Facing a multitude of economic and political challenges

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  • Ahead of release of second tranche, IMF takes up delay in presenting new Central Bank Act
  • SJB launches campaign demanding cost-of-living relief on the basis of rupee’s appreciation; JVP to continue protests demanding elections to local councils
  • Move to regulate broadcasting services stirs controversy; Supreme Court sees several clauses of Anti-Corruption law inconsistent with Constitution
  • Govt. focuses on truth and reconciliation process, as UNHRC chief is set to present oral update on Sri Lanka

International Monetary Fund (IMF) Deputy Managing Director Kenji Okamura holding talks with President Ranil Wickremesinghe


By Our Political Editor

A multitude of issues, both economic and political, has engaged the Government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe in recent weeks.

The most significant among them in the country’s economic sector was his meeting with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Deputy Managing Director, Kenji Okamura. It went beyond the positive or encouraging news release after the event. The dialogue is ahead of the IMF considering the second tranche of the Extended Fund Facility (EFF), due in September. The first, US dollars 330 million, to support economic policies and reforms came in March this year.

A subject of discussion was the delay in presenting a new Central Bank Act in keeping with the IMF’s request. The other is related to the restructuring of domestic debt. Besides President Wickremesinghe, others taking part in the dialogue were Saman Ekanayake, Secretary to the President, Shehan Semasinghe, State Minister of Finance, and Sagala Ratnayake, National Security Advisor to the President. The new law governing the Central Bank was due by April, but Semasinghe offered an explanation. It had been unexpectedly delayed. This was because issues over the proposed new laws were challenged before the Supreme Court, which, in turn, had recommended amendments.

This is whilst the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) has launched its own campaign, though not an aggressive one, on the basis that last year’s economic crisis has not brought substantial relief to the people. SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said yesterday that “they are screaming away that the rupee in relation to the US dollar is appreciating. There will be no such hype when the rupee depreciates. Although claims of appreciation are being made, how come the prices of essential consumer items have not come down. Even vegetable prices have gone up. “

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which defied a court order and staged a demonstration Thursday demanding local polls, was also critical about the government on the economic front. Parliamentarian Sunil Handunetti, who is also a member of the National Executive of the National People’s Power (NPP) which his party leads, asked if as the government claimed the rupee was continuing to appreciate, why not hold the local elections. After all, that only meant that the economy was improving. He said his party would continue with its protests demanding local polls as soon as possible.

On the political front, a behind-the-scenes drama has been playing out for months without the glare of publicity. One prominent SLPP member, once a close ally of the party’s founder and ideologue, Basil Rajapaksa, has found a “staging area” at the Presidential Secretariat. His mission is to win over party colleagues to support President Wickremesinghe. It has now come to light that this member from a district adjoining Colombo, politely turned down a Cabinet portfolio when  Wickremesinghe took over as President in July, last year. He was frank enough to tell him that he would not be able to carry out his new assignment whilst holding a portfolio. Hence, he named a friend, a newcomer and novice, to be appointed to a key portfolio. It was done.

In the months and weeks when this top SLPPer launched his hearts-and-minds campaign, his colleagues were given access to top officials. Their grievances or favours, SLPP sources confirmed, were promptly attended to and a significant “mood change’ is noticeable. “They have now begun making comparisons. With their outreach to the top politicians and bureaucrats,” these sources said, “they now speak of the marked difference.”  Nevertheless, there remains some doubt whether some of the claimants of favours, at least a few,  are doing so under the pretense of having developed new loyalties. This is highlighted by the recent resolution in Parliament to remove from office Janaka Ratnayake, the then Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL). The Government side, albeit the majority SLPP, won with 123 voting in favour of the resolution with only 77 voting against it. There were 24 absentees. Of course, in this instance, President Wickremesinghe wanted Ratnayake out of office since his public utterances were an embarrassment to the Government and his role was said to be confrontational. Thus, it would not be wrong in saying that he gave his blessings earlier to the resolution.

Hold local council elections: JVP members holding a demonstration near the Election Commission office. Pic by Eshan Fernando

Bill to regulate broadcasting services

Another matter of significance has been the move by the government to introduce a new law to provide for the establishment of a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission which will cover the functioning of all television broadcast stations. The draft bill is yet to be gazetted and, therefore, the contents of the proposed law have not been known. Yet, protests have already emanated from various groups, including opposition parties. The Sunday Times has seen a 21-page draft formulated by the Legal Draftsman’s Office. Here are significant highlights:

The proposed Broadcasting Regulatory Commission (BRC) will have two ex officio positions as members. They are the Secretary to the Media Ministry and the Director General of Telecommunication (appointed under the Sri Lanka Telecommunication Act No 25 of 199). There will be three other members. They will be required to possess a degree in law, science, business, management, technology, communication, engineering, public administration, or mass media from a recognised university. They are appointed by the President with the approval of the Constitutional Council.

