By Amrit Muttukumaru –
We Sri Lankans are born suckers due to our gullibility worsened by a short attention span. How else could one explain how the beleaguered Gotabaya Rajapaksa struggling to hang on to his presidency would have dared to appoint the hugely unpopular Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister? Wickremesinghe along with the Rajapaksas would most likely be the most unpopular/disliked politicians in Sri Lanka. There is considerable print media hype that Wickremesinghe has accumulated considerable experience as a five-time Prime Minister with access to global funding and investments. What the media fail to mention is (i) only in one instance was he able to complete even 3 years in a 5 year term for a PM (ii) during his five-time tenure as PM, his United National Party never had a majority in Parliament (iii) his record in getting FDIs is dismal. Does anyone recall the dubious “$ 3.85 billion oil refinery in Hambantota” and the 2017 Volkswagen vehicle assembly plant in Kuliyapitiya which turned out to be a hoax? There was even a “ground breaking ceremony” for the Volkswagen plant!
At the most recent August 2020 General Election, the UNP ‘led’ by Wickremesinghe for almost 27 years was electorally decimated by not winning even a single seat. He himself lost the Colombo District which has always been a bastion of the UNP. He has clung on as UNP leader despite the party under him losing a record number of nationwide elections and thousands of exasperated party faithful by tinkering with the already authoritarian UNP constitution. It is widely believed that his inability to have popular appeal is largely due to his inability to connect with the masses.
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s fairy-tale entry into the world of politics at the age of 28 was after his uncle J. R. Jayewardene led the UNP to a landslide victory at the General Election held in 1977 where the UNP obtained an unprecedented five– sixth majority in parliament. In this landslide victory, Wickremesinghe effortlessly won his Biyagama electorate under the then ‘first-past-the-post’ system. Jayewardene lost no time in appointing his nephew as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and later as the youngest Cabinet rank minister.
One may well ask how was Wickremesinghe time after time able to pull a rabbit out of the hat to be Prime Minister five times? The simple answer is the obsession of dynastic interests in control of the mainstream media not to let go of dynastic influence of politics in this country. Wickremesinghe and the UNP are the conduit to continue with the political influence of the Senanayake/Wijewardene/Jayewardene/Bandaranaike clans through Wickremesinghe’s laid-back first-cousin Ruwan Wijewardene whose father Ranjit Wijewardene is the feared Czar of the print media in this country.
There is something about the printed word that makes it more credible and hence more influential to condition the human mind in a manner that the social and visual media can never match. It is in this context that the antics of Sri Lanka’s most influential print media company – Wijeya Newspapers Limited (WNL) owned by Wickremesinghe’s uncle Ranjit Wijewardene and the next in line Upali Newspapers Limited (UNL) founded by Wijewardene’s late cousin Upali Wijewardene must be viewed. UNL is now controlled by Upali’s widow Lakmani who is the daughter of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s late brother Dr. Seevali Ratwatte. Both WNL Chairman Ranjit and UNL founder Upali are cousins of J. R. Jayewardene who brought his nephew Wickremesinghe into politics.
It must be flagged that the mainstream print media in this country also has its internet presence.
Ruwan & Dynasty
It is apparent that the real motive of WNL to promote the disastrous political track record of its owner’s nephew Ranil (sister’s son) is to carve out a political future for Wijewardene’s laid-back son Ruwan who despite WNL’s cost free advertising blitz could not get him elected at the August 2020 General Election from the Gampaha District even with its Biyagama pocket borough.
Ruwan was catapulted to national politics virtually from obscurity by first cousin Ranil who lost no time in propelling him out of turn to the position of UNP Deputy Leader. This is similar to the favour done by J. R. Jayewardene to his nephew Ranil in 1977. The country has paid dearly for this in the case of Wickremesinghe and is well on the way to a similar fate at the hands of Ruwan.
Among many examples of the dynastic project is the ‘Daily Mirror’ (7 September 2020) Op-Ed article in vivid colour “Back To Senanaiksm And Save The Party” directly promoting Ruwan whose mother Ranjani is a grand-daughter of the co-founder of the UNP and the country’s first Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake:
“Ranil who commands a majority in the decision-making Working Committee will never give in to rebels. Only with the emergence of a new leader with the blessing of clergy and rank and file can rescue the grand old party from the present disastrous situation.”
