Parliamentary Acts on Broadcasting and Telecommunications
by DR JANAKA RATNASIRI
The Cabinet of Ministers (COM) has recently decided to update the Parliamentary Acts on Broadcasting, Rupavahini and Telecommunications and introduce a Bill on establishing a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission. Since, all these are interlinked, it is necessary to take a holistic view of them, taking into consideration new developments such as digital broadcasting. Before that, it would be pertinent to consider the historical development of these services.
USE OF ELECTROMAGNETIC WAVES FOR COMMUNICATION
The Electromagnetic (EM) Spectrum comprising EM waves, extends from high energetic gamma rays, X-Rays and ultra-violet rays on one extreme to low energetic visible, infra-red, microwaves and radio waves on the other extreme. All these are generated naturally by the sun, but almost all of the high energetic radiations get absorbed in the upper atmosphere and only the low energetic radiations are received at ground level. They are also generated by man for various applications like X-Rays, microwaves and radio waves. Out of these, microwaves and radio waves are used for telecommunication purposes, commonly referred to as wireless communication.
EM waves comprise oscillating electric and magnetic fields generated when electrons oscillate either in a plasma or in a conductor. These two fields have their directions perpendicular to each other. They cause radiation of energy in the form of a wave travelling in a direction perpendicular to directions of both electric and magnetic fields. They are characterized by the fact their frequency in Hertz (Hz) and wavelength in metres (m) are inversely proportional to each other with their product equal to the speed of light in vacuum which is 299.8 million m/s. It was James Maxwell who presented the theory of EM waves around 1865 while Gustav Hertz demonstrated their existence in 1887 which earned him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1925.
Hertz’s discovery led to Guglielmo Marconi demonstrating in 1901 that high frequency (HF) waves could be used to send signals across the Atlantic. This caused the birth of the telecommunication industry, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909. Though HF radio waves were used for long distance communication, the mechanism of their propagation over several thousands of kilo-metres was not understood at that time. Theories of propagation available at that time considered only ground wave propagation which has limited range and line-of-sight propagation which also has limited range along the Earth’s surface. Hence, coverage across the Atlantic was a puzzle at that time.
It was left to Edward Appleton to explain this phenomenon when he discovered in 1927 the existence of the ionosphere, a layer of charged particles lying about 100 km above the ground, which bounces off these radio waves back to the Earth when they are incident on it. Appleton received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1947 for this discovery. It was soon found that radio waves could be used not only for telecommunication purposes, but also for providing voice broadcasting services, known as radio, both within and across countries. HF radio waves remained the only means of long-distance telecommunication as well as broadcasting until the mid-sixties when satellite-based communication took over which came into being, thanks to the vision of Sir Arthur C. Clarke announced in 1945 in the Wireless World Magazine.
DEVELOPMENT OF RADIO BROADCASTING SERVICES
Public broadcasting in Sri Lanka commenced in 1925 as Radio Colombo with limited coverage around the city using only MF transmissions. It expanded to a wider coverage about 10 years later and continued till 1949 when its identity was changed to Radio Ceylon. The services were also extended to provide short wave transmissions to provide island-wide coverage though the service was of poor quality due to inherent ionospheric disturbances. Radio Ceylon had one advertisement-free service in each language for many years and added separate commercial services later. Though Radio Ceylon functioned for many years as a semi-government organization under different Ministries from time to time, it lacked a proper legal framework.
To remedy this situation, the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Act No. 37 of 1966 was passed in Parliament and the CBC was established in 1967 which brought Radio Ceylon to function under it. The Act was amended thrice, to make SLBC both a regulator and a service provider. One amendment was to change its name to Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). Another was for the issue of licenses by the Minister to other persons for the establishment of private broadcasting stations. The amended Act also required an owner of a radio receiver to obtain a licence annually through the Post Office. The Act also requires any person selling, assembling, repairing or renting radio equipment to obtain an annual licence from SLBC to perform that function. Thus, the SLBC performed a dual role of being a service provider and a regulator.
The evolution of radio technology from vacuum tube-based home radio receivers available up to sixties to transistor and integrated circuit based portable radio receivers currently available in the market made it impossible to implement the licensing provision. Hence, this requirement was abolished subsequently, but the provision still remains in the Act. Today, every motor car has a built-in radio receiver and every smart mobile telephone has a built-in radio receiver. Hence, there is a need to amend the SLBC Act to remove this outdated provision.
From the inception, radio broadcasting in Sri Lanka was confined to transmission of amplitude modulated (AM) signals which had limited band-width causing high frequencies in the audio signal getting clipped. This affected the quality of musical programmes severely. These transmissions were in the medium frequency (MF) (or medium waves) for short range coverage and high frequencies (HF) (or short waves) for covering the entire island. The short waves reach the listener after getting reflected from the ionosphere which is a dynamical entity and hence the signals received were not steady and of poor quality. In the sixties, SLBC built several MF transmitters in outstations enabling outstation listeners to have the benefit of receiving quality programmes free of ionospheric disturbances.
