Monday, 13 August 2012

On the media front : Build-up ahead of 2005 presidential polls

War on terror revisited: Part 26



by Shamindra Ferdinando

In late Oct. 2005, retired Special Forces Col. Jayavi Fernando directed a broadside at the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle and the then Chief of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), Brig. Kapila Hendawitharana for what he called propagating a blatant lie over the police raid on a government safe house at Millennium City, Aturugiriya on Jan. 2, 2002.

Col. Fernando insisted that the Army chief had concocted a UNP conspiracy targeting the DMI and LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) to provide political advantage to the PA-JVP combination at the presidential election.

The veteran appeared in Janahanda on TNL along with Lt. Col. Channa Karunaratne a few weeks before the Nov. 17, 2005 presidential polls. They accused Lt. Gen. Balagalle of playing politics with national security to facilitate the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory at the presidential polls. They recalled the closure of entry/exit points in the Ampara-Batticaloa region by the army on the day of Dec 5, 2001 General Election as evidence of Lt. Gen. Balagalle’s complicity in the alleged PA conspiracy. That directive had been given to prevent those living in LTTE-held areas exercising their franchise in support of a party of their choice, the two officers claimed.

According to them, the army created the Aturugiriya issue in the wake of a group of VIR (Vijayaba Infantry Regiment) troops assigned to protect the then Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte killing a dozen Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) supporters at Udathalawinna, Kandy (Special Forces veteran claims sham over Millennium City raid––The Island Oct 26, 2005).

Immediately after the explosive TNL interview, Col. Fernando threw his full weight behind the UNP presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, while Lt. Gen. Balagalle strongly denied the allegations. Addressing the media at the Opposition Leader’s Office, Col. Fernando alleged that those arrested during the raid on the Millennium City safe house were DMI operatives, though the army portrayed them as LRRP men. The Opposition capitalised on the crisis triggered by the raid. Denying claims by the army and the UPFA that the raid had jeopardised national security, Col. Fernando officer said that there was no basis for the assertion that the LTTE had made use of the situation to target LRRP. The issue was dealt at the onset of War on terror Revisited series in June.

Print media under fire

Col. Fernando lambasted a section of the print media for being part to the PA conspiracy. He was given the unenviable task of defending the UNP ahead of the presidential polls. Aturugiriya was one of the major media issues at the election exploited by both major parties to their advantage. The UNP alleged that the police raided Millennium City safe house following information that Minister Ratwatte’s sons, wanted in connection with the Udathalawinna massacre, had taken refuge there. The PA said the police raid jeopardised a vital DMI operation on the pretext of investigating an alleged clandestine army operation to assassinate UNP leader Wickremesinghe.

In fact, the army had never experienced a similar situation during the entire conflict. Although from time to time army chiefs were accused of supporting various political parties, Lt. Gen. Balagalle was the first to be accused of being party to a conspiracy to assassinate a senior politician. In spite of the former DM chief personally assuring the then UNP Chairman, Charitha Ratwatte that he wouldn’t act against the interests of any political party and the DMI wasn’t in anyway involved in a politically motivated operation, the UNP ordered the Millennium City raid. That was the unpalatable truth. Lt. Gen. Balagalle gave this assurance in writing in the run-up to the December 5, 2001 General Election.

It would be important to examine the circumstances under which the Aturugiriya raid eclipsed all other issues ahead of the presidential polls. In spite of the LTTE’s exit from the negotiating table in April 2003, the Norwegian initiative remained intact. Both the UNP and PA remained committed to the Norwegian-led peace process, while the LTTE was on the offensive. The assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on the night of Aug 12, 2005 at his private Bullers Lane residence meant that an all-out war was imminent. The LTTE wouldn’t have ordered the assassination if it hadn’t been ready for a full scale conventional confrontation. But, both major parties still believed the LTTE could be somehow brought back to the negotiating table with the help of the Norwegians. The Norwegians felt that the LTTE could be persuaded to resume negotiations only through appeasement.

