Coming out of his shell, UNP State Minister of Defence and Minister of Media Ruwan Wijewardena struck a blow for media freedom this week when he condemned his Minister, the Minister of Defence and Lankan President for his arbitrary takeover of State owned TV channel Rupavahini under his Defence Ministry and thus under his wing.
In a no holds barred letter, the UNP Minister told the President on Monday: “According to audit reports, the Rupavahini Corporation is incurring a monthly loss of over Rs.50 million. The SLRC has also gone down to 6th place in television rankings.”
“When the situation is as such, the decision to take the SLRC under the Ministry of Defence’s purview by an extraordinary gazette seems to have created a troublesome situation. The Rupavahini Corporation was never taken under the Defence Ministry even during the time of war and can therefore be interpreted as a threat to media freedom in Sri Lanka,” he said.
At the centre of the storm is the present boss of Rupavahini Inoka Sathyangani, a law student who dropped out in her final year to pursue her interest in films and became an award winning film director. She was appointed by President Sirisena during Mangala Samaraweera’s tenure as Media Minister. There have been many attempts by the non-cabinet Media Minister Ruwan to remove her but all had failed. He had nominated Shan Wijetunga, a media professional with over 29 years of experience, and currently the head of the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, as the Chairman of Rupavahini.
In his letter to the President, the minister, who was appointed to the post this year in February, said his many attempts to appoint an eligible and an efficient chairman to the SLRC to replace the incumbent inefficient administration were obstructed by President Sirisena. He claimed that in view of the Rs. 50 million losses made every month – that amount to over half a billion per year – that it clearly showed the current chairperson had failed in promoting the SLRC. A majority of SLRC employees will also confirm this.
The gazette notification said the Rupavahini, whose logo is that of a Hill Mynah bird, or Sela Lihiniya in Sinhalese, was taken over to implement programs for the promotion of peace, harmony and reconciliation among people whilst ensuring national security through the use of audiovisual media, enhancement of the entertainment quality of the people and creation of a higher media culture and ethics.
The Minister charged: “In the gazette you have said that SLRC was taken under your control to strengthen national security, to promote peace and coexistence among people, to enhance the aesthetical sensibilities of the people and to promote media ethics. However, you have shown no interest in doing anything to achieve the stated objectives in the last four years.
PRESIDENT: Makes Rupavahini his captive bird
The Minister added: “It is also regrettable to note that you, who expect to create a media culture of a higher standard, has failed to inform me, the subject minister, before issuing the gazette notification.” And further added, “Although you speak of promoting media ethics, you did not have the decency to consult me before taking this step.”
Later addressing a press conference the Minister said that it was a serious matter to acquire the Government owned Rupavahini at a time when the election is within sight.
The Minister warned, “The President might be striving to gain political mileage at the forthcoming election. This is an alarming situation. I hope this will be rectified after the President realises the gravity of the issue. The police, tri-forces and Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) come under the President, and now its Rupavahini and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation Act (No. 6 of 1982) which issues licences to media institution.”
“My proposal was prompted by corruption and mismanagement. As the President, he has political clout to acquire any institution, but on principle, I am against this move,” he said.
“This move is an attack against democracy and also the country’s media freedom. This is the first time in the country’s history that a television network was gazetted under the Defence Ministry. Therefore, I am totally against his move. I am yet to receive a response from the President to the letter forwarded on the matter. If given the opportunity, I will discuss the issue with the President. This is not a political concern but an issue of policies.”
The President’s move to take over Rupavahini may not necessary be an immediate threat to media freedom.
MEDIA MINISTER: Not even told of move
Rupavahini is a Government owned TV station and anything the president wishes to do with it can be done whether it is under the media ministry or the defense ministry. After all, it is he who appoints the Chairman, and his fiat will run whether it be under defense or media ministry.
But the danger, however, is that now the President has direct control over Rupavahini and can personally direct operations without having to go through his Media Minister who may sometimes disregard the order or delay it.
He has set a precedent and now can even rake the other state owned television station, ITN, Whilst all other president before him could summarily dismiss their ministers who held office at the whim and pleasure of the president, President Sirisena simply cannot do so for the simple reason that he can only sack a minister on the advice of the Prime Minister inder the 19th Amendment.
Article 46 (3) (a) states ‘A Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers, a Minister who is not a member of the Cabinet of Ministers and a Deputy Minister, shall continue to hold office throughout the period during which the Cabinet of Ministers continues to function under the provisions of the Constitution unless he is removed from office under the hand of the President on the advice of the Prime Minister; resigns from office by a writing his hand.’
But, in his last numbered days as president, Sirisena will not be the real beneficiary of having Rupavahini as his direct mouthpiece.
The newly elected president, whoever he maybe, will be the beneficiary: and will find this welcome gift on his presidential table the moment he takes the oaths of presidential office; and use it, of course, as the gazette notification took pains to explain the reasons why Rupavahini was brought under the defense ministry to ‘implement programs for the promotion of peace, harmony and reconciliation among people whilst ensuring national security through the use of audiovisual media, enhancement of the entertainment quality of the people and creation of a higher media culture and ethics.’
RUPAVAHINI NEWLOOK LOGO: The Hill Mynah with trap shut
What a stroke of good fortune for the new incumbent to have his loudspeaker gift wrapped and presented to him by the outgoing president.
Media Minister said that Rupavahini is making an annual loss of Rs 600 million and that its rankings have dropped to sixth place.
The good news is that if the new president were to use the Government owned station as a tool for his propaganda, the rankings will drop even further with fewer people watching it.
For as they say, in the manner you can lead a horse to water but cannot make him drink, you can telecast all the propaganda you want 24/7 but you can’t force the people to watch it.