In the seventies, the SLBC commenced limited transmissions of signals with frequency modulation (FM) on the very high frequency (VHF) band. These transmissions have higher bandwidth and hence the audio programmes received are of high quality, and also require much less power to transmit. They are also not affected by atmospheric or ionospheric disturbances. The only problem is that their coverage is limited to line-of-sight range. Later the service was extended to provide an island-wide coverage through the installation of several transmitters, most of which are installed on hill-tops to extend the coverage.
Up to the end of the 1980s, the SLBC had the monopoly of operating radio services, but in the nineties and twenties, several private parties, exceeding 20, were issued licences to operate radio services in the FM band. Each service was given two frequencies enabling them to cover the entire island. Most of them, except a few who offered religious programmes, came up with only low quality musical programmes providing requests on payment devoting a major share of air time on advertisements which brought the revenue for their survival. The lack of a suitable mechanism to monitor the quality and content of the programmes aired is a serious shortcoming in the present system.
DEVELOPMENT OF TELEVISION BROADCASTING SERVICES
Television (TV) service was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1979 when a private party launched a service voluntarily. Later, it was taken over by the Government. At that time, there was no policy or regulations on establishing TV services in the country. The Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) Act, No. 06 of 1982 was passed under which the SLRC was established with functions of the Corporation to carry on a television broadcasting service within Sri Lanka and to promote and develop that service and maintain high standards in programming in the public interest. The Rupavahini TV service was launched by SLRC using a package gifted by Japan, with the main antenna erected on Mt. Pidurutalagala.
The Act is required to register persons engaged in the production of television programmes for broadcasting; to register persons who carry on the business of importing, selling, manufacturing or assembling television receiving sets; to exercise supervision and control over television programmes broadcast by the Corporation; and to exercise supervision and control over foreign and other television crews, producing television programmes for export, among others.
Thus, the SLRC also has a dual role similar to that of SLBC, of being a service provider and a regulator. However, it lacked the powers to implement the provisions to exercise supervision and control on other TV services as described in the last two items given in the previous section. The SLRC Act has provision to issue licences to qualified parties to establish and operate TV stations. Accordingly, 54 private television licenses have been issued licences so far, whereas only 28 telecasting licensees are in operation at present (Cabinet Decision of 04.03.2020).
The Cabinet of Ministers (COM) at its meeting held on 04.01.2021 has decided to amend the SLRC Act to provide for the expansion of its Board of Directors to empower it to implement decisions taken with a view to face the competitive scenario prevailing in the field. No further amendments have been identified even though the Act is totally out of date considering the developments in the field during the last 19 years. There is a need to bring SLRC under the proposed Broadcasting Regulatory Commission to remove the regulatory functions from it and also to remove the provision to possess a licence by a user.
ESTABLISHING A TELECOMMUNICATION REGULATORY COMMISSION
In early days, the telecommunication services were provided by the Posts and Telecommunication Department, which was later bifurcated into two departments. The government passed the Sri Lanka Telecommunication (SLT) Act No. 25 in 1991 which provided for the establishment of the Sri Lanka Telecommunication Authority (SLTA) which took over the functions of the Telecommunication Department. Among the objectives of the SLTA are to ensure the conservation and proper utilization of the radio frequency spectrum by operators and other organizations and individuals who need to use radio frequencies and to make and enforce compliance with rules to minimize electro-magnetic disturbances produced by electrical apparatus and all unauthorized radio frequency emissions, among others.
The SLT Act was amended by Act No. 27 of 1996 whereby the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) was established in place of SLTA. The amended Act made provisions for receiving complaints from the public and holding public hearings on them and retained all the functions assigned to the SLTA. Its regulatory functions were limited to telecommunication service providers and did not cover the broadcasting of radio or TV services, other than assigning frequencies for them. This is unlike in India where the Telecommunication Authority covered regulation of Broadcasting of Radio and TV services both in terms of technical aspects and quality of programmes.
PROPOSAL FOR ESTABLISHING A BROADCASTING REGULATORY COMMISSION
The COM at its meeting held on 04.03.2020 having considered the necessity of having a separate institution to regulate the activities of the broadcasting and telecasting media based on a Committee recommendation approved a draft for setting up a ”Broadcasting Regulatory Commission” (BRC), and decided to explore the possibility of amending the SLTRC Act, to enable it to perform the task of the process of issuing Broadcasting and Telecasting Licenses, which were hitherto issued by the SLBC and SLRC, respectively. The objective is to remove the regulatory functions from these two organizations and transfer them to the new Commission.
