With the government threatening to introduce media ethics for journalists and the main opposition the United National Party introducing a draft Constitution with major changes to the present system of government, the Daily Mirror spoke to UNP’ Parliamentarian and former Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya. Hailing from the corporate sector, Mr. Jayasuriya is reputed as a politician who had promoted democratic form of governance and he introduced a private member’s motion for the implementation of the freedom of information bill in 2011. But this was defeated by the government which promised to introduce a bill later but still has not done so and is now threatening to impose a code of ethics for media.
Q. In June 2011 you introduced a private member motion for the implementation of the draft Freedom of Information Bill. It was thrown out by the government which promised to present another bill soon. But that did not happen and now the government is threatening to impose a code of ethics for journalists. What is your view?
Well, what we presented in 2011 was a repetition of what we did in 2003 which was presented to the United National Front (UNF) government. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the party were very keen on introducing this Bill. I remember we consulted and got the opinion of all those who were connected with the media, that is the Free Media Movement, Newspaper Publishers Association, Editors Guild, and the civil society. We had several meetings with them. It is they who really guided us in drafting this Bill. I must also say that it was drafted by very eminent people who were serving in government at that time. On our view it was a perfect document. But unfortunately when the UNF government was dissolved prematurely, although this act was presented to Parliament it was not debated or taken up. So therefore subsequently I took up it twice before this Parliament. In the first instance, the government said they would be submitting a Bill very shortly therefore we were forced to withdraw the Bill. But then I made an appeal and said we don’t mind whether it is our Bill or their Bill but to take the points we had mentioned into account. They did indicate they would present the Bill in six months but unfortunately over an year went and nothing happened. Then I was forced to re-submit the Bill, but they refused to accept it. On our appeal to the Speaker, he allowed the re-presentation of the Bill. But of course, unfortunately I remember the meeting we had with the Speaker, I saw vehement objections coming from the government side and specially one particular, a senior minister did not even want to talk about it. He was insulting and said that he would not allow this Bill ever to come near Parliament because it was unwanted and there was no necessity to give information to anybody… saying that “We are the government.” He was a very senior Minister and I was very sad that he behaved that way. When it came for voting and the government with their entire 2/3 defeated it, which means this Bill cannot see the light of day during the tenure of the present Parliament.
But what is unfortunate is that over 90 countries in the world are giving access to the people for information, all the SAARC countries, the last was Bhutan, are having freedom of information. We can see India particularly, they are so advanced and so transparent. So I cannot understand why the government is so adamant not to bring the Bill. The only conclusion I can reach is that they have something to hide.
When on Wednesday when we were urging the presentation of the Right of Information Bill we said it is far better rather than coming out with media ethics. It is far better even at this late stage to pass the Information Bill because it can avoid quite a lot of unnecessary criticism especially since there are so much of accusations against the government.
Some of the comments we hear is disturbing. All these would not arise if the government takes action to have the freedom to information made available to the people. It’s a universal right, so unless we live in a dictatorial regime I cannot see why they don’t want to bring this Bill forward.
Q.Due to the absence of a Freedom of Information Act and other developments, the country appears to be heading towards a dictatorship. What is your view? And if so what is the solution?
Well, the Executive Presidency has the white side and the black side. The UNP had been the architect of this system but later we have realised that there are more black sides than white sides. And that was why very democratic leaders like Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali also openly advocated for its abolition. But things became worse with the introduction of the 18th Amendment. The 17th Amendment was brought in to have some checks and balances covering the Executive. It had the infamous Wayamba election in 1998 which is regarded as the worst ever and most disgraceful election ever held in this country. After that there were allegations coming from all sectors of civil society. And I still remember the leadership given by the late Bishop of Chilaw, Dr. Frank Marcus Fernando . Therefore, the Civil society got together and we formed into a citizen’s committee and I was given the honour, as the Mayor of Colombo for chairing this citizen’s committee. We drew up a draft Bill to create a Constitutional Council, which will select independent personalities to cover the judiciary, public service and so forth. But I should also say at the initial start in selecting Constitutional Commissions we had a problem because it was to comprise of the Speaker, Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and five eminent men should be members. In the selection of five eminent members we had to accommodate the desires of the Indian Tamils, Sri Lankan Tamils, the Muslims, small parties and President Kumaratunga also wanted representation. But luckily and fortunately we were able to find five eminent men. Of course they had sectarian interests but they were indeed eminent men and they conducted the affairs in an independent manner. After the setting up of this commission, plus the police commission it functioned very well, we saw the police being absolved from political interference. The public servants were able to work according to their conscience, and we also avoided interference with the judiciary. But when it came to the Election Commission the name we suggested was not acceptable to the then President. But here we must take part of the blame because what would have done was to substitute some other name. That was not done and therefore we never ever had an Election Commission. But this commission worked extremely well until 2005 but with the advent of the MR government we saw that they were not very happy with the restriction of powers on the Executive and therefore President Rajapaksa delayed the appointment of members to the council which eventually resulted in the non-functioning of the council committees. But we noticed from the very beginning that the incumbent President was not in favour of the independent commissions because he always felt that it was something that we secured to restrict the powers of the Executive. But here I must pay tribute to President Kumaratunga because she had the courage to allow the commissions to function which obviously was in a way a curtailment of powers. However, with the advent of the 18th Amendment there is no democracy and we see the appointments done on the whims and fancies of the head of state, all decisions are centered on one person, all the family members or the immediate circle. It is not always the best man who is appointed. Loyalty comes first than suitability and that is one reason for the deterioration of all services including the police is the result of this politicalisation of the public service and police service and the interference with the judiciary. So what we see now is a rule that is prevalent more or less similar to North Korea.
