited (WNL) which DOMINATES the print media in this country. The competitive media not wanting to ruffle Wijewardene’s feathers have neither exposed Nadesan’s ‘personal letter’ to his nephew nor reported that he was Cabinet Minister of Industry when ‘consulting’ services to the government were allegedly given to ‘shell’ companies owned by Nadesan.
Cardinal & WNL
The fear of upsetting WNL is such that let alone the media, even the usually loquacious
Cardinal is tongue–tied on seeking accountability from Wijewardene’s laid-back son Ruwan for his share of responsibility for the Easter Sunday carnage when he was State Minister of Defense during the ENTIRE period of the 2015-19 Yahapalana government. Are we expected to believe that Ruwan did not have knowledge of the attack even to the extent of Harin Fernando’s hospitalized father?
SJB & Elites
Similarly, even the main opposition party – SJB went out of its way to distance ‘elite’ circles from Nadesan. SJB spokesman – S.M. Marikkar, when referring in parliament to the past employment of Nadesan, avoided even NAMING the company where he worked. He merely referred to a “famous Company” (‘Daily Mirror’ 8 October 2021). Is not this company, Maharaja Organisation (Projects) Ltd. – a subsidiary of Maharaja Organisation Ltd. – now Capital Maharaja Group, the owner of the Sirasa/MTV/Shakthi television empire?
Apparently no one in parliament even asked for the identity of this “famous Company”! This is the extent to which even politicians go to curry favour with the media.
Is it not a fact that the Print and TV media empires of Wijeya Newspapers Limited (WNL) and the Capital Maharaja Group (CMG) would never have reached their current status if not for state sponsored projects – particularly from the UNP since 1978? Chief among them is the ‘Mahaweli Project’ – Randenigala Dam (WNL) and Victoria Dam (CMG). This must be viewed in the context of Thirukumar Nadesan being a former senior employee at the “famous Company”!
Nadesan’s ‘personal letter’ to Wickremesinghe being suppressed by the mainstream media is interesting for another reason as well. It reveals the ‘power’ structure in this country. Nadesan states in his letter he was “named a co-Executor” of the “Will” of the late Anura Bandaranaike who was the brother of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The revelations in the ‘Pandora Papers’ on the Nadesan/Rajapaksa duo, covers the period 1990 to 2019. It encompasses the executive presidencies of Ranasinghe Premadasa (January 1989 to May 1993), D.B. Wijetunga (May 1993 to November 1994), Chandrika Kumaratunga (November 1994 to November 2005), Mahinda Rajapaksa (November 2005 to January 2015) and Maithripala Sirisena (January 2015 to November 2019). Ranil Wickremesinghe (Prime Minister) had almost equal ‘power’ under the Sirisena presidency.
While those with their ears to the ground will not be too surprised by the revelations in the ‘Pandora Papers’, even they will be amazed by the extent of the alleged wealth of the Nadesan/Rajapaksa duo dubbed as the ‘Power Couple’ stashed away for concealment in a maze of entities in tax havens.
Their alleged wealth parked in ‘shell’ companies since 1990 has been estimated “at more than $160 million” in 2011. If found unlawful, it is a scandal of major proportions despite the ICIJ stating it “couldn’t independently verify the figure”
Due to the wide exposé already in the media by commentators for the most part regurgitating what’s in the ‘Pandora Papers’, there is no necessity for this writer to re-trace what has already been stated other than flag some crucial revelations.
The assets allegedly amassed by the duo apart from cash and securities are said to include 4 luxury apartments – three in London, one in Sydney, a Dubai-registered asphalt firm and a valuable collection of paintings. The ICIJ alleges that the couple’s art collection is stored in the “Geneva Freeport ultra-secure warehouse complex” which the BBC has described as housing the “greatest art collection no one can see.”
It is alleged that the main source of income of the duo’s ‘shell’ companies is providing “consulting” services to the Sri Lanka government. For example, it is alleged that “Pacific Commodities Ltd., would collect millions of dollars, an internal document shows, advising foreign companies doing business with the Sri Lankan government.”
It is imperative for regulatory agencies in Sri Lanka led by the CBSL (Central Bank of Sri Lanka) to get to the bottom of this and determine the truth under the gaze of public opinion within a timeframe of not more than 3 months. This is perfectly reasonable in the context of the ICIJ already having done most of the ‘legwork’. This will only happen if the mainstream MEDIA plays its role. I for one am not holding my breath!
While the mere listing of names in tax havens does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing, it is the responsibility of the authorities particularly the CBSL to ascertain legitimacy. Refusal by the CBSL to do so, does injustice to those with legitimate accounts.