UPFA, UNP agree on Oslo role

Both the UNP and the UPFA privately agreed that the neither Kadirgamar assassination nor the Aturugiriya affair could be allowed to derail the Norwegian effort. But publicly, the UPFA took a tough stand on the peace process, while the UNP reiterated its commitment to a negotiated settlement of the national issue. In spite of being in the Opposition, UNP presidential candidate Wickremesinghe was in command on the media front. Rajapaksa experienced severe difficulties. On the one hand, the UNP launched a campaign to pressure the Elections Commissioner, Dayananda Dissanayake, to establish a Competent Authority (CA) to supervise the state-controlled media to ensure impartial coverage. On the other hand, an influential section of the UPFA and its constituents worked overtime against Rajapaksa’s candidature. Although Rajapaksa was the UPFA nominee, the coalition did everything possible to ensure his defeat.

A key element in the media operation directed at Rajapaksa was the effort to neutralise Rupavahini, which, in spite of tremendous pressure from within the ruling coalition, tried to protect the government nominee’s interest. The then Rupavahini chief, M. M. Zuhair was one of the few media chiefs, who strongly opposed efforts to set up a CA, which he alleged was nothing but a political ploy.

Alleging that Rupavahini was undermining Wickremesinghe’s campaign, Sirikotha demanded the immediate setting up of a CA. The UNP made representations to the Elections Commissioner on Oct. 18, 2005. The UNP accused Rupavahini of not giving adequate coverage to Wickremesinghe. An irate Zuhair hit back hard at the UNP. Zuhair urged the UNP to make its leader’s schedule of public meetings available to Rupavahini. The lawyer urged the polls chief to direct UNP General Secretary N. V .K. K. Weragoda to furnish him with a schedule of Wickremesinghe’s rallies (Rupavahini chief: UNP trying to justify call for Competent Authority––The Island of Oct. 29, 2005).

Zuhair publicly stated that the UNP dominated the media, though the UPFA was in power. He cited the European Election Observation Mission’s comments on state-run and privately-owned media as regards the April 2, 2004 General Election to justify his assertion. Zuhair pointed out that the EU had disputed the UNP decision to boycott the state media at the General Election, claiming its partiality towards the UPFA. The EU said: "It has to be said that the decision taken by the UNP to boycott debates and electoral programmes carried by state broadcasters, though not the main factor, contributed to unbalanced coverage on the part of the state media. Private media, though in a less open manner, generally displayed support to the UNP and to a certain extent to the JHU. Nonetheless, the monitored private television Swarnavahini devoted equitable coverage to the main coalition than the state media. Private print media expressed clear support for the UNP that was allocated 52 per cent of election and political coverage, while the UPFA received 32 per cent. The UPFA was also covered in a more negative manner."

Subsequently, Zuhair played a far more important role as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Tehran during eelam war IV. The soft-spoken non-career diplomat contributed towards Iran providing a crucial credit facility during the war to enable Sri Lanka to obtain fuel in the wake of severe economic difficulties. Iranian help made it possible for the military to sustain the Vanni offensive until the LTTE was brought to its knees.

Consultations with Tigers

While the two candidates battled it out on the media front, the government bent over backwards to appease the LTTE. The media remained largely silent on secret moves made by the government, due to pressure from interested parties. On the instructions of the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the then Governor of the temporarily merged North-East Province, Tyronne Fernando, went to the extent of consulting the so-called Thamileelam Administrative Service regarding the appointment of Class I Officer of the Sri Lanka Agricultural Service, A. H. M. Mahroof Secretary to the Agriculture, Lands and Irrigation Ministry. Confirming the government decision to consult the LTTE, Fernando told a gathering at his Trincomalee Secretariat that Rajapaksa, too, would reach out to the LTTE and in the process, make the JVP and the JHU also amenable to the peace process. Fernando dismissed the perception that a victory for Rajapaksa would be an impediment to the negotiating process. The former Foreign Minister, who switched his allegiance to CBK after Wickremesinghe left him out of the UNP National List, declared that unlike the UNP leader, Rajapaksa was in a position to involve both the JVP and the JHU in the negotiating process. (Govt. consults LTTE on NE Provincial Council appointment––The Island of Oct. 30, 2005).