As early as 1997, a Broadcasting Authority Bill was presented to the Parliament for the same purpose but it was held unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court because it did not give adequate independence to the Authority. Thereafter, a Select Committee of Parliament with representation of all parties was appointed to consider the problem and met on multiple occasions but the matter was left in abeyance. Now, it has resurfaced under a new heading – Broadcasting Regulatory Commission. However, its contents are not available in the public domain, not even in the Govt Printer’s website.
Unlike in early days when broadcasted programmes whether radio or TV were available only as free-to-air services, today with advances in technology, particularly TV programmes, are brought to residences using either physical cables or UHF links or satellite links or through the internet. Since free-to-air services are not available island-wide with acceptable quality, people opt for these services upon payment of a monthly fee. But some satellite links do not provide a satisfactory service when it rains, though the service provider claims it provides tomorrow’s technology today.
There is also an urgent need to exercise some control on the utilizing of TV medium for advertising purposes. While there is a positive aspect whereby a viewer receives information on a new product or service, the repetitive display of the same commercial of well-known consumer products is nothing but an annoyance. The writer believes that during prime time, between almost 50% of air time is devoted for commercials and promotional clips. This is in contrast to India where only 10 min of commercials are allowed for every 60 min of air-time. Hence, there is a need to have a regulatory body to ensure that satisfactory services are provided to subscribers, both in terms of the quality of signal received and the quality of programmes aired.
A notable characteristic of Sri Lanka’s TV service providers is that they seem to be very prudish when it comes to airing cinematographic material intended for adult audience, but of high quality which have received accolades at international events. The operator loses no time in blanking even a momentary kissing scene in them. The proposed BRC could lay some guidelines on presenting quality adult programmes which have already been cleared by the National Censor Board enabling the adult audience to enjoy them without subjecting them to additional censorship by TV operators. Perhaps, such programmes could be limited for airing during late hours of the day when children have gone to bed.
TRANSITION FROM ANALOG TV TO DIGITAL TV SYSTEMS
There is a global trend to switch from analogue to digital system for television broadcasting as it offers many advantages among which are better spectrum utilization, higher picture and sound quality, accessibility via mobile devices and new business opportunities. Under the sponsorship of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a Roadmap for Transition from Analogue to Digital Terrestrial Television Broadcasting (DTTB) in Sri Lanka was jointly developed in 2012 by a team of ITU experts from Korea and the National Roadmap Team (NRT) chaired by TRCSL.
Digital TV transmission, though will provide a high-quality service, will result in added expenditure both for the service provider and the viewer. In order to reduce the financial burden for the service provider, NRT proposed to establish a set of 8 common digital transmitters at sites already being used for TV transmission, for sharing by all service providers. They are expected to provide initially simultaneous transmissions both on analog and digital systems, so that a viewer will be able to receive programmes uninterruptedly when switching from analog to digital system.
As a follow up to the above proposal, the GoSL assigned a “Feasibility Study on Digital Terrestrial Television Broadcasting Network Project” in 2014, to Japan International Cooperation Agency. (). This study recommended setting up of 16 digital transmitters to be managed by a separate body, with the principal tower at Lotus Tower in Colombo. Individual TV services are expected to send their high definition programmes to Lotus Tower by microwave or other links who will in turn broadcast them from the common set of transmitters. By this means, all the TV channels will be received at the same signal strength anywhere in the country.
It was proposed to establish a body to be known as “Digital Broadcast Network Operator” (DBNO) to organize, manage and administer the new system. DBNO is expected to operate and maintain the entire system with the revenue from the operation fees collected from broadcasting stations. The transition to DTTB will result in incurring heavy expenditure by both DBNO and individual service providers, including installing new antenna systems, purchasing digital studio equipment such as cameras, animators, programme mixers etc. all of which could run into Billions of Rupees.
In addition, viewers will have to purchase either set-top-boxes for use with analog receivers or new digital receivers. It may be recalled that with the new development in TV technology, the earlier Cathode-Ray-Tube (CRT) type TV receivers were replaced by slim type LCD/LED TV receivers during the last couple of years. Today, CRT receivers are no longer available in the market. Hence, changing receivers will not be an issue for our viewers, as long as it carries benefits.
In the event the Government decides to adopt the DTTB system, it will be necessary to introduce new laws and regulations to regulate the new DTTB industry, and considering the complexities involved, it is best if a total new Parliament Act is passed, with appropriate amendments to both the SLRC Act and SLT Act. The COM has already decided to amend both these Acts as mentioned above. It is therefore appropriate if the Committee to be appointed for this purpose also be given the mandate to study the desirability of introducing DTTB in Sri Lanka considering costs and benefits as well as viewer preferences and service provider views.