Compared to recent CBSL governors – Nivard Cabraal and Arjuna Mahendran (Cabraal is once again governor), Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy is apparently held in high esteem by the Colombo centric business and professional circles. Yet, when this writer urged Dr. Coomaraswamy to determine the legitimacy of offshore accounts in tax havens held by Sri Lankans named in the ‘Panama Papers’, he REFUSED to do so by trotting out the shocking excuse:
“The time period prescribed by the Foreign Exchange Act No. 12 of 2017 to conclude investigations under ECA expired on 19.05.2018 as stipulated in the Foreign Exchange Act No 12 of 2017. These investigations also lapsed on that date.”
If this is so, why did Coomaraswamy AGREE to the new Act which was enacted during his tenure by the Yahapalana government when current SJB stalwart Eran Wickramaratne was State Minister of Finance?
A precursor to the new Act was the ‘invitation’ issued by then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake to “Sri Lankans and Indians who had to take back their deposits from banks in Switzerland to place their funds in Sri Lanka”. He had further assured that “No questions would be asked”!
Those named in the 2016 ‘Panama Papers’ include Coomaraswamy’s erstwhile colleague Krishan Balendra on the director board of arguably the country’s leading corporate – John Keells Holdings (JKH). Balendra now JKH Chairman, in 2016 was ‘Executive Director’ and also Chairman, Nations Trust Bank which came under CBSL supervision.
Coomaraswamy was a Board Director of JKH for more than 5 years until his resignation in July 2016 after his appointment as CBSL Governor. Subsequently his sister Radhika was appointed JKH Director.
True to form when the media broke the news on the ‘Panama Papers’, it IGNORED Krishan Balendra and other prominent names in the corporate sector.
New Fortress, Adani & JKH
The protection of ‘elite’ circles by the mainstream media is reinforced when after ‘going easy’ after the government allowed India’s Adani Group to have a majority 51% stake in the West Container Terminal (WCT), there is strident opposition to the 40% equity allowed to US-based
New Fortress Energy Inc. in the Yugadanavi Power Station. One wonders whether this has anything to do with Balendra’s JKH being given a 34% stake to partner Adani’s 51% stake? The state owned SLPA has been left with a mere 15% in WCT!
The monopoly allegedly given to ‘New Fortress’ for the supply of LNG for five years is another matter which has to be resisted.
It is noteworthy that the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) agreement for WCT was signed on 30 September 2021 AFTER Balendra’s close relative Milinda Moragoda (wife’s half-brother) arrived in New Delhi to assume duties as High Commissioner in August 2021. It is also worth noting that although Moragoda’s appointment was approved by Parliament’s High Posts Committee last year (September 2020), he assumed duties after almost one year (August 2021). Such is his unparalleled worth to the country!
Coomaraswamy is presently ‘Distinguished Fellow’ of the Milinda Moragoda founded ‘Pathfinder Foundation’.
It is downright dangerous to give the media both state/private – a free pass to operate without ‘INDEPENDENT’ regulation. It is a myth that the privately owned media is superior to the state owned media.
The ‘self–regulation’ through the ‘Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka’ (PCCSL) is a farce. For example, WNL’s ‘Sunday Times’ Editor – Sinha Ratnatunga is also Deputy Chairman of the PCCSL. The implication is that you have to complain to Ratnatunga about Ratnatunga!
Next to the dominant WNL owned by Ranjit Wijewardene is Upali Newspapers Limited (UNL) founded by his cousin Upali Wijewardene now controlled by his widow.
There is documentary evidence of WNL’s ‘Daily Mirror’ even ‘planting’ a non-existent article falsely attributed to the ‘London Times’! At its own whim WNL decides when or not to grant even a ‘Right of Reply’.
The writer urges WNL to deny any of this.
Can the public look forward to the media particularly WNL newspapers, exposing on their FRONT pages ALL the Sri Lankan names in the ‘Panama Papers’ and ‘Pandora Papers’?
We are now informed by our media that the name of R. Paskaralingam allegedly appears in the ‘Pandora Papers’. He was closely associated with UNP leaders mainly – former President Ranasinghe Premadasa and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Are we to assume that the only Sri Lankan names in the ‘Pandora Papers’ are those of Thirukumar Nadesan, Nirupama Rajapaksa and R. Paskaralingam?
Why is Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) only interested in the three names in the ‘Pandora Papers’ and ignoring the more than 60 names in the ‘Panama Papers’?
Why is it that authorities seeking to ‘regulate’ social media are for the most part ‘comfortable’ with the mainstream media? Does this not tell a story?
It will be a miracle if this article sees the light of day in any mainstream media!