By Amrit Muttukumaru –
Sri Lanka’s long-existing political, economic and societal problems now worsened by Covid 19 is largely glossed over by the media. Nowhere is this more manifest than in the newspapers published by the dominant print media company in the country – Wijeya Newspapers Limited (WNL). Its ‘Daily Mirror’ by far the largest circulation English language daily is a prime example of projecting an alternate reality. Most likely this is true of WNL’s Sinhala language newspapers as well.
On five consecutive days (6,7,8,9,10 April), the ‘Daily Mirror’ had as its leading front page news story the controversy related to a beauty contest for the country’s nominee for the Mrs. World title. An example is the Daily Mirror’ of 10 April 2021 where the front page lead stories are:
Caroline Jurie slams Mrs. Sri Lanka pageant and Pushpika submits documents of marriage to World pageant as she readies for Mrs. World while the last item at the very bottom is the politically charged news item SJB MPs allege that Speaker is acting partially in relation to Ranjan Ramanayake losing his parliamentary seat under controversial circumstances. Need I say more?
As if this were not bad enough, a regular front page obsession of the ‘Daily Mirror’ is the reporting of the politically irrelevant doings and pronouncements of its owner Ranjit Wijewardene’s laid-back son Ruwan Wijewardene. He is the deputy leader of the marginalized and increasingly irrelevant United National Party (UNP) led by Ranjit’s nephew and Ruwan’s first cousin – Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNP which did not win a single seat at the 2020 August General Election, is even struggling to nominate a member for the only parliamentary seat it is entitled to on the national list. This is the first time the UNP has suffered such an ignominy.
Ranjit Wijewardene is also President of the influential Gangaramaya Dayaka Sabha.
‘Daily Mirror’ front page ‘coverage of Ruwan with pictures of him to boot include:
Ruwan issues ’green proclamation’ to protect environment (8 April 2021)
UNP to appoint National List MP soon: Ruwan (1 March 2021)
UNP has mature leaders who can lead a grand alliance (11 December 2020)
We will travel across the country and reorganise the party: Ruwan (23 November 2020)
Anyone reading the English language newspapers published by WNL – ‘Sunday Times’, ‘Daily FT’ and particularly ‘Daily Mirror’ will conclude that the main opposition party – Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by opposition leader Sajith Premadasa is in deep slumber. This may well apply to WNL’s Sinhala language newspapers ‘Lankadeepa’ (Daily & Sunday Editions).
For the most part ignored are the forceful parliamentary and other speeches of Sajith Premadasa, Manusha Nanayakkara, Harin Fernando and others.
“Son of the Mass Murderer”?
WNL bias in favour of its owner’s nephew Wickremesinghe and son Ruwan (UNP Leader and Deputy Leader respectively) is such that ‘Daily FT’ – the country’s only stand-alone business publication on 12 April 2021 in an article titled Is Port City not important? authored by ‘Prince of Kandy’ had the audacity to state as follows of SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa:
“What I do know is that the son of the mass murderer is unlikely to win an election and the sooner we all just get behind Ranil the better our chances of having someone competent redraft the Port City legislation.” (emphasis mine)
True to form the ‘Daily Mirror’ on 23 April 2021 had a front page news item Ranil calls for new Bill to regulate Port city .
Things just do not add up. The question is why on earth Ranil is not in Parliament to “redraft the Port City legislation.” by filling the solitary seat the UNP is entitled to on the National list?
Wickremesinghe had no qualms in serving as a Cabinet Minister when Ranasinghe Premadasa was Prime Minister and serving as leader of the House under his Presidency. He also appointed Sajith as UNP Deputy Leader and nominated him as Presidential candidate.
Wickremesinghe who was Prime Minister 4 times (depending on how the terms are calculated!) without ever completing the full term had ample opportunity to put his purported “competence” to good use. The end result of his “competence” is such that the electorate has time and again given him a fitting response culminating in the UNP which he has ‘led’ for almost 27 years being decimated at the August 2020 General Election.
Even IF former President Ranasinghe Premadasa was a “mass murderer”, in what manner is his son Sajith responsible? Would WNL’s ‘Daily FT’ dare allege even half of what is alleged against Sajith against anyone in the SLPP leadership?
Sajith is one of the rare political leaders in the post-1977 political history of Sri Lanka who is free of even a whiff of an allegation concerning any violence – no Batalanda, no nothing.
If Sajith and SJB ignore this affront, are they not conveying a message of weakness to the electorate?
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 far superior to the state owned media.
The businessmen owned mainstream media (Press/Electronic) have the power to not only influence/control politicians but also to influence good or bad values in society. The relationship between the media and the corporate sector is more complex. Advertising revenues and the threat of exposure of corruption complicate matters.
There is evidence that the media both state/private abuse this power with impunity. Due to WNL’s dominant position within the private media, the focus of this article will be on WNL. WNL would appear to be a law unto itself in this country. There is documentary evidence of WNL publications ‘planting’ non-existent stories falsely attributed to even sources such as the ‘London Times’! At its own whim WNL decides when or not to grant a ‘Right of Reply’. Shades of wrongdoing/abuse exist in other media companies as well.