Though the GoSL entered into an agreement with JICA to pursue the matter in 2014, with the change of Government in 2015, the matter was left in abeyance. Under the new Government, the matter is being considered, but no decision has been made as to when it will be implemented and which DTTB standard to adopt, as learned by the writer when he started writing this piece. However, according to a news item telecast in the evening of 19.01.2021, the Japanese Government has offered assistance to Sri Lanka to switch over to DTTB as described in JICA Report issued in 2014, and the Cabinet Spokesman Minister said that Sri Lanka would soon adopt the new system.
Sri Lanka will be completing 100 years of public radio broadcasting in four years hence, and has come a long way going through various stages of development. Initially, there were no separate laws to regulate the industry, and the state-owned service provider used to do that function. This position remains unchanged to date and only recently that the Government has considered establishing separate organizations to provide regulatory function. Only the amendment of SLRC Act and SLT Act are being considered along with setting up a new Commission for regulating broadcasting of radio and television services. Hence, there is a need to consider amending these two Acts together with amending the SLBC Act.
With the proposed introduction of digital television transmission in Sri Lanka as reported by the Cabinet spokesman, the Writer suggests that the amendment of the above three Acts should be taken up along with formulating a new Act to cover Digital Transmission Broadcasting since all four are interlinked, before the actual transition takes place. It is hoped that with the introduction of digital TV transmissions the quality of programme content will also improve concurrently.
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2019 Easter Sunday Carnage: An Intelligence Perspective
By Merril Gunaratne
Retired Senior DIG
The predicament of those in the highest echelons of defence and police bring to my mind past serious failures, not entirely dissimilar to the massacre on “Easter Sunday” in 2019. Somewhere in the mid 1980s, an LTTE group, led by their Mannar leader Victor Fulgencius ,entered the Anuradhapura sacred city and brutally mowed down a large number of Buddhist pilgrims in broad daylight. The Coordinating Officer of Anuradhapura, SSP of the area and those below them, must have been “deaf and blind”, for they could not have been oblivious to the bursts of gunfire, and the plea of countless witnesses who naturally would have looked upto them for intervention. No positive efforts were made even to stall the retreat of the terrorists after the carnage to Mannar. Nor were inquiries instituted to hold senior army and police officers accountable for their shocking inertia. Likewise in broad daylight, a terror group, the TELO, stormed Chavakachcheri police station and razed it to the ground, killing all police officers in the station. The Coordinating Officer of Palaly, when questioned by the President at the National Security Council meeting following the disaster, stated that in such situations, “each service should look after itself”. The question raised was whether the Army should have engaged in an immediate and timely intervention. Here too no inquiry was initiated to identify accountability for the shocking failures. The “PLOTE” group of Uma Maheswaran came untrammelled up to the Nikaweratiya police station, in the Kurunegala district, attacked it and caused mayhem. No inquiries were held: none were held accountable. In the 1990s, the Katunayake Air Force base was attacked by the LTTE and the JVP, separately, causing death and destruction. None were called upon to shoulder the blame. Again, in the early 90’s, the LTTE ruthlessly killed over 600 police officers in the Ampara sector, because the IGP at the time ordered the fighting officers to surrender on an assurance from political leaders that the LTTE would release them. No Commissions nor inquiries were held in this regard.
There is however an essential difference between these instances and the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage. Ample intelligence from India, backed by a plethora of evidence and reports of dangers from the National Thowheed Jamath [NTJ] stored with the State Intelligence Services [SIS], the CID, and the Terrorist investigation Division [TID], had been in the possession of SIS, well before the disaster took place. Therefore the credibility of intelligence received from India was not in doubt, as also time and space available to adopt schemes to plan arrests and flood the country with optimum security. In such a context, the failure of defence and police officers to evolve plans to nip terror in the bud, differ sharply with previous instances. In previous cases, the security forces were taken by surprise. In the case of the “Easter Sunday” carnage, intelligence was available well in advance, so that ample opportunity was available to forestall terror plans.
THE STATUS OF THE STATE INTELLIGENCE SERVICE (SIS) IN DEFENCE
An aspect that came under scrutiny was whether the Director of the SIS had informed the President about the information received from the Indian counterparts. It may not be inappropriate to deal with two matters which find relevance in seeking to understand what ideally should have been done.
First, the SIS is the premier “Intelligence” service in the country, since it is expected to collect and collate intelligence of the police special branch, the CID and the TID, in addition to their own efforts. It is also responsible to monitor political targets, in addition to those connected with subversion, terrorism and espionage. It also enjoys wiretapping apparatus to enhance its capability.
