President’s unannounced visit to Braybrooke Place

For President Mahinda Rajapaksa last Saturday was quite relaxing. He spent the evening attending to various matters and with the dawn of the dusk he thought of visiting Ven. Galabada Gnanissara thero (Podi Hamudururwo) of the Ganagaramaya Temple at Hunupitiya Colombo 2.

Ven.Gnanissara Thero has been known to him for some time now. The priests distancing from UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is an added advantage to the President. The President also knew the Prelates connections with Wijeya Newspapers and his influence over the newspaper institution,

Chairman of Wijeya Newspapers Ranjit Wijewardene, being the President of the Dayaka Sabaha of the Gangaramaya Temple, the Presidnt’s thinking was right that the prelate wielded a fairly considerable influence over the institution.
Though President Rajapaksa maintained a life long affinity with the Wijewardene’s at Braybrook Place, he thought it best to visit Wijewardene’s with the prelate to put his point across to this media magnate.

It is well known that the Chairman of Wijeya Newspapers is the maternal uncle of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Wickremesinghe quite recently decide to sever links with the Ganagaramaya Dayaka Sabbha after his role as the UNP leader was taken to task by the Gnagaramaya Chief incumbent Ven. Galaboda Gnanissara Thero through the columns of the “Lankadeepa” the flagship of Wijeya Newspapers.

After having a fruitful discussion with the Gangaramaya prelate the President decided to visit Wijewardene’s ancestral home at Baybrooke Place, close to the Gangaramaya Temple, along with the Venerable monk.
When the President reached the Wijewardene residence the Wijewardene’s were about retire to their respective bed rooms, but on hearing the President’s arrival received him with open arms.

In the ensuing discussion the President pointed out the adverse role played by almost all the privately owned newspapers published in the country. The President argued that the media should be fair by him in his endeavour to rule the country according to the accepted norms. The President virtually sought the help of Wijeya Newspapers to achieve his goal.

In response to the President’s claim the Chairman of Wijeya Newspapers had reminded him that he has the state media at his disposal to further his cause. But the President had apparently insisted that the contribution of the private media is equally important to achieve his ambitious plan.

The President’s visit to the Wijewardene’s would have been prompted after the Lankadeepa carried some remarks purported to have been made by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in Kegalle which referred to the President’s mental prowess.
Wickremesinghe’s utterances were reported in the vernacular media “Lankadeepa” in verbatim for which the President’s lawyers are now planning to file a civil defamation suit claiming Rupees two billion. A letter of demand has been sent to Siri Ranasinghe Editor-in-Chief Lankadeepa. However, it is learnt that the President was not so keen to take the newspaper to court but will only confine his action to a letter of demand. The letter of demand will hang like the sword of Damocles over Wijeya Newspapers for the next two years or so, since the duration of a civil suit covers a period of two years.

Wijeya Newspapers, which promptly informed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe of the predicament they were in after having reported his speech, was given an assurance by the UNP leader that he would be available at any point of time to give evidence if it is necessary.

The necessity to reintroduce Criminal Defamation laws which were scrapped by the UNP government led by the Ranil Wickremesinghe surfaced as a direct result of this episode and it became a subject of extensive discussion at the cabinet.
When the cabinet met during the weekly meeting of the ministers President Mahinda Rajapaksa directed Justice Minister Dilan Perera to read out a number of amendments he proposed for the penal code.

This was done by the President even without distributing the cabinet paper among the ministers.
The President told the cabinet that it was urgent to expand the scope of the meaning of abductions and to deal with the culprits.
There was no objection from any minister on the issue since they thought that it was the need of the hour.
On top of that the President made an attempt to reintroduce criminal defamation under the Penal Code.

Presenting his case, the President said that unfounded allegations were being made by the media against ministers, state officials and various other people who are doing important assignments. He charged that the media was carrying out smear campaigns against them.

“When we try to clarify matters with them, they claim they are being threatened. And with that he shot a hard look in the direction of Minister Rauf Hakeem, as if Hakeem was trying to defend some journalists.
With this Minister Hakeem made it a point to argue against it. He said, “We cannot agree. We all agreed to scrap it. The provision criminal defamation was abused by the politicians in the past. We should not take retrogressive steps because we have already scrapped that archaic law. We cannot subscribe to this,” said Hakeem, and urged that the President should reconsider his decision.

Hakeem added that he agrees with the amendment on abductions, which envisages the broadening of its scope.
“This is the need of the hour,” he asserted.
“As regards criminal defamation, we did away with it after a public outcry. The best solution appears to be self regulation by the media itself. We should have a productive meeting with the media and try to sort out matters,” he said.
At this stage Investment Promotion Minister Sarath Amunugama chipped in to say the timing is not right to bring in such legislation, which would virtually muffle the media.

Minister Dinesh Gunwardena expressed the concerns of the international community and said that we would face further trouble with the international community.
The President then said that he had confronted a MP who had a hand in abusing not only the politicians, but even their children.
Hakeem once again said even in India, this archaic law has been dropped long ago.
“Normally the politicians are slandered. This happens everyday. This is the order of the day as far as the media is concerned,” Hakeem added. “I don’t mind that but they should not drag in the families,” the President said.
Then Hakeem referred to the case of Prince William and the British tabloid media.

“Look at Prince W and his fiancée. Their episode had been highlighted by the British tabloid media. What would the British government do? Buckingham Palace never insisted on criminal defamation. They issued a statement or two and ended the matter there. In Britain what they do is build up a public opinion against tabloid exposes. If you reintroduce criminal defamation, it will obviously be abused,” Hakeem emphasised.

But Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva was very passionate about reintroducing the criminal defamation laws.
He asked Minister Fernandopulle whether he made submissions about the Daily Mirror.
Minister Milinda Moragoda, who crossed over from the UNP, watched the drama in silence.
Minister Tissa Vitarana cautioned the government about doing things in a hurry.
Most of the ministers were mum about the government’s suggestion to bring in criminal defamation as a provision of the penal code but some think it has been used as a lever to exert pressure on the media to refrain from criticising the government.