“A moderate, soft-spoken, patriotic young leadership is what the beleaguered party requires for the upliftment of the moral of membership and for its survival.”
Another example of the dynastic project is:
“PM to bring in political reforms, secure foreign assistance: Ruwan” – ‘Daily Mirror’ 31 May 2022
Fear of WNL
It is widely perceived that WNL has a dominant influence on the print media of this country – ‘Irida Lankadeepa’, ‘Lankadeepa’ (Daily), ‘Sunday Times’, ‘Daily Mirror’, ‘Daily FT’ and ‘Tamil Mirror’. The next in line UNL publications include ‘Divaina’, ‘The Island’ and ‘Sunday Island’.
It is believed that the political establishment and the competing media in this country are averse to getting on the wrong side of WNL and its owner 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’. Since its inception in 2003, the SLPI and PCCSL have had only two chairmen – Ranjit Wijewardene from 2003-2008 and ‘outsider’ Kumar Nadesan 2008 to date (14 years!). It is obvious that Nadesan would never have come anywhere close to being SLPI/PCCSL chairman if not for the ‘imprimatur’ of Wijewardene. Nadesan is the Managing Director of Express Newspapers Ceylon Ltd., who are the publishers of ‘Virakesari’.
Just one example is sufficient to showcase the farcical nature of the ‘Self-Regulation’ practiced by the PCCSL and the dominance Wijewardene has on the print media of this country. The Editor of ‘Sunday Times’ (WNL publication) Sinha Ratnatunga is also Deputy Chairman of PCCSL. Hence, anyone having a complaint against the ‘Sunday Times’ has to complain to Ratnatunga about Ratnatunga! Fear of WNL is such that no media institution or even the reading public have dared to protest against this horrific ‘conflict of interest’.
The fear of WNL is such that the appointment of Wijewardene’s son Ruwan as Minister of Mass Media by cousin Ranil (then PM) did not draw even a whimper in protest from either the state or private media although he had access to information from competing media institutions.
Ruwan & Easter Sunday
Although Ruwan was State Minister of Defence during the entire period of the Yahapalana government, no one – not even the now unusually quiet Cardinal has demanded accountability from Ruwan for his share of responsibility for the Easter Sunday carnage. Even if he was kept away from some meetings of the National Security Council, are we expected to believe that Ruwan did not have knowledge of the attack even to the extent of Harin Fernando’s hospitalized father?
Apart from this, would not have investigative journalists from his father’s media empire have tipped him off?
Ruwan reportedly stating “there was no information to suggest that Zahran was engaged in terrorist activities” (‘Daily Mirror’ 19 Aug 2020) is contradicted by SI Srimal Sanjeewa of the CID informing the Presidential Commission probing the Easter Sunday attacks that Zahran had been conducting a training camp in the Puttalam area “from 2015 to 2019” on “the use of Type-56 firearms and hand grenades”. (‘Daily Mirror’ 1 September 2020).
Why does no one call out Ruwan for his share of responsibility for the Easter Sunday carnage? Is it the fear of WNL?
“Ruwan vows to safeguard country’s security” is the news item in WNL publication ‘Daily FT’ (12 September 2015) after he assumed office as State Minister of Defence. Given below is a picture of Ruwan signing documents after he assumed office. Also in the picture is his father Ranjit Wijewardene – Chairman and owner of WNL.
Media Build-Up of Ranil
1) “PM confident of securing $6bn to boost economy” – ‘Daily Mirror’ 3 June 2022 (Front Page with RED Lettering)
Reality: PM – “any bridging finance to help alleviate the crisis is dependent on an agreement with the IMF being reached.”
2) “New PM could bring about political stability in SL: U.S. Ambassador” – ‘Daily Mirror’ 28 May 2022 (Front Page)
Reality: “The U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung expressed hope that the government, including the new Prime Minister, would be able to bring about political stability and overcome the current economic crisis.” (emphasis mine)
3) ADB, AIIB, WB in joint action plan to help Sri Lanka – ‘Daily FT’ 23 May 2022 (Front Page)
Reality: “World Bank Statement on Sri Lanka” – WASHINGTON, May 24, 2022— “Recent media reports have inaccurately stated that the World Bank is planning support for Sri Lanka in the form of a bridge loan or new loan commitments, among other incorrect assertions.”