Second, the Director of the SIS is virtually “primus inter pares” amongst members of the national security council [NSC], when it comes to access to the head of state, and in relation to his vital role of leading deliberations at meetings of the NSC with suitable briefs. Each and every director of the national intelligence service in its long history, will vouch for the veracity of this arrangement. From as far back as 1950’s, even superintendents of police in- charge of national intelligence had far more access to the head of state than the IGP; and the IGP did not often know what the Intelligence head had discussed with the President. The authority of the Director of the SIS therefore at times exceeded that of not only the IGP, but many others in the NSC as well. At the time I was Director of the National Intelligence Bureau, President Jayewardene would see only me before 8.00 am, prior to leaving for Cabinet meetings.
Though in pecking order, the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) is superior to the Director of the SIS, in actual fact, the latter wields far more authority since all agents and informers are controlled by the SIS. In addition, CNI only plays a supervisory role, while the Director of the SIS is the actual operational head of the intelligence agency.
SUBMISSION OF “SPECIAL”OR “SERIAL” REPORTS BY DIRECTOR SIS TO THE PRESIDENT
Being in a position of such privilege, whenever credible intelligence is received, the Director of the SIS has to take two immediate steps. First, he should immediately, through the shortest possible route, despatch a written, classified report to the President, with copies to the Secretary of Defence and Chief of National Intelligence [CNI]. Traditionally, a special ‘Box’ has been used for such despatch to the President, keys available at both ends to unlock and retrieve reports. The ‘Box’ would impress the president that the document inside was of an urgent nature. Depending on the gravity, nature and the urgency of such intelligence, as with the NTJ of Zahran, the Director may even decide to despatch copies to Secretary to President, IGP and Service Commanders as well. He has to concurrently speak on the telephone to each of the recipients of his report, emphasise the credibility and the grave nature of such intelligence, and also propose that the NSC be convened for discussion without delay. Such a standard arrangement of despatch of reports and telephone calls wherever the intelligence is of a grave and urgent nature, is a precedent in vogue from as far back as 1950s. The role of the SIS is to help the NSC to proact, rather than react. The prototypes of the SIS in the service and the police will play a supportive, rather than a leading role. The Director of SIS therefore can galvanise the National Security Council to act, or “put it to sleep”. There has been no indication from the Easter Sunday Commission findings reported in the media that the Director of SIS had despatched a written, classified report to the President.
FLAWED “INFORMATION” REPORT SENT TO IGP.
The ‘Information report” which the IGP received from the CNI, enclosed a note from the Director of SIS. It referred to the plans of Zahran and the NTJ to commit terror attacks, and suggested that further inquiries should be carried out. This report is “flawed” because it is not an Intelligence report. If the Intelligence received was credible (in this instance it obviously was), the report should have been in two parts. In the first part, the piece of information should have been reflected. The second part titled “Assessment or Analysis” is the far more important one, where the Director , harnessing his knowledge of the reliability of the source of information, along with his acquaintance of the background and history of the NTJ available in the subject and personal files stored in the SIS registry, should have stated with conviction that the information was not only reliable, but should be discussed as early as possible, and plans evolved to nip the threat in the bud without delay. A question that arises is whether the report of the Director sans an assessment was adequate to galvanise his superiors to ponder about the gravity of the piece of intelligence received. Even though flawed, the recipients yet had material in the report to discuss and plan on an urgent basis. Of course, a proper intelligence report may possibly have woken them up from slumber. In short, the report or note of the director of the SIS was not exactly an Intelligence report in the classic context. Adrian Weale in his book, “The Army of Evil” said, “Broadly speaking, intelligence is information that is gathered and analysed before informing decisions. Without the crucial analysis step …it is of no-value”
DEFENCE AND POLICE OFFICIALS TREATING THE INFORMATION WITH LEVITY
It had been unfortunate that senior officials such as the Defence Secretary, Chief of National Intelligence, Director of the SIS, the IGP and his deputies had acted in an amateurish fashion. They were not minions who should have been inactive, amidst such serious information, simply because the President was out of the country. If Defence Secretary , goaded and galvanised by Director of National Intelligence, summoned members of the NSC for discussion, many salutary proposals leading to an effective security plan may have emerged. The Defence Secretary was empowered on his own to summon members of the N.S.C. for discussion at any time. His “inertia” baffles imagination. In an overall context, none of those who received the somewhat “flawed” information in their enclaves considered it prudent to at least ‘put their heads together’ and discuss what should have been done.
ACCESS TO SENSITIVE RECORDS IN THE REGISTRY OF THE SIS.
The SIS, by virtue of being the national intelligence agency, is responsible, apart from ferreting intelligence through it’s own network of agents and informers, to collect and collate all overt and covert information from the CID, the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), and even from intelligence channels in the armed forces. The comprehensive records that they thereby accumulate, are stored in “subject” and “personal” files in respect of each subversive or terrorist target they monitor. These records are suitably classified ‘secret’ or ‘confidential’ so that only those authorised to see them can have access to such records.
