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Campaign expenditure: How JRJ Constitution paved way for corruption

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…continuing need for finger painting with indelible ink and ‘silent period’ questioned, EC reminded of risks taken by media

Text and pics by Shamindra Ferdinando

Chairman of Election Commission Attorney-at-Law Nimal Punchihewa on Tuesday (16) explained how the 1978 Constitution had abolished specific laws meant to ensure financial integrity of lawmakers. In terms of the pre-1978 laws, those who had acted in violation of them not only lost their parliamentary seats but civic rights, as well, Punchihewa, one-time member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, said. Punchihewa cited several examples while pointing out even the losers faced punitive measures in case of transgressions. However, the 1978 Constitution had changed the situation overnight.

 Punchihewa made the above observations at a workshop arranged by the Election Commission at its Rajagiriya Secretariat where senior lecturer Tudor Weerasinghe, Asoka Dias, Director MTV/MBC, Ariyananda Dombagahawatte, Chief Editor, Irida Lankadeepa, and Saman Sri Ratnayaka, Commissioner General of Elections, discussed the role of the media in the coverage of national election process and related matters. The opening remarks were made by Channa P de Silva, Director, research and policy planning.

 Punchihewa compared the powers enjoyed by his Commission and that of India as he explained the weakness of the EC here. Punchihewa pointed out EC in Sri Lanka lacked the power to reject even a candidate who had been found guilty by court in respect of a bribery charge.  “Therefore, we have no option but to accept nominations handed over by such persons,” he said.

Punchihewa succeeded Mahinda Deshapriya as the Chairman of EC after the last general election, in Aug 2020.

Having flayed a section of the media for pursuing agendas inimical to free and fair election process, Punchihewa emphasized the responsibility, on the part of both print and electronic media, to ensure what he called a level playing field. The media should never be a cat’s paw of racketeers. The lawyer discussed the coverage of elections in terms of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments while asserting both the print and electronic media failed to live up to expectations of those who desired neutrality on their part.

Emphasizing that any elected government should follow the basic principle that it was only the caretaker andcertainly not the proprietor, lawyer Punchihewa said that the democracy depended on free and fair elections. However, the absence of incidents on the day of the election didn’t mean a free and fair election, Punchihewa said, urging the media to respond courageously to challenging situations. Referring to Sri Lanka’s international commitments, lawyer Punchihewa said that the country couldn’t afford not to adhere to agreements, including ICCPR accepted over the years.

Pointing out that the law prevented lawmakers from engaging in business with the government, Attorney-at-Law Punchihewa mentioned two cases of members of Parliament losing their seats. Albert de Silva lost the Galle seat he won at the 1977 general election after one-time Prime Minister Wijayananada Dhanayake filed an election petition over the former having a government license to deal in kerosene, Punchihewa said. Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, too, lost his seat on the same grounds though he was immediately accommodated on the UNP National List.

Punchihewa categorized the 1981 Jaffna District Development Council polls, the 1982 referendum, and the 1999 Wayamba Provincial Council poll as having had the worst abuses in Sri Lanka’s electoral history.

Citing a Supreme Court ruling in respect of a case filed against the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga putting off a scheduled election, lawyer Punchihewa said that even the President couldn’t interfere with the people’s right to exercise their franchise.

The  EC Chairman also referred to another court ruling in respect of the Army preventing those living in LTTE controlled areas from entering the ‘cleared’ area to vote at the 2001 general election to underscore the privileged status of voters to exercise their franchise under any circumstances.

 The Island

 drew the attention of EC Chairman Punchihewa to his failure to act in spite of the inordinate delay in the UNP not filling its solitary National List slot, privileged status given to ex-lawmakers to contest presidential election thereby causing a sharp increase in public expenditure (the EC was reminded its former Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya on record as having said that the cost of the 2019 presidential poll went up to Rs 8 bn from 4 bn due to doubling of the number of contestants), the Election Department/Election Commission and Parliament turning a blind eye to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) ordering Northern electorate not to vote at the 2005 presidential election and recognition of the LTTE, in late 1989, as a registered political party. 

 We also sought an explanation from the EC as regards the responsibility on its part as well as that of the Parliament. The meeting was also told how the two largest political parties, represented in Parliament, the SLPP and the SJB, with 145 and 54 lawmakers, respectively, happened to be unknown political parties. The EC owed an explanation as to how registered political parties were re-registered under controversial circumstances in spite of tough measures to prevent registration of new political parties, The Island pointed out.

 Responding to criticism of the media directed by EC Chairman Punchihewa, Asoka Dias reminded the risks taken by the media in the performance of their duty. Declaring that the Dec 1999 presidential had been the first national poll that received high profile coverage by state and privately owned media, Dias recollected the Dec 18, 1999 election night suicide bomb attack directed at the then People’s Alliance final rally at the Town Hall.

The LTTE suicide attack claimed the lives of two media persons, namely Indika Paththiniwasam (Sirasa, assistant cameraman) and Anura Priyantha (ITN, assistant cameraman). In addition to them, five media men, including three foreigners, received injuries. A separate suicide attack at Ja-Ela, directed at an UNP rally, also on the same day, claimed the lives of several persons, including retired Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Lakshman Algama.