Tyronne’s claim

Fernando’s prediction came true after the presidential election. In spite of the LTTE launching a series of claymore mine attacks and sinking of one of Sri Lanka’s precious Fast Attack Craft off Trincomalee in early January 2006, President Rajapaksa went out of his way to revive the Norwegian peace initiative. Although, the JVP and the JHU as well as other nationalist elements strongly opposed Norwegian intervention and meeting the LTTE at an overseas venue, President Rajapaksa sent delegations abroad thrice.

Another issue which dominated the media was the LTTE split caused by one-time field commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna. Both parties exploited the situation, with Rupavahini coming under heavy flak from the five-nation Nordic truce monitoring mission and the Peace Secretariat for allegedly taking an anti-LTTE posture. The government remained silent, leaving Rupavahini Chairman Zuhair to face the criticism. The SLMM, which turned a blind eye to killings carried out by the LTTE, including the high profile Kadirgamar assassination, reacted angrily to the Rupavahini report, which dealt with an LTTE assassin identified as Keerthi succumbing to his injuries at the Apollo Hospital in Colombo in Oct 2005. Truce monitoring head Hagrup Haukland alleged that Rupavahini in its main news bulletin had reported the death of Keerthi, though in a critical condition, who was still very much alive. On the basis of Haukland’s allegation, the Peace Secretariat chief, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala rapped Rupavahini. At the behest of Dhanapala, the government called for an explanation from Zuhair, who denied the allegation, while naming the private television network, which reported the death of Keerthi (Dhanapala raps Rupavahini over erroneous report––The Island of Oct. 30, 2005).

Keerthi airlifted

Even after the assassination of Kadirgamar, the UPFA went out of its way to meet the LTTE’s demands. Keerthi was shot and wounded by Karuna loyalists on Oct 10, 2005. He was widely believed to be responsible for a series of killings in the Batticaloa District. The LTTE, through the Norwegians, demanded the best of medical treatment for Keerthi. An SLAF chopper flew Keerthi to the Hingurakgoda air base and from there airlifted him in a fixed-wing aircraft to Ratmalana and from there he was moved under escort to Apollo, the only hospital in Colombo equipped with a roof-top helipad. Keerthi was provided with elite bodyguards. In fact, an SLAF chopper carrying LTTE cadres wounded in a previous attack carried out by Karuna loyalists had landed there.

On the eve of the Nov. 17, 2005 presidential polls, Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake instructed Rupavahini Chairman Zuhair not to telecast a musical show, which was to be attended by Rajapaksa. The polls chief and Asoka Peiris, appointed to oversee the state media asserted that telecasting of such a programme would be a serious violation of election laws. (Polls Chief directs Rupavahini not to sponsor musical show––The Island of Nov. 16, 2005).

The international community supported those engaged in election monitoring as part of its strategy to promote a free and fair election. People Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) and the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) estimated monitoring operations undertaken by them would cost approximately Rs. 59 mn. The National Peace Council (NPC) estimated that its operation would cost Rs. 16 mn. Japan alone provided Rs. 100 mn to PAFFREL and NPC (Rs. 75 mn for poll monitoring groups––The Island of Oct. 2005).

Unfortunately, polls monitoring groups and those who funded them to ensure free and fair election didn’t even bother to issue a statement when the LTTE and its mouthpiece, the TNA, declared that Tamil speaking people wouldn’t exercise their franchise in support of either candidates at the presidential election. The Colombo-based embassies looked the other way. Those who intervened to stop Rupavahini telecasting a musical show remained tight-lipped in the wake of LTTE/TNA interference in the electoral process (TNA refuses to change polls boycott stance––The Island of Nov. 16, 2005).

The LTTE/TNA move placed the media backing Wickremesinghe’s candidature in an extremely difficult position. They realised that LTTE/TNA action could deprive the UNP leader of victory, though they feared even to discuss the issue. We were the only print media to highlight issue.