The Director of the SIS, apart from the submission of ‘single piece’ intelligence reports to the Head of State, the Defence Secretary and possibly some other members of the National Security Council, also had to periodically compile periodic reports, based on the comprehensive records stored in respect of a particular target in the registry. Each such report will make a mature analysis of the activities and growth of the target, alert the government to their ramifications and sinister designs, and offer salutary proposals to nip or stall their activities. Such periodic reports are described as ‘special’ or ‘basic’ reports, and are invariably classified secret. This discipline too has been in vogue for a very long time. Such reports help the government to monitor, review and proact against terror threats periodically.
In view of the fact that omissions and lapses of the SIS leading to the massacre of innocents were under scrutiny by the presidential Commission the records in the Registry of the SIS could have been made available to the Commission to assist the probe. Terror groups like the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ) are extremely clandestine when they plant their underground network in the silent, ‘preparatory’ phase. This is a phase where terrorists are extremely elusive because of their obsession with stealth and secrecy. The activities of this preparatory phase can be discerned only through agents and informers, so that the SIS alone will have records which police, the CID and TID would not possess. The latter are predominantly investigators’ of acts after their occurrence. It is the SIS which should have good intelligence about external and internal links of the NTJ, their financiers, safe houses, military or weapons training etc. This is the kind of intelligence which helps the SIS to submit comprehensive, periodic “special” reports to the government.
Perhaps, the Commission could have been authorised access to the periodic reports and files of the SIS in respect of the NTJ. Such classified material would have been valuable in the quest for the roots and ramifications of the NTJ. Most of the witnesses who appeared before the Commission for evidence may not have possessed the type knowledge of the NTJ and its ramifications which only SIS officers would have possessed.
The SIS usually seeks to protect the identity of their officers as well as their records, for risk of exposure. Such safeguards may be necessary in normal circumstances. However, the carnage and massacre on Easter Sunday in 2019 due mainly to inadequacies of those in Defence and Police echelons, had led to a high level probe by a Presidential Commission, and evoked considerable public concern and interest. The entire tragedy has been in the public domain. It may therefore have been unreasonable if the records of the SIS had been withheld from the probe.
Steeped in realism, rich in poignant themes and metaphors
By Sajitha Prematunge
Asexual relationships are getting considerable limelight in the Sri Lankan cinema, what with Gehan Cooray’s The Billionaire and the recently released film, Ayu portraying such relationships, albeit in the vantage of different sexual orientation. Ayu was screened to a limited audience in celebration of the 74th anniversary of Sri Lankan cinema at Savoy Cinema, Wellawatta, on January 22. It is the maiden movie production of General (retired) Daya Rathnayake and the second film directed by Chathra Weeraman after Aloko Udapadi.
Presented by Weeraman Brothers, based on a story by Saman Weeraman, Ayu stars Sandra Mack, Jagath Manuwarna, Malani Fonseka, Ashan Dias, Kenara Wiratunga, Samanalee Fonseka, Sampath Jayaweera, Priyantha Sirikumara, Thumindu Dodantenna, Nalin Lusena, Udara Abeysundara, Kasuni Kavindi Fernando, Akalanka Prabashwara, Dinushika Senevirathne, Thiwanka Ranasinghe, Prasanna Dekumpitiya and Dasun Pathirana in a guest appearance. The crew includes cinematographer Kalinga Deshapriya, Chamara Selara as Assistant Director, Bimal Dushmantha in production designing, Saman Alvitigala in film editing, Milinda Tennakone in music, Harsha Manjula and Haroon Shaideen in makeup department, Sasika Marasinghe in sound department, Dinindu Jagoda and Lahiru Madhushanka in editorial department, Kumara Karawdeniya in costume designing, Shehan Obeysekara in production photography, Iresh Karunarathne, Primal Ranasinghe and Sashika Ganegodage in Production Management and Anuradha Weeraman as the Associate Producer.
The psychoanalytical film wastes no time documenting stressful therapy sessions or treatment. It is a journey towards the healing of the mind. Nishmi, a female pediatrician, didn’t only lose her baby in the almost fatal car accident that required the blood transfusion that sealed her fate, she’s maimed for life, with no hope of ever having a family of her own. Ravi, her husband’s elated revelation, “It’s negative,” comes as a surprise not to only Nish, but also the audience who was thus far convinced that the sole cause of her predicament was Ravi’s promiscuity.