Dias said Sirasa faced a dilemma whether to report the death of Paththiniwasam before informing his 25-year-old wife. The CID, however, found fault with Sirasa over the delay in reporting the Town Hall blast. Dias said that the ITN, too, would have been in a quandary.  “We were repeatedly asked why Sirasa has not reported the blast immediately”. Dias questioned the rationale behind the CID questioning Sirasa over the delay in reporting the blast.

Dias compared the experience gained by the Sri Lankan media in covering elections under exceptionally difficult circumstances and that of the foreign journalists. Referring to a spate of attacks on the media over the years, Dias asserted that the Sri Lankan media faced far more challenges in covering elections than their foreign counterparts.

Commenting on what Dias called lethargic attitude of political parties, he said that in 2000 Sirasa had offered three free minutes each to political parties contesting the general election. In spite of receiving free air time, Sirasa found it difficult to convince political parties to make use of the opportunity, Dias said.

 Responding to almost doubling of the public expenditure as a result of the number of candidates at the last presidential poll being closer to 40, Dias said that the electorate found it difficult to identify genuine contestants and dummy candidates.

Dias raised a number of questions including one on the usefulness of marking voters fingers with ink to prevent organised impersonation against the backdrop of national identity card or some other official document being made compulsory for voting. The Sirasa representative said that a substantial amount of public money could be saved by doing away with futile marking of little fingers. Dias emphasized the need to revisit the whole process, including the contentious of ‘silent period’ in the run-up to elections as social media platforms, satellite TV et al continued to campaign. According to him, the 48-hour ‘silent period’ was irrelevant due advancements made by the media.

Dias recollected how media openly backed selected candidates in 1902 at the Kotahena local government poll. At the first legislative council election in 1912, two newspapers backed P. Ramanathan (The Ceylonese) and Dr. H. M. Fernando (Morning Leader).

The Island 

pointed out the media had been conveniently silent on some contentious issues. The media largely remained silent when the EU alleged in 2004 the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led TNA, won 22 seats at the April 2004 general election with the LTTE’s support. Another instance of media apathy was war-winning Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka contesting the 2010 Presidential, poll under the Swan symbol, a political party that hadn’t been represented in either local government institutions or provincial councils or Parliament. The Swan alliance contested 2015 (Maithripala Sirisena) and 2019 (Sajith Premadasa) presidential polls though the media never bothered to examine the story behind such political projects.

Tudor Weerasinghe explained how media, too, contributed to the gradual deterioration of public sector institution. Weerasinghe discussed the responsibility on the part of the media to recognize real issues. The failure to do so could be catastrophic, the lecturer said, urging the media to take on institutions instead of targeting individuals. Misdirected criticism of individuals could have a devastating impact on the entire electoral process, Weerasinghe warned. The academic explained how in spite of the change of governments the systems continued much to the dismay of those who expected genuine transformation. According to him, foreign electorates experienced the same dilemma.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s further deteriorated the global balance of power. Referring to the Suez Canal and Cuban missile crises, Weerasinghe pointed out how the West exploited the collapse of the Soviet Union to take unilateral decisions in respect of Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. Weerasinghe discussed how the media exploited situations as part of various political and other strategies regardless of consequences.  According to him, Sri Lankan media is no exception.

At the conclusion, Saman Sri Ratnayaka explained the role of the EC, difficulties and challenges as the electorates continued to expand as the system came under increased pressure. Ratnayake discussed responsibilities and accountability on their part to ensure a level playing field. The Island asked Ratnayake who would take responsibility –the EC or the parliament-for increasing the number of Local Government members from 4,000 to 8,600 at a massive unbearable burden to the taxpayer. The official explained the circumstances leading to the increase. According to him, the parliament took the decision.



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Facilities for infected pregnant women inadequate – SLCOG

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

The distribution and availability of high-flow oxygen machines to treat Covid-19 infected pregnant women were not adequate, President of the Sri Lanka College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (SLCOG,) Dr. Pradeep de Silva said yesterday.

Dr. de Silva said that while they had not yet faced any lack of oxygen in treating Covid-19 infected pregnant mothers, things could change rapidly given the limited availability of equipment. “Having an adequate supply of oxygen alone is not enough. You need high flow oxygen machines, and 50 litres of oxygen per minute is needed to operate a high flow oxygen machine. I do not know how many machines we have in this country but where I work, Castle Street Maternity Hospital has about four. We need to estimate the number of these machines we require and how much oxygen we want. From my understanding, the distribution and availability of high flow oxygen machines to treat Covid-19 infected pregnant mothers is not adequate.”

Dr de Silva said that Sri Lanka needed about 50–200 high-dependency unit (HDU) beds per district, based on the population, 10–50 high flow oxygen machines per district, four for ten ICU beds and two dedicated Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machines.

“If we get this, we will be able to deal with pregnant women who develop complications from COVID-19 for the next four to five years,” he said.

