State Minister for Mass Media Ruwan Wijewardane hit back against President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to take over the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and gazette the national broadcaster under the purview of the Ministry of Defence in an unprecedented move that legal experts have called unconstitutional and against the spirit of democracy.
In a strongly worded letter issued today State Minister Wijewardane laid out his reasons for seeking out a change of management at Rupavahini since he took office in February 2019. In his letter to the President, Wijewardane said that the state broadcaster was costing the Treasury and Sri Lankan tax payers Rs 50 million per month due to heavy losses.
Wijewardane said that for the past several months he had been trying to change the management of Rupavahini to make it more efficient, but his efforts had been obstructed repeatedly by President Sirisena.
He also accused the President of totally unethical conduct, but failing to inform the subject minister before gazetting Rupavahini Corporation under the Defence Ministry.
“There will be no way to prevent this action by you from being construed as a threat to media freedom” the State Minister said in his letter.
Several media rights organisations including the Free Media Movement and the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association have condemned President Sirisena’s move to gazette the state broadcaster under the MoD.
Media reports said that President Sirisena took over the state channel in order to prevent Wijewardane from appointing Kelum Palitha Maheeratne as Chairman of the Rupavahini Corporation. Sources said Wijewardane had been planning to install Maheeeratne by force. Maheeratne was appointed chairman by Ruwan Wijewardane on September 6.
A tussle has been ongoing between former Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Wijewardane over replacing appointments made during Samaraweera’s tenure as head of the ministry. According to reliable sources President Sirisena took over Rupavahini Corporation in order to continue to protect Samaraweera’s appointee Chairperson Inoka Sathyanganee from being ousted. Several members of the Sajith Premadasa faction continuously seek the assistance of President Sirisena in order to thwart efforts by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to penalise disloyal MPs by taking away portfolios and sacking their appointees. Recent attempts by the Prime Minister to remove a portfolio from UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim after the latter pledged support to Premadasa as presidential candidate were also stalled through the President’s intervention.
However with the month of October nearing the decision to move Rupavahini under the Defence Ministry is also being viewed with fear about whether President Sirisena is plotting another power grab with three months left in his term.
The following is the full text of the letter from Minister Ruwan Wijewardane to President Maithripala Sirisena:
Since taking took oaths before you as State Minister for Mass Media on February 22, 2019, on several times I tried to losses and mismanagement at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation by changing the management and appointing a chairman and skilled and efficient board members. I wish to point out that however citing various reasons, you obstructed my efforts.
SLRC is currently a burden on the Treasury, with audit reports showing losses exceeding Rs 50 million per month. Based on ratings surveys, the SLRC is currently ranked the No 6 TV channel. You will observe that this is evidence of the fact that the current Chairperson has been unable to make Rupavahini a television channel attractive to audiences. A majority of employees at SLRC will also testify to these facts.
Your decision to gazette the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation under the Defence Ministry is a problematic one. It is with great regret that I must point out that at no time in our history not even during the war has the national broadcaster been brought under the Ministry of Defence. It will be impossible to prevent this action by you being construed as a threat to media freedom in the country.
Even though the gazette claims that SLRC was being brought under the purview of the Media Ministry in order to strengthen national security, create national unity and reconciliation, use modern technology to muster greater viewership and promote media ethics, I wish to remind you that in the past four years you never intervened in this regard. Although you claim to seek to promote media ethics, I note with dismay that you did not exercise the minimum courtesy or ethics to inform me, as the subject minister about your decision to take SLRC over beforehand.