The ‘Sri Lanka Press Institute’ (SLPI) and its farcical ‘Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka’ (PCCSL) formed under the initiative of WNL has had only two chairmen since inception in 2003. Ranjit Wijewardene was the inaugural chairman of both. The farce is such that WNL’s ‘Sunday Times’ Editor – Sinha Ratnatunga is also the Deputy Chairman of the PCCSL. In simple words, if a person has a problem with the ‘Sunday Times’ that person has to complain to Ratnatunga about Ratnatunga! These people are not even embarrassed by such ‘conflict of interest’. What is really concerning is the extent to which systemic abuse is being tolerated by society.
This writer invites WNL to refute any of this.
WNL has so completely intimidated all the other media in the country that when Ruwan Wijewardene was appointed Minister of Mass Media by his cousin PM Wickremesinghe giving him access to information and influence over the competitive media, there wasn’t even a whimper of protest from any quarter.
Antipathy to SJB
‘Daily Mirror’ antipathy to SJB is so obvious that it positioned its news story Revelations of SJB MPs cause uproar in Parliament BELOW MP Diana proposes to extend opening hours of bars, liquor outlets on its front page on 21 April.
Readers can decide for themselves whether the ‘Daily Mirror’ print version had reduced the font size and readability of Dayan Jayatilleka’s Right of reply: IN DEFENCE OF THE SJB published on 21 April 2021 in relation to Krishantha Cooray’s article SJB: Fast asleep or a sleeping giant? published on 19 April 2021? Readers can also determine whether in its online version, ‘Daily Mirror’ has given undue prominence to Cooray’s article when publishing Jayatilleka’s rebuttal thus compromising any semblance of impartiality. If this is the case, does not such blatant abuse alone demand an independent regulator for the media – print and electronic?
The rest of the media are so overawed with the power of WNL that despite Ruwan Wijewardene being the State Minister of Defence in the run-up to and during the Easter Sunday attack itself – no politician, media organization, religious clergy or even the vociferous Cardinal are demanding at least some accountability for Ruwan’s share of responsibility for the carnage.
WNL appears to be supremely confident that its ‘double games’ will be overlooked whenever a UNP led alliance led by Wickremesinghe is in government. This game plan of WNL has now been complicated by the SJB marginalizing the UNP and with it the dreams Ranjit Wijewardene has for his laid-back son Ruwan.
Given the nature of Sri Lanka’s electorate, call it what you may – immature/gullible or anything else, it has a very short attention span. How else could one interpret the results of the 2015 August and 2020 August General Elections? Despite Wickremesinghe being the main cause for the electoral drubbing of the UNP at the August 2020 General Election, it will be foolhardy for the SJB to underestimate the damage Wickremesinghe could do to the electoral prospects of the SJB.
The SJB must recognize the short attention span of the electorate and the misplaced belief among a section of the electorate that Wickremesinghe stands out as a competent person. This is notwithstanding examples to the contrary such as the egregious Bond scam under his watch, insisting on having Arjuna Mahendran a foreign national as CBSL Governor and a plethora of shocking mismanagement which include placing the National Lotteries Board under the Foreign Ministry and friends/associates with questionable track records in key positions. This is akin to the proverb ‘in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’! Several factors including media support from the country’s dominant print media company WNL which publishes the country’s largest circulation ‘Lankadeepa’ (Daily/Sunday Editions) and possibly some help from other powerful quarters gives Wickremesinghe sufficient clout to be a spoiler for the SJB. How else could one interpret the extensive security given to Wickremesinghe whenever he is out of office – particularly at present when politically he is a veritable cipher?
Just the other day on 27 April 2021 ‘Daily Mirror’ had a full page Q&A Interview with Wickremesinghe. I wonder whether they have ever done so with Sajith in the past or recently?
The SJB has the potential to upset this belief by giving leadership to a credible movement in which the electorate could have confidence. At least in the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that the SJB could do it alone. To cut a long story short, the SJB must team up with Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s JVP and appropriate minority parties. It will be strategically beneficial to have Dissanayake as Deputy to Sajith Premadasa in a coalition. The question is whether Premadasa is strong enough to resist spoilers within his own SJB?
The SJB must not be under the delusion that its impressive parliamentary speeches however sensational will carry them over the line. The SLPP even if somewhat weakened compared to what it was in November 2019, is still very much a powerful political force. It will take some doing to prise a substantial portion of the Sinhala-Buddhist vote from its clutches. This is clearly demonstrated in the manner in which the newly formed SLPP bounced back after January 2015.
It is crucial that SJB puts its own ‘house’ in order. What is the electorate to make of its national organizer’s daughter being appointed to a diplomatic post in Australia by the incumbent government it hopes to succeed? Previously on the eve of the January 2015 Presidential election, did not this very same SJB national organizer exit the UNP under controversial circumstances and support the candidature of Mahinda Rajapaksa? What does he really bring to the SJB table?
Sajith’s biggest weakness would appear to be his lack of political resolve which was amply demonstrated in his tolerating Wickremesinghe’s disastrous leadership of the UNP for so long, silence in the wake of the egregious bond scam and other issues. If this hangover continues to prevail, it will play straight into the hands of his powerful opponents. One cannot overestimate the need for Sajith to be strong in the face of spoilers which include those from his SJB.
One wonders whether the SJB has what it takes to take-on the SLPP juggernaut (even if currently weakened) if it cannot even stand up to the antics of the mainstream media led by WNL? Can SJB afford to ignore the reference to Sajith as the “son of the mass murderer”?