Q.With regard to Right to Information Act, if an Opposition government comes into power where would the freedom of the media and information stand?
It will be one of the urgent tasks to introduce this Bill as we have already twice unsuccessfully done that. That will be one of our priorities. We have nothing to hide. We can set an example by behaving well.
" We can see India particularly, they are so advanced and so transparent. So I cannot understand why the government is so adamant not to bring the Bill. The only conclusion I can reach is that they have something to hide. "
Q. So now the UNP has presented a public document or draft constitution to abolish this Executive Presidency and re-introduce Parliamentary democracy. At the same time the National Movement for Social Justice(NMSJ) led by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera and other groups have also presented similar proposals. So what is your view?
I must congratulate both parties for presenting this Bill. In fact in the preparation for the document for the NMSJ, I was consulted on many occasions and it was indeed a privilege because I was involved in the 17th Amendment, proposals for the election reforms and the Freedom of Information Act. I always believed that the root cause for today’s problems emanate mainly from the Executive Presidency therefore its abolition would pave the way for parliamentary democracy and cabinet rule. The proposal put forward by Ven. Sobitha’s movement are centered around 11 points which are of great importance and have seen the countrywide acceptance for it, blessings from the religious leaders; Mahanayakes, Catholic Church and the Muslim and the Tamil leaders. We also see the civil society and various political parties commenting positively. This is of course a short term proposal which envisages the abolition of Executive Presidency within 120 days of holding election. They also talk about restoring Gen. Fonseka’s and Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake’s civil rights. All other proposals are similar to the proposals put forward by the UNP. Of course the UNP proposal go beyond the parliamentary system and give three options, whereas Ven. Sobitha’s is only one, about the West Minister system. The UNP proposals also cover provincial councils. And I must say that both these proposals are well timed and my advise to both sides is to work in harmony. At the end of the day we all want to see an end to the current dictatorial government. We also say that in the long term there should be general consensus within the overall opposition which is vital if we are to defeat the government. This is a step in the right direction. It deserves the people’s support. There should be only one opposition candidate.
If opposition is split it would not serve the purpose.
Q. Do you see that there is hope that the main opposition, with other opposition parties and all these civil rights movement coming together?
That is my hope and prayer and that is the best thing that could happen for this country as I said earlier. Unless that happens it will not be that easy to defeat this regime.
Q. What are the obstacles to prevent coalition unity?
I suppose various political difference and disunity, but I can see signs of positives that we can work together.
Q. And it is rumored that a number of names have come up as the common candidate including your name?
Well, I have not applied, suggested or canvassed for any positions. All the posts I have held were offered to me and earned by me. So I think it is up to all the opposition parties, the religious leaders, civil society groups. At the end of the day they have to find a candidate who is acceptable to the whole country. They have to bring a winnable candidate and there should not be division over this. Whoever comes forward I will be giving my fullest corporation. I am a great believer that this system must change and I am giving my fullest support to achieve that end because I want to die in a democratic country.
" So I think it is up to all the opposition parties, the religious leaders, civil society groups "
Q. Most of the Sri Lankans and UNP loyalists are complaining about the disunity within the UNP. Is there a possibility that some of the dissident UNP groups can be brought back unite them?
We have realised the importance of unity within the party and we are working towards achieving consensus and it is the cry of the people that the UNP being the largest political party in Sri Lanka have to give the lead in the political struggle. I always stood for party unity and teamwork and would do my best to get the whole team together. Coming from the private sector background I see enormous talents within the party. Some of them may have different views but yet all these people have tremendous talents which we have to get. We must forgive and forget and should get together. We have a common enemy to fight.
Q.In this light how do you see the situation in the North?
Well, we always believe that the people in the North also have a right to select their own political representatives and take part in the administration via the local government institutions, via the provincial councils and via the parliament. Local government institutions are functioning, parliamentary representatives are functioning so why not the provincial council? Via their provincial council functioning why not give the people of the north who suffered since 1983 to get a taste of democracy. But of course looking in the long term I see that we should look at national politics rather than regional politics. My dream is to see top cabinet ministers come not only from the South but also from the North and East.
Q. As a veteran politician do you believe that strict code of ethics should be introduced for all politicians from the President to members of local bodies? There are references to the conduct of politicians in the draft proposed by the UNP. Do you agree with it?
Yes. In fact in the past in a code of ethics drawn up, I always believed that the politicians should set an example to the rest of the people in the country. They should be well-behaved in all their activities and Parliament should be a place where people can take an example. But unfortunately this is not happening. And in fact the Speaker appointed a committee sometime back also to look into this aspect being a member I have given my points of view.
Q. People expect that political leaders like Sarath Fonseka, Chandrika Kumaratunga and other political leaders, all of them must come together. Is there a room to bring them to one platform?
This is what exactly I said earlier that all these forces must get together if we are to defeat the government. Single handedly this is not easy. It is not something impossible and in fact the last Presidential election practically the entire opposition was together. Why not this time, if all are willing? First we must have a democratic country to do politics. My effort is to bring all these parties together from the leader of the opposition to all other political leaders and all political parties including JVP, Peretugami Party etc.
Q Do you have any ideas for any people from the government joining this union as well?
Well all I can say is that within the government itself there are quite a large number who wants to see democracy and the rule of law restored. They have been openly commenting about it.
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