Much is insinuated and less said in the film. Hardly anywhere is the acronym AIDS mentioned and only in one instance is HIV mentioned. This in itself is symbolic of the stigma HIV AIDS entails. We are given a first hand account of the kind of stigmatization AIDS patients undergo when Nishmi’s coworkers shun her as if they could contract the disease by brushing against her. A mother pulls her child away from Nish with an uneasy smile, while nurses and attendants avoid her. The stigma is so ingrained that Nish cannot expect to be accepted by her family. For example, Nish’s mother, played by Malini Fonseka, profusely washes her hands after dressing Nish’s wound. This is the last straw for Nish, who contemplates suicide.
There is no doubt that excellent casting choices contributed to the success of the film. The anguish of a mother in Fonseka’s words “I am your mother, I am your mother…” uttered to assuage her HIV positive daughter after she slighted by washing her hands, does not fail to evoke empathy in the audience. The film also marks screen queen Malini Fonseka’s 150th performance in an acting career spanning four decades.
Weeraman has commendably captured the anguish of the characters. Specially noteworthy is the performance by Sandra Mack as Nishmi, whether it is to her own credit or Weeraman’s ability to get a novitiate to strike the right emotional chords is irrelevant, because the end product is realistic. The fresh face of Mack helps to heighten the realism. We have never previously seen her acting and this makes it that much easier to identify with her role. Although her dialogue seems a bit contrived at the onset, which could be attributed to a shortcoming in dubbing, she grows on you.
Manuwarna’s ruggedness contrasts sharply with the seeming fragility of Mack’s Nishmi and the repelling magnate-like chemistry between the lead actors adds a novel flavour to the film. Make no mistake, it’s not your typical rich woman falls for poor guy kind of soppy. The film is abound with underlying deep socio-political and economic themes presented in the dichotomy of the upper middle class represented by Nishi and lower class by beach boy Sachin. It is certainly a thought-provoking movie peppered with allusions to Buddhist teachings, from the metaphoric boat that is life, to allusions of rituals such Bodhi Pooja conducted in hopes of being impregnated. Though Nishmi contemplated suicide earlier in the film, at the end, she just wants to row the boat. True to the Buddhist doctrine Nishmi comes to realise that we are but mere cogs in the samsaric machinery and that there is no other way out but to ‘row your boat’.
Inspired by true events, from plot, dialogue, acting to cinematography, Ayu religiously sticks to realism. The fight scenes are commendably choreographed with excellent cinematography helping to enhance realism. Even the songs are well placed, sans the melodrama, typical of Sinhala films.
However the tempo of the 116 minute film is somewhat slow, unnecessarily stretched to create the movie-length feature. The audience does not know where in time a certain scene is set. It is somewhat akin to memento or arrival, in that fragmented scenes are scattered throughout the film going back and forth in time. For example, images of passing lights from the vantage of a trolley being pushed through a hospital corridor, at the beginning of the movie, foreshadows a catastrophe waiting to strike. Although the trope makes it difficult to establish a footing, it adds to the arthouse flavour of the film. Things eventually fall into place when the film comes full circle, reconciling the past and present.
The genre, and by extension the target audience of the movie is ill-defined. Whether it a commercial or art house movie would depend on audience interpretation. The character of ‘Ayu’ is a case in point. Does the kid really exist? After all nothing is revealed about her. Her grandmother is MIA, the audience is in the dark about where she lives and when she is uprooted from her life in the village, whisked away by two strangers no one bats an eyelid. Uncannily similar to the character of child psychologist Malcolm Crowe in ‘Sixth Sense’, who turns out to be a ghost oblivious to his own ghostly existence, Ayu, who’s name literally means ‘life’, has little interaction with the characters other than Nishmi and Sachin, who are both, ironically dying. This life/death juxtaposition forms the crux of the film. Ayu may very well be a figment of one’s imagination, a metaphor for ‘life’. Is she a mere symbol for life or ‘ayu’ in Sinhala? If so, what better symbol for life than a child. If not, then the script is fatally flawed, in that it failed to develop an essential character. It is unrealistic that as a doctor Nish would have no qualms about exposing the child to a life threatening illness.
All things considered, Ayu is welcome respite from the mundane Sinhala movie that only offers unrealistic love stories that involve a lot of running around bushes, obviously phony fight scenes and ill-timed sorry excuses for songs. It is to be released in theatres soon and is not to me missed.
St. Antony feast Katchatheevu
The Jaffna Divisional Secretary informed the public, well in advance, that St. Anthony’s Feast in the Kachchativu island had been cancelled this year due to the Covid- 19 pandemic. The decision was well understood by devotees of both Sri Lanka and India.
This annual feast on a tiny island closer to the India-Sri Lanka International boundary line (IMBL) was an annual meeting place, especially for fishermen of both countries. Last year (2020) the feast was attended by more than 10,000 devotees. For the first time, Sri Lankan devotees out-numbered the Indians. Anticipating such a situation, the Bishop of Jaffna, Rt. Rev. Justin Bernard Ganapragasam had invited Bishop of Diocese of Galle, Rt. Rev Raymond Wickramasinghe as well. The mass last year was conducted in all three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English.