4) “Boris Johnson pledges support for SRI LANKA” – ‘Daily Mirror’ 31 May 2022 (Front Page)
Reality: PM – “He pledged to support us especially in the fields of tackling climate change and assisting Sri Lanka in becoming an export oriented open economy”
5) PM holds phone conversation with USAID Administrator Samantha Power – ‘Daily FT’ 25 May 2022
Reality: USAID Spokesperson Rebecca Chalif – “need to urgently undertake political and economic reforms to gain the trust of the Sri Lankan people.”
6) “At least someone, whether bravely or naively, took up the challenge of steering the ship of state that has hit an iceberg and is sinking” – ‘Sunday Times’ 22 May 2022 (Editorial)
7) “The daunting challenge before PM Ranil Wickremesinghe” – ‘Sunday Island’ 29 May 2022 (Op-Ed)
“At long last the nation has a new prime minister who has a unique record of having been PM of the country five times in the past. The wealth of experience such a person must have will be invaluable in the present context.” – Columnist
8) Letter to Editor: “Lee Kuan Yew of SL” – ‘Daily Mirror’ 24 May 2022 (Editorial Page)
Ranil Wickremesinghe is said to have stated: “When I end my political journey, I want the people of this country to remember me as the Lee Kuan Yew of Sri Lanka. My wish is to leave that legacy behind me. This is my message to the people of this country.”
Under Ranil’s Watch
1) The egregious Central Bank Bond Scams of 27 February 2015 and March 2016 took place under the watch of then PM Wickremesinghe after he unprecedentedly removed the CBSL from the Finance Ministry and brought it under his Ministry of Policy Planning and Economics Affairs. The Deputy Minister was current SJB stalwart Dr. Harsha de Silva.
2) Did not the Yahapalana government in which Wickremesinghe was PM in effect facilitate money laundering when it repealed the Exchange Control Act No. 24 of 1953 and brought into law the new Foreign Exchange Act No. 12 of 2017? The new law certified on 28 July 2017 became effective from 20 November 2017. Eran Wickramaratne current SJB stalwart was State Minister of Finance from May 2017.
3) A precursor to the controversial Yahapalana inspired Foreign Exchange Act was the ‘invitation’ issued by then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake through India’s ‘The Hindu’ of 5 October 2015 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 “No questions would be asked”!
4) Did not the Yahapalana government in which Wickremesinghe was PM propose dubious FDI projects such as the “$ 3.85 billion oil refinery in Hambantota” and the 2017 Volkswagen vehicle assembly plant in Kuliyapitiya which turned out to be a hoax? There was even a “ground breaking ceremony” for the Volkswagen plant!
Is it not 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.
It is not for nothing that the media is referred to as the ‘Fourth Estate’ after the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. Hence, in the context of the ‘Constitutional Council’ and ‘Independent Commissions’ being proposed under the 21st Amendment to encompass the First, Second and Third Estates, is there any rationale to exclude the Fourth Estate? This by no means should be a mechanism to regulate media freedom. What needs to be regulated is any ‘abuse’ of the ‘free’ media by the owners who are invariably businessmen.
Would the Print and TV media empires of Wijeya Newspapers Limited (WNL) and the Capital Maharaja Group (CMG) have reached their current status if not for state sponsored projects – chief among them being the ‘Mahaweli Project’ – Randenigala Dam (WNL) and Victoria Dam (CMG).
There is documentary evidence of some media companies ‘planting’ non-existent stories falsely attributed to sources such as even the ‘London Times’. At their own whim newspapers decide when or not to grant a ‘Right of Reply’. Alleged plagiarism by some columnists have never been transparently addressed. Is not the mainstream media selective in exposing corruption?
SJB MP S. M. Marikkar when referring to the ‘Pandora Papers’ and the past employment of Thirukumar Nadesan avoided even naming the company where Nadesan worked. He merely
told Parliament “Nadesan was only an employee of a famous Company”. Is not this company 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 fear the media.
Under the circumstances, is it not crucial to bring the ‘Fourth Estate’ (media) under the ambit of the ‘Constitutional Council’? Should this not be part of the ‘systemic change’ being demanded?
A word of caution on the ‘Constitutional Council’ must be flagged. There does not appear to be clarity on its composition which is crucial to make it truly independent.
I urge any section of the media to refute any of this for which in the first instance the article must be published!