Six months after the Sunday Leader editor was slain, Uvindu Kurukulasuriya looks at increasing state control of Sri Lankan media
Not long before Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga was killed six months ago, his brother Lal, chairman of Leader Group, received a call from a deputy minister, Faiser Musthapa. Faiser said he would be coming to the company’s offices with some important news. He came as promised and asked Lal to get into his vehicle, telling him that they could talk while travelling. Lal, nonplussed, got in. Faiser ordered his driver to drive on. A vehicle packed with security personnel followed. All at once, the vehicle with Lal inside turned sharply into Temple Trees, where President Rajapaksa was in residence. Lal found himself in the presence of the president. “How are you Lal? Let’s come to the point straight away. What is the selling price of the Leader Publications?” Lal didn’t understand what was happening. “Let’s close the deal for 400 million rupees,” the president said. He told Lal to make a decision quickly.
When Lasantha, who had been away, returned to Sri Lanka, Lal explained to him what had happened. Lasantha was furious. The proposal went ignored.
Has this story come out in the media? The answer is “No”. Why not? Self-censorship, a result of the fear of abductions, killings and other forms of pressure. It may be that the president wanted to silence Lasantha by offering to buy the newspaper at a price far above its real value. President Rajapaksa called Lasantha a “terrorist journalist” in an interview with Reporters Without Borders last October. He said the same thing to me last September, calling Lasantha “Kotiyek” (a Tiger) during a meeting I had with him in my then role as convener of the Free Media Movement.
Under President Rajapaksa’s regime there have been several changes of ownership of newspaper publishing houses. The Rivira Media Company owned the Nation, Bottom Line and Rivira. Prasanna Wickramasuriya, head of the Civil Aviation Airport Services Authority and a relative of Rajapaksa, bought 51 per cent of its shares. The balance was bought by Nilanka Rajapaksa. The ownership of the newspaper was completely changed. Reputable journalists have since resigned.
The Daily Lakbima, Sunday Lakbima and Lakbima are owned by Thilanga Sumathipala. He was an electoral organiser for the main opposition party. By inviting Sumathipala to his party and by making him an electoral organiser for his party the president successfully tamed these newspapers.
The newspaper Siyatha is owned by Prasantha Kariyapperuma, whose wife, the popular actress Sangeetha Weerarathne, is in the president’s inner circle of associates. Prasantha’s brother, Priyantha Kariyapperuma, is the head of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission. Before Siyatha was established, I was offered the position of chief editor through his front men, with a monthly salary of 100,000 rupees plus other benefits — this was three times more than what I was earning at the time. After I refused, four of our press freedom activists accepted senior posts on the paper, but they resigned within three months over issues of editorial independence.
The Sunday Island, Island, Irida Divaina and Divaina are all owned by Nimal Welgama. He is the brother of Kumara Welgama, a senior minister of the president’s cabinet.
The country’s largest newspaper company, which publishes the Observer, Daily News, Silumina, Dinamina and Thinakaran, is owned by the state and under the president’s control.
The second largest newspaper company, the Times Group, is owned by Ranjith Wijewardane, an uncle of the leader of the opposition, Ranil Wickaramasinghe. The president has started to visit Ranjith Wijewardane’s house regularly, and has also been manipulating the newspapers through the editors and the senior journalists in the Times Group.
Tamil newspapers are under pressure. Since last week, newspapers Uthayan and Sudaroli have been receiving warnings not to publish from an unknown group.
Other small newspapers are also being harrassed, and the president is attempting to control them by giving them government advertisements or by writing off their debts and taxes and giving them financial support through state banks.
Sri Lanka is heading towards totalitarianism. For this to happen, the media has to be tamed. It seems that, to this end, the president of Sri Lanka is taking a leaf out of the Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi’s book. One can say almost all the newspapers, magazines and TV stations in Italy are owned by the premier. Even the opposition’s newspapers are printed on his presses. When the person at the helm of a country owns the media, there’s effectively a monopoly. This type of monopoly, in the latest journalistic jargon, is called the “Berlusconi Effect”. Under President Rajapaksa, the media industry will be soon facing the same fate.
The president of Sri Lanka is himself an experienced spin doctor. Former president Chandrika Kumaratunge used to call him “reporter” because he leaked cabinet secrets and political gossip and thus became a so-called “friend of the media”. After defeating the LTTE, the president said that he would introduce a new solution for the national question and that other countries need not advise him. He also said there are only two groups of people in Sri Lanka, those who are patriotic and those who are unpatriotic. Sure, he will introduce a new solution to the national question, which will be to make the country totalitarian. It’s not going to be the same totalitarian model as China, the Soviet Union, Burma, Iran, Cuba or Libya. It will be Sri Lanka’s own Mahinda Rajapaksa model.