As a devotee of St. Anthony, the Saint who looks after seafarers, like me, even though I am a Buddhist, I was sad that I might miss this year’s feast.
However, some good news came from the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenna a few days ago. He said Jaffna Bishop had requested to have a mass at Kachchativu island without the presence of the public and only with a few priests on 27 February 2021, and if I was keen, I could join them. I was delighted to go there.
Kachchativu is located half a nautical mile from the Indo-Sri Lanka IMBL which was ratified by UN Law of the Sea conference in 1976, when maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives were demarcated and agreed to by all three countries and ratified at the United Nations.
It is mistakenly thought both in India and in Sri Lanka that Indian fishermen can come to this island to dry their nets. That was in the 1974 agreement, where even Sri Lanka fishermen had the right to fish in “Wedge bank”, in the Indian waters closer to Kanyakumari. When the 1976 agreement was ratified, those privileges were done away with and now Kachchativu is part of Sri Lanka’s territory and well within our waters. Please read the famous book on Kachchativu by late Mr WT Jayasinghe, who was our Defence and External Affairs Secretary in the 1970s (father of late Romesh Jayasinghe, our former Foreign Secretary in the 2000s) to learn more about how our beloved Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s diplomatic skills and close personal relationship with the then Indian PM Indira Gandhi won us the Kachchativu island back.
Those who championed in Tamilnadu and in the Indian Central government on taking back Kachchativu from Sri Lanka should refer to what Indian Attorney General Mukul Rohargi told a bench, headed by Chief Justice of India R M Lodha on 26th August 2014: “Kachchativu was gone to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974. It was ceded and now act as a boundary. How can it be taken back today? If you want Kachchativu back, you will have to go to war to get it back.”
I stayed at Fort Hammenniel, a beautiful fort built by the Dutch at the entrance of Karainagar channel, entrance to the old Jaffna port of Kayts, now part of our Naval Base, SLNS Karainagar. This tiny Dutch fort has its own history in our country, the place where the late JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera was kept in captivity in 1971 with more than one hundred other JVPers. I could not imagine how it would be with 100 prisoners in this small fort.
I was not accommodated in any of these cells; I stayed in one of the four super Luxury rooms on the top deck of the fort.
My dear friend, Rear Admiral Senarath Wijesooriya, the Commander Northern Naval Area, joined me to travel to Kachchativu on the 26th evening (February). We travelled in an indigenously built Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC), which can move at 38 knots (approx 50 mph). During the final stages of our conflict with the LTTE, under the guidance of then Commander of the Navy, today our Admiral of the Fleet, Wasantha Karannagoda, Navy Engineers built more than 100 IPCs which brought LTTE Sea Tigers to their knees on asymmetric naval warfare as per “Lanchester theory” and helped destroy all their “ultimate weapons at sea” – suicide boats. Visionary leader, Admiral of the Fleet Karannagoda, always told us, “You cannot buy a Navy – you have to build one” ! How true ! We built it for you, Sir. Bravo Zulu to our Engineers !
IPC moved at 38 knots in the mirror-calm sea, and took only one hour and 40 minutes to reach Kachchativu from Karainagar. I was so impressed with Petty Officer in-charge of the IPC, for his boat handling, and beaching the boat at Kachchativu and professional competence. With such junior leaders, our Navy’s future is bright.
With the full moon, calm seas and light breeze from the North East direction, it was a beautiful night. Few scores of sailors were preparing the church and surroundings for next morning.
One thing missing this year was the crowd. Camping in small groups and singing hymns praising St Anthony was not heard this year. The small “street” in Kachchativu, which was full of makeshift Indian shops with sarees, clothes and sweetmeats and Sri Lankan shops with soap, coconut oil and cinnamon were not there this time around.
The new church built by the Navy five years ago on the request from the Bishop of Jaffna was looking beautiful. This was a hundred percent donation by officers and sailors of the Navy. It cost us Rs. 7.7 million, total contribution by the Navy personnel, majority of them were Buddhists like yours truly. This church is a symbol of reconciliation.
The following day (27) by at 9.30 a.m. mass was, led by Very Rev Father Pathinathar Joshopthas Jebarathnam, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Jaffna.
The Mass was attended by 50 officers and sailors following strict quarantine laws. Vicar General , Very Rev Father Jebarathnam blessed all those present and others who had not been able to get there due to the pandemic. I missed Sri Lankan and Indian fishers. Their request to St Anthony is always very simple; that is for them to have a good catch of fish next year so that they could look after their families and come back to St Anthony’s feast again.
I also kept my request simple. “Thank you St Anthony’s, for allowing me to come to Kachchativu this year and give me strength to come back next year as well !”
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