Dr de Silva said that currently one pregnant woman who has been infected with COVID-19 is receiving ECMO treatment. There is also a shortage of beds at the Mulleriyawa Base Hospital, which has the largest ward dedicated to COVID-19 infected pregnant women. On Thursday, Obstetrician & Gynaecologist, Dr Mayuramana Dewolage, who heads the ward that treats COVID-19 infected pregnant women at the Mulleriyawa Base Hospital, said that they only had 37 beds were dedicated to pregnant women with COVID-19. They didn’t have any HDU or ICU beds dedicated for their use, he said.

“We share HDU and ICU beds with other patients at Mulleriyawa Base Hospital,” Dr Dewolage said.

The President of the SLCOG also urged all hospitals to find a separate space for pregnant women who were receiving treatment at their institutions. When COVID-19 pandemic started, the Health Ministry instructed all hospitals to do so but it was now obvious that those instructions had not been followed, he said.

“When the second wave started people got ready but later, they just stopped getting ready and now we are unprepared to meet the challenges of the third wave. We need to find a way to manage this. If the Ministry of Health has not prepared a plan, we are ready to help formulate one,” the President of the SLCOG said.

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Those who had AstraZeneca first jab, should take Sputnik V with adenovirus 26 – Specialist

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

If those who have taken the first dose of AstraZeneca are to receive a second jab of Sputnik V, they should take the first Sputnik V vaccine with adenovirus 26 (Ad26), Consultant Immunologist and head of the department of Immunology-MRI, Dr Nihan Rajiva de Silva says.

Dr. de Silva said that the first dose of Sputnik had Ad 26 and the second had adenovirus-5. “Adenovirus-5 is common. We may have been exposed to that and we may have developed antibodies. Adenovirus-26 is rarer and we will better respond to that. That is why the vaccine-maker has used adenovirus-26 in the first vaccine. So, if you had a first jab of AstraZeneca and you are to get the second dose from Sputnik-V remember to get the first jab,” Dr. de Silva said.

He added that any vaccine has the chance of reducing the severity of the virus and that the general public should get vaccinated when the opportunity is available.

Dr. de Silva said that there was a shortage of AstraZeneca vaccines because the Serum Institute of India could not deliver shipments as promised.

“However, we are now getting Sputnik V vaccines and we are looking at mixing them. There is a study in Russia about the efficiency of mixing Sputnik V with AstraZeneca and the results should be out soon. I can say that theoretically mixing the two vaccines should work,” he said.

Dr. de Silva added that the AstraZeneca vaccine should work against the new variant spreading in the country.

Consultant Cardiologist at the National Hospital of Sri Lanka, Dr. Gotabaya Ranasinghe said that those with heart issues, non-communicable diseases and were obese must get vaccinated to minimise the complications of Covid-19.

Dr. Ranasinghe said that those in the above-mentioned categories were at risk of contracting, getting complications and dying of COVID-19 and research had proven that vaccination would reduce the chance of such eventualities.

“If you worry about getting vaccinated, talk to your doctor. Don’t seek advice from friends and family,” he said.

Dr. Ranasinghe added that they had limited the number of heart surgeries they do due to COVID-19. ICU beds used for heart patients too were being now allocated for COVID-19 patients. “We only do the most pressing cases. But this means that the waiting list keeps on growing. Now, the waiting list is over eight months. If we limit the surgeries more and keep taking away ICU beds available for those who have had heart surgeries, the waiting list will grow further,” he said.

The Consultant Cardiologist also advised the public to eat healthy food and engage in moderate exercises, at least five days a week. This will reduce the mental stress as well as boost the immune system. ‘We recommend moderate exercises like jogging and brisk walking, for 30 minutes, five days a week. Being healthy is as important as wearing masks or adhering to physical distancing,” he said.

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STF raids narcotics distribution centre close to Bloemendhal police station

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Acting on information received from the Organised Crime Fighting Unit of the elite Special Task Force (STF), police commandos, on Thursday (6), arrested a person running a narcotic distributing network, 1.5 km away from the Bloemendhal police station.

The STF identified the suspect as Thawasidevan Pradeep Kumar, 21, a key associate of one Suresh with links to a criminal outfit run by Kimbulaele Guna, now absconding in India.

DIG (Legal) Ajith Rohana said that the raiding party had recovered 2 kg, 22 g and 88mg of ‘ICE,’ with a street value of Rs 25 mn in addition to 4kg, 2 g and 527 mg of substance known as ‘hash,’ as well as Rs 400,000 in cash and a mobile phone.

Kimbulaele Guna is believed to have sought refuge following an LTTE attempt to assassinate President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga at the final PA presidential election rally at the Town Hall in December 1999.

DIG Rohana said that Guna’s brother Suresh was a major heroin distributor in Colombo. The STF later handed over the suspect, along with contraband and locally made ‘hash,’ and his phone to the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB). The raid on the heroin distribution centre situated in Aluth Mawatha, Colombo 15, followed specific information received as regards the ‘operation’ conducted with impunity (SF)

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