By Amrit Muttukumaru –
A sine qua non for any Democracy worth its name is the presence of a principled and fearless mainstream media. While conceding that this ideal is not without blemish even in advanced democracies, is it not obvious that what prevails in Sri Lanka today is for the most part pathetic?
By far the dominant player in the print media scene of this country is Wijeya Newspapers Limited (WNL). Its virtual owner is its Chairman, Ranjit Wijewardene. He is the driving force behind the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) under which falls the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) with its farcical ‘self-regulation’. He was inaugural Chairman of both SLPI and PCCSL. A major source of funding of SLPI is Norway. Strong evidence of WNL arrogance, conflict of interest and wrongdoing which include ‘planting’ non-existent articles will not engage the attention of this article. Wijewardene is also President of the influential Gangarama Dayaka Sabha. It is only a reckless politician or businessman who will venture to ruffle his feathers.
A lucrative business of Lake House Printers & Publishers PLC virtually owed by him is the printing of cheque leaves and security documents for State banks. Another Wijewardene controlled company Sarathi (Private) Limited was the Sri Lanka agent for the German consortium associated with the Randenigala Dam Project of the Mahaweli Diversion Scheme during the presidency of his kinsman JR Jayewardene. WNL was incorporated in 1979 during the JR presidency. Its precursor was Wijeya Publications Limited.
Ranjit Wijewardene is the father of the laid-back UNP politician Ruwan Wijewardene and maternal uncle of UNP leader for life Ranil Wickremesinghe. Wickremesinghe has single handedly not only destroyed the UNP but worse is preventing the formation of a strong opposition. These abominable facts are so ingrained in the psyche of most Sri Lankans – particularly UNPers, that they do not need any elaboration.
Wickremesinghe despite losing a record number of nationwide elections and thousands of exasperated party faithful, has clung on to the leadership of the UNP for the past 25 years. It is widely perceived that his inability to have nationwide appeal is mainly due to flawed personality traits. He has clung on to the leadership by tinkering with the already authoritarian constitution of the UNP. Tragically for the country and fortuitously for Wickremesinghe, those with strong nationwide appeal within the UNP such as Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and others were violently removed from the scene during the 30 year ethnic conflict. Another person with potential, Gamini Atukorale sadly passed away due to natural causes. Whatever the negatives of these persons, they had strong leadership credentials and mass appeal unlike the veritable pygmies we are left with today.
It is perceived by most people in the country that what is now left of the UNP, does not have a snowball’s chance in hell to even send 8 members to a 225 member parliament. Despite this, the country’s leading print media companies led by WNL followed by Upali Newspapers Limited (UNL) founded by Ranjit Wijewardene’s cousin Upali Wijewardene, knowing fully well this ground reality, are for different reasons consciously downplaying the leading opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa and propping up the UNP and its politically toxic leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. For the most part this is true even of the county’s leading electronic media channels. An exception is a popular TV network with its own baggage of controversy supportive of Premadasa.
WNL goes the extra mile to give ‘life support’ to its Chairman’s ineffective and laid-back son Ruwan. It is probably due to the dominant position of WNL in the media scene that media outlets ignore his share of responsibility for the Easter Sunday carnage when he functioned as State Minister of Defence.
Wickremesinghe has already positioned Ruwan as UNP Deputy General Secretary. As if this was not enough, Ruwan himself in a full page ‘Daily Mirror’ interview to the question Are you ready to accept the Party leadership? has responded “Let’s wait and see the Party members decision.”! If this were to happen, would this not be a fitting requiem for the UNP of today?
WNL and UNL are singing from the same hymn sheet for different reasons. WNL is mainly doing so to retrieve whatever it can from a hopeless situation for its chairman’s son, Ruwan in the Gampaha District. WNL publications are even running almost full page promotional ads for Ruwan. It is in this context that it is imperative for Wickremesinghe to sit in Parliament and continue as UNP leader so that the baton can be passed smoothly. This may well happen (tragically for the country) due to the remnants of whatever is left of the UNP votes in the Colombo District.
Propping up UNP
Consider some of the news items in WNL’s ‘Daily Mirror’ and to a lesser extent in UNL’s ‘The Island’ which are optical illusions aimed at propping up the UNP to create an alternate reality. I understand similar items are found in their Sinhala publications.
1) ‘Daily Mirror’ 23 July 2020 (Front Page)
2) ‘Sunday Island’ 26 July 2020 (Front Page)
3) ‘Daily Mirror’ 24 July 2020 (Full Page interview of Mangala)
A passing comment by Samaraweera was given this headline
4) ‘The Island’ 21 July 2020 (Front Page)
5) ‘Daily Mirror’10 July 2020 (Front Page)
6) ‘Daily Mirror’ 10 July 2020 (Page 5 with picture of Ranil/Arjuna/Ruwan)
“UNP IS NOT CENTRED ON FAMILIES UNLIKE OTHER PARTIES: RUWAN”
(link not available)
7) ‘Daily Mirror’ 16 Jul 2020 (Front Page)
Raw Bias against SJB
The raw bias against SJB and its leader Sajith Premadasa is seen in the front page of the ‘Daily Mirror’ of 21 July 2020. While top billing with pictures and accompanying stories is given to:
SJB manifesto launch is at the bottom with a small picture with no story other than the identification of those in the picture!
‘The Island’ not to be outdone has given top front page billing on 17 July 2020 to:
It has a picture of Wickremesinghe handing over copies of manifesto to the clergy.
Also consider the far from reality cartoon against the SJB published in WNL publication ‘Daily FT’ 6 July 2020
‘The Island’ not to be outdone (made a mountain out of a molehill) in its front page lead story on 19 June 2020 captioned:
Given the known political leanings of UNL, its bizarre support for an opposition party can only be explained by the ground reality it perceives on the eve of the General Election. UNL did not behave in this fashion a few months ago on the eve of the November 2019 presidential election. UNL appears to be clearly nervous. The SJB appears to be gaining significant traction much to the surprise of many. This appears to have rattled those anticipating a ‘cakewalk’ for the ruling dispensation – this explains the conduct of WNL to protect its vested interests. The chances are that the SLPP may cross the 113 mark – but not without a fight. The possibility of a strong opposition are very much on the cards – SJB, TNA and JVP together. This augurs well for the country – provided they respect their mandate and adopt at least minimal principles of good governance! The worry is in regard to some questionable elements in the SJB if not weeded out by voters.
Whichever dispensation cobbles together a majority in parliament, will only have a short window of opportunity to get things right on the economic front. An already tottering economy due to decades of mismanagement is now on life support due to Covid-19. If we squander this window of opportunity, all hell could break loose due to social unrest. We don’t seem to realize that it could never be business as usual due to the global fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Social peace is crucial. Geo-Political compulsions which include the US-China standoff and the Indian factor in our neighborhood need to be given due consideration. Are our politicians up to it?