The President will appoint one of the members of the Commission to be the Chairperson of the Commission for a term of five years. The objectives of the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission will be to:

  • Ensure that broadcasting services provide people with true and accurate information as guaranteed by the Constitution;
  • Ensure the right to freedom of speech and expression, including publication in respect of broadcasting services as guaranteed by Article 14 (a) of the Constitution;
  • Issue annual licences for broadcasting services in a transparent and impartial manner;
  • Regulate electronic broadcasting services or such entities;
  • Take steps to prevent abuse of power conferred to a licensee or a broadcasting service;
  • Ensure the quality of education, knowledge and media literacy in broadcasting programmes;
  • Ensure to provide broadcasting services whilst respecting the pluralism of the society:
  • Issue guidelines in respect of broadcasting to enhance the spiritual development and mental health of the people while safeguarding the social and cultural values and entertainment of the people;
  • Formulate policies for audio-visual media in a manner to help to foster literature, art and culture in order to bring them to a higher standard;
  • Ensure to protect the rights of persons with special needs, women and minors in the course of broadcasting programmes;
  • Ensure to carry on the broadcasting services without any detriment to national security, national economy and public order;
  • Formulate codes of conduct to be followed by the broadcasting entities or persons in consultation with licensed broadcasters.

The proposed Authority has been conferred with wide powers, duties and functions. Among them:

  • Issue and renew licences for broadcasting service providers;
  • To determine preconditions to be fulfilled by an applicant to obtain a licence for broadcasting;
  • Determine the procedure to be followed by an applicant in order to obtain a licence for broadcasting;
  • Receive complaints and conduct investigations in respect of violation of conditions specified in the licence;
  • Determine the number of licences that could be obtained by a person or a broadcasting entity for the purpose of providing a broadcasting service;
  • Determine the types of licences that can be issued to a broadcasting service provider;
  • Suspend or cancel any licence issued for broadcasting service with reasons;
  • Formulate codes of practice applicable to the respective types of licences;
  • Request any person or an entity to furnish the Commission with information required by the Commission to carry on its functions;
  • To advise the Minister regarding plans, programmes and activities to regulate the broadcasting entities or persons;
  • To do all such other acts or things which in the opinion of the Commission are necessary or expedient for carrying out the objects of the Commission.

The chief executive officer of the proposed Commission will be appointed by the minister in charge of the subject of media on the recommendation of the commissioners. Such a person should possess a degree in science, business management, law, engineering, accountancy, administration or mass media from a recognised university, with at least 15 years of experience in the field of management.

The draft empowers the Commission to appoint an investigation committee consisting of three persons to investigate and make recommendations in respect of any matter upon its own or from a request by any interested party. They will cover (a) contravention of any provision of the Act, (b) violation of any condition specified in a licence issued under the new law, (c) violation of any ethic specified in a code of ethics issued under this Act, (d) any act which has created or has a possibility to create a monopolistic and unfair competition among the broadcasting licence holders; or (e) any matter in which a licence holder of any broadcasting service is involved that may lead to a threat to national security, national economy or may create any conflict among races and religion. Those affected will have a right to challenge the decisions before the Court of Appeal within three months.

The draft Broadcasting Regulatory Commission law also empowers the Minister in charge of the subject of media to make regulations in respect of the following:

  • Determine the respective types of licences to be issued by the Commission for broadcasting service providers;
  • Fees to be charged for issuing renewal of licences under the proposed law;
  • The terms and conditions and the technical requirements to be furnished by an applicant to apply for a licence; or
  • Conditions to be accomplished when transferring a licence, and
  • The financial capacity of a person in order to apply for a licence under the proposed law.

The draft law seeks to empower the Commission to enter, inspect and search the premises where the broadcasting service is being carried out or any other premises relating to a complaint, during the working hours of the day with an entry warrant issued by a Magistrate and to take copies of or seize and detain any relevant records or documents of such broadcasting entity which may be relevant to the complaint.

Critics of the proposed Broadcasting Regulatory Commission say the Supreme Court had in 1997 examined similar provisions incorporated in a Sri Lanka Broadcasting Authority Bill. That had been listed on the Order Paper of Parliament for April 10, 1997. Fifteen “citizens”, including incorporated bodies, through petitions, invoked the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to determine whether the Bill or any of its provisions were inconsistent with the Constitution.

In another development, the Supreme Court determined that the “Anti-Corruption Bill’ required changes to nearly fifty clauses. It held that such provisions could be passed by Parliament with a special majority. In some instances, the Assistant Solicitor General pointed out that the impugned clauses were being amended during the committee stage. However, clause 3(2) of the Bill is inconsistent with Article 12 of the Constitution and can only be passed with a special majority and approved by the people at a referendum. The SC declared that the inconsistency will cease if clause 3 of the Bill is amended by adding the following clauses:

“3(4) The Commission shall exercise and perform its powers and functions without being subject to any direction or other interference proceeding from any other person except a court or tribunal entitled under law to direct or supervise the Commission in the exercise or performance of such powers or functions.

