Committee Stage Budget debate : Media freedom was restored in 2015, says Eran | Sunday Observer

Committee Stage Budget debate : Media freedom was restored in 2015, says Eran

Eran Wickremaratne
Eran Wickremaratne

While lashing out at the previous regime, State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne said media freedom in the country has been fully strengthened today with the accession of this Government to power in 2015, ensuring a new era free of arbitrary killing of journalists, abductions such as those of senior journalists Lasantha Wickramatunga and Prageeth Ekneligoda.

“Today any citizen is at liberty to criticise or speak ill of any Government issue without being victimised,” the State Minister said.

Speaking during the Committee Stage debate on Budget 2019 on Friday, April 5, the State Minister said there was no media freedom in the country in 2014. As highlighted by ‘Reporters Without Borders’, from among 180 countries, Sri Lanka was ranked in the 162 position. Today, that situation has changed. From among 180 countries, Sri Lanka succeeded in securing the 141st position in 2017.

Media freedom in the country was further strengthened last year unlike the era where journalists were killed. At least 15 journalists were killed among whom we always remember senior journalists such as Lasantha Wickramatunga and Prageeth Ekneligoda. That was the situation which prevailed in the country at that time. After the incumbent Government assumed office, freedom has been restored and anybody can openly express his or her views.

He said if there was any exception, it was only the case of two journalists. It was one Freddie Gamage of the Negombo Municipal Council who created an issue. This Government has ensured full media freedom. No journalist has ever faced any issue so far.

State Minister Wickramaratne questioned Opposition members as to what they did to journalist Maria Huby Huby when she reported on election malpractices of the former Mahinda Rajapaksa Government. They came before the media and showed photographs of two journalists putting their lives at great risk. The present Government has not resorted to any such move to repress journalists but gave more media freedom.

Wickramaratne said at present there is much talk about Geneva Resolution 30/1 of 2015. What is it? I ask the Opposition whether it is wrong to open an Office for Missing Persons. This office operates without any caste, religious or language bias. This office has been set up in Sri Lanka for the benefit of aggrieved families to obtain information regarding their missing relatives.

It was not only the Tamil people who went missing. Before that there were instances where the Sinhala people too reportedly disappeared. Therefore, there is no use of merely shouting, the two main parties should be held accountable for this.

The Government also opened an Office of Reparations. Why are certain sections opposed to this? This Office was opened constitutionally with the approval of Parliament. The Office has been set up to help the affected people to rebuild their lives and qualify for reparations.

This is not a threat to the country but a task to be fulfilled by us.

“We also talked about setting up of a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). It reached the Cabinet but made no progress beyond it. I hope it can be proceeded with.”

Judicial mechanism

He said various allegations are levelled against the judicial system as well. Resolution 30/1 recommended the setting up of a special judicial mechanism to inquire into the abuse of human rights and international humanitarian law. These are mostly misinterpreted to the outside world.

This is only a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism and not a foreign one, restricted only to the participation of foreign judges. However, a wrong picture is created in the country that this is a foreign tribunal dominated by foreign judges. This is a Sri Lankan methodology. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa also appointed an International Independent Group of Eminent Persons chaired by retired Indian Chief Justice Bhagwati in 2005. State Minister Wickramaratne said the Opposition has created a ‘bogeyman’ called Geneva. We are not a Government to give in to foreign powers. However, the country has arrived at a critical juncture. We have two options: either we can have an isolationist and secretive society not amenable to criticism where citizenry are enslaved, or the opposite of it, an open society well within the international community, and also a democracy where the people’s freedom is enshrined and the Government is the servant of citizenry.

If we are interested in the first option, we have to surrender ourselves to family bandyism. Of course, our party is immune to family bandyism. This time there are 1.7 million new voters. They are more enlightened and will not to fall victim to family bandyism.

He said the social pattern takes precedence over economic methodology. The country is now relieved of its dark chapter. We have blessed the average citizen with the Right to Information. Today top appointments can only be made by the Commissions.

If the Opposition really wanted to defeat the Government they could have done so by outvoting the Government at the Third Reading of the Budget without taking recourse to the October 26 political coup. I sincerely pay tribute to the people who defeated the political coup as borne out by their political protest at the Galle Face Green attended by over 200,000.

Similarly, we bow down to Parliament and the Speaker for preserving democracy and also to the judiciary which gave an independent verdict at that critical juncture. Today, we have an independent, unbiased judiciary where the judges are held in high esteem, he said.

The State Minister said those who spoke on the Budget merely concentrated on the current economic situation in the country pointing out shortcomings which are of course, inevitable. Unfortunately, we have almost forgotten where the country was when we took over the reins of Government in 2015. It takes years to put up a house but it can be demolished overnight. So with our economy.