By Malinda Seneviratne –
Ranil Wickremesinghe is a politician. Yes, not a statesman. A politician, let us reiterate. The next election and not the next generation is what fascinates him. Like other politicians from other parties of course, leaders included. Yes, like Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena. Ranil Wickremesinghe is a lawyer. He is not just a politician but a seasoned one. So when he says that DEW Gunasekera, then Chairman of COPE, was out of order in releasing a draft of the COPE Report on the Central Bank bond issue, we have to take note.
Wickremesinghe’s argument is that after Parliament was dissolved, COPE ceased to exist and therefore has no legal standing. Consequently nothing that ‘DEW’ or anyone else in COPE says about any ‘COPE affairs’ is incompetent and irrelevant. DEW, for his part, has promised to respond.
Wickremesinghe claims that it’s not only DEW who is guilty of the ‘contravention of the Parliament Powers and Privileges Act’ but newspapers and other media that had published sections or the entirety of the ‘draft report’. His argument, apart from COPE ceasing to exist, is that some COPE members were not present when COPE deliberated because they were busy politicking.
It is strange that Parliament was dissolved before the COPE could conclude its deliberations. It is strange that Wickremesinghe and the UNP campaigned tirelessly for a dissolution and that this campaign intensified as word got out that the COPE report could constitute damning indictment of key members of the UNP.
All this is of course ‘politics as usual’. What is disturbing in the Prime Minister’s complaint to the Secretary General of Parliament is his attack on the media. He has referred to a newspaper by name for contravening, like DEW, the Parliament Powers and Privileges Act. On earlier occasions too he has seen fit to vilify media institutions and journalists. This, even as he lambasted political opponents for doing pretty much the same thing.
Wickremesinghe, in the fairytale days of the Maithripala Sirisena election campaign and into several weeks of post-victory euphoria talked about media freedom. Only one concrete fact has emerged in the five and a half months when Wickremesinghe operated as though he was ruling the country as Sirisena’s proxy: the inability to move a single muscle to get the Right to Information Act passed.
His agitation about the COPE, therefore, should not mask Wickremesinghe’s latent, sorry very real, antipathy towards media freedom. The Chairman of his party, let us not forget, is reported to have instructed all state media (now UNP-controlled) to toe the party line. That directive most probably was endorsed by the Party Leader.
What all this shows is Wickremesinghe’s true media policy, stripped of rhetoric readily lapped up by Rajapaksa-haters and rights advocates who make a living talking about rights and freedoms.
The letter to the Secretary General of Parliament regarding the COPE report therefore has to be read as a gag-seek in view of possible negative impact on the UNP campaign. It’s about power and privilege, yes, but not of the kind he refers to and certainly not of any diminishing of these things.
Mahinda Rajapaksa could have graduated into a statesman, but didn’t. Wickremesinghe, especially after helping Sirisena defeat Rajapaksa on a ‘yahapaalana-pledge’ was even better positioned to advance. He has not.