3 (5) Every person who without legal authority, interferes or attempts to interfere with the exercise or performance of the powers or functions of the Commission as is referred to in paragraph (4) of this section, shall be guilty of an offence punishable by the High Court on conviction after trial without a jury with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to a period of one year or with fine or with both such imprisonment and fine and may, in addition, be disqualified for a period not exceeding seven years from the date of such conviction from being an elector and from voting at a Referendum or at any election of the President of the Republic or at any election of a Member of Parliament or any local authority or from holding any public office from being employed as a public officer.”

A three-judge SC bench chaired by the then Chief Justice G.P.S. de Silva and comprising Justice A.R.B. Amerasinghe and Justice P. Ramanathan ruled that the Bill as a whole “is inconsistent with the Constitution” and declared it required passage in Parliament with a two-thirds vote and the approval of the people at a referendum thereafter.

Meanwhile, if the present broadcasting draft Act becomes law, every person or entity that provides a broadcasting service shall register with the commission within three months. New regulations will prescribe the procedure to be followed. Licences will be issued annually.  The President will appoint one of the members of the Commission to be the Chairperson of the Commission for a term of five years.

UNHRC chief’s oral update

An international event of significance to Sri Lanka is the upcoming UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. As previously reported, its 53rd session will begin on June 19. As pointed out earlier, the pressure on Sri Lanka is relatively low since UN Human Rights High Commissioner Volker Türk will give only an oral update on Sri Lanka on June 21 afternoon.  The High Commissioner is due to present his written report on the Islamic Republic of Iran and oral updates on Nicaragua and Sri Lanka in that order. Last September, at the 51st session, in her written report, the former High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said, in summary, that “Sri Lanka is experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis and is now at a critical juncture in its political life, bringing into sharp focus the indivisibility of human rights. Since March 2022, Sri Lankans from all communities and walks of life, in particular young people, have come together in a broad-based protest movement to demand a change of Government and to call for accountability and deeper reforms.”

Some of the recent developments illustrate a dichotomous situation. On Friday, the President’s Media announced what it called an “Action Plan” for ethnic reconciliation. Here are highlights of what it said referring to a meeting chaired by President Wickremesinghe: “The discussion encompassed several important topics. The implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the establishment of a National Land Council, and the formulation of a National Land Policy were among the matters addressed. Additionally, the President emphasised the need for enhanced operations of the Office of Missing Persons, including digitisation efforts and the issuance of Certificates of Absence for individuals who had previously disappeared without a trace.

“Furthermore, President Wickremesinghe instructed the relevant parties to complete the ongoing initiatives to establish the Office of Reparations and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation within the next two to three months. A comprehensive report on the progress of these programmes was also requested.

“Regarding land-related issues, particular attention was given to resolving problems associated with displaced persons’ resettlement, releasing privately held lands for public use, and addressing Mahaweli lands concerns. The President emphasised the urgency of taking immediate action to settle these land-related issues and tasked the officials with devising effective mechanisms for their resolution. To address the release of prisoners and amnesty matters, the President instructed the relevant officials to submit a detailed report through the Ministry of Justice. The discussion also covered topics such as power decentralisation, provincial-level development plans, and the appointment of a Provincial Ombudsman. These matters were thoroughly deliberated upon to ensure effective governance and progress at the provincial level…….”

These measures have been announced ahead of the UNHRC sessions. There is no doubt that for the Government it would form the basis for further talks with Tamil political groups towards ethnic reconciliation. On the other hand, little is known about another aspect. There has been an important development at the Sri Lanka Accountability Project (SLAP), a secretariat within the UNHRC (consequent to resolution 46/1 adopted on March 23, 2021). An official connected with the exercise and from the SLAP, the Sunday Times has learnt, has been in Sri Lanka gathering material. According to a diplomatic source, some leading UNHRC member countries have given this official different brief seeking information on specific cases of alleged human rights violations. This is said to be a prelude to those countries initiating legal action in their own countries.

Resolution 46/1  titled “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”, recognised “the importance of preserving and analysing evidence relating to violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes in Sri Lanka with a view to advancing accountability” and strengthening the capacity of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) “to collect, consolidate, analyze and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction.”

Obviously, when this claimed evidence is collated by these countries, it appears the intentions are to pursue legal action against the suspected perpetrators within their justice systems, under universal jurisdiction. The official visit and the person’s remit are unclear. It is also unclear whether Foreign Ministry clearance was given formally. It is no secret that the Foreign Ministry is unable to monitor important developments that affect Sri Lanka. The conduct of foreign policy is largely confined to a Minister attending public events overseas and issuing glorious statements claiming achievements. Little wonder, President Wickremesinghe, besides his onerous responsibilities, has to take the lead in foreign policy initiatives.

In the coming weeks, there is little doubt, opposition parties will continue to launch protests. The government’s reaction in recent weeks has been a recourse to courts. A Broadcasting Regulatory Commission has already generated considerable controversy. Though the rupee has appreciated on many occasions, prices of essential food items have risen. The government has challenges on many fronts.

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