The Phone-Gate And Media Feeding Frenzy
This country is never short of issues that grab headlines. It was thought, in the run-up to the defeat of the LTTE on 19 May, 2009, that the media would be scraping the bottom of the barrel, in a bid to fill space and airtime, after the conclusion of the war, which had ensured a steady supply of news for nearly three decades. But issues have since cropped up at an amazing rate, so much so that the media find it difficult to keep pace with them.
What Red Queen tells Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, seems to apply to mainstream Sri Lankan media as well; they have to run as fast as they can, just to stay in place, in competing with social media, which thrive on a seemingly never-ending supply of information including fake news.
The Treasury bond scams kept the media going for almost half a decade during the last government (2015-2020). Investigations into them became a circus of sorts and provided the public with much-needed entertainment more than anything else. They also turned out to be the undoing of the yahapalana government.
The weeks that followed the change of government in early November, last year, were eventful, but they gave way to several slow news days. It was getting dull and journalists had to work hard to fill space and airtime, and then the police arrested MP Ranjan Ramanayake. What they detected during a raid on his house on 04 Jan sparked off a media feeding frenzy. We now have the Sri Lankan version of WikiLeaks; thousands of recorded telephone conversations between Ramanayake and others ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous have gone viral on the Internet. These recordings have disclosed political interference in the police and the judiciary under the last government.
The government claims that neither it nor the police had anything to do with the mega leak that has shaken the Opposition, but this claim is to be taken with a pinch of salt. During the yahapalana government, the CID kept government politicians and a section of the press loyal to them informed of its investigations. Some government politicians with access to the CID records even predicted arrests to be made and the charges to be pressed against their political rivals. The present-day rulers are doing likewise.
There is irrefutable evidence that that Ramanayake interfered in the affairs of the police and the judiciary during the UNP-led government. Former CID Chief Shani Abeysekera has been interdicted and the same fate is likely to befall a senior judge, who is heard, in one of the leaked recordings, requesting Ramanayake’s intervention to secure a promotion.
Ramanayake went to court on Wednesday (08) seeking its intervention to prevent the media from publicizing his telephone recordings. The court decision was pending at the time of writing. But the netizens know more than one way to skin a cat, and it is well-nigh impossible to ban anything on the Internet.
Monkeys with straight razors
The number of telephones exceeds that of the people in this country; in other words, most Sri Lankans have more than one phone each. This is not something that even their counterparts in the affluent world can boast of. Perhaps, in the Global North, the people lead productive lives and, therefore, are without much time to waste on their mobile phones.
Smart phones in the hands of some people can also be like straight razors wielded by monkeys; they cause trouble to others as well as themselves. Not many people care to use the call recording facility on their phones, but some others record calls compulsively. They seem to derive some pleasure from doing so. Ramanayake is one of them. He has landed many others and himself in trouble, as a result. Courtesy demands that a person’s permission be obtained before his or her call is recorded, but Ramanayake obviously is no respecter of telephone etiquette.
Another assassination bid
Hardly anybody is now talking about the alleged bid to assassinate President Maithripala Sirisena and Gotabaya Rajapaksa during the yahapalana government.
A person, named Namal Kumara, heading an outfit called the Anti-Corruption Movement, claimed, in 2018, that he possessed information about a conspiracy to assassinate Sirisena and Gotabaya. He presented to the media some audio clips containing his telephone conversations with Terrorist Investigation Division Head DIG Nalaka Silva, as evidence to support his claim. The CID was ordered to launch an investigation.
The alleged assassination plot received a lot of media attention, and Sirisena cited it as one of the main reasons why he had decided to pull out of the National Government and attempted an abortive power grab. He said some of his coalition partners had a hand in the conspiracy and they were trying to hush up the probe. DIG Silva was arrested and remanded. IGP Pujith Jayasundera also found himself in a pickle over those phone recordings.
Now, Ramanayake is accused of having conspired to kill UPFA MP Mahindananada Aluthgamage during the previous dispensation. The latter told the parliament, last Tuesday, that according to one of the recorded telephone conversations Ramanayake had sought and received the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s blessing for the assassination plot. Wickremesinghe, making a special statement, vehemently denied that charge. Some people argue that what the audio clip contains should not be taken seriously because the conversation is in light vein, but Aluthgamage says he cannot take it lightly because it was a threat to his dear life; he has called for an investigation. He will try to get the maximum possible political mileage out of it.
The police have found 127 rounds of live ammunition together with an official firearm sans a valid licence from Ramanayake’s house. They say going by the boxes of ammunition, there should have been 150 rounds. They have asked the MP to explain why some bullets have gone missing. Aluthgamage told Parliament that Ramanayake had practiced target shooting in a bid to kill him.
It is doubtful whether anyone will believe Wickremesinghe was party to a conspiracy to harm any MP. But he will have a hard time explaining why he allegedly told Ramanayake what he did, over the phone.
A windfall for govt.
The Phone-gate could not have come at a better time for the government, which is struggling to bring down the cost of living. There have been numerous complaints of the new administration’s failure to rein in the powerful rice millers, who are accused of keeping the rice prices artificially high through market manipulations. Inclement weather has wreaked havoc on the farming areas in the central hills and vegetable prices have gone through the roof as a result.
The UNP was making the most of the situation. Its MPs were seen visiting the Economic Centres and inquiring about the prices of essential commodities so as to highlight the government’s failure to bring down prices. Newly appointed Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, who unsuccessfully contested the last presidential election, kept asking those who had voted against him whether they were happy now.
But nobody is talking about the cost of living anymore. Everyone is preoccupied with the leaked phone recordings, especially the salacious ones which are attracting tens of thousands of hits on the Internet. The public is agog for more news about the Phone-gate, which is not likely to go away for some more months to come. In fact, the government will do everything in its power to keep the issue alive at least until the next general election, which is expected in April.
UPFA MP Udaya Gammanpila has called for appointing a special presidential commission of inquiry to probe the phone recordings. Thus, the government is planning to flog the issue hard and make a great deal of political capital out of it. The sheer number of recorded telephone conversations can keep an investigation going for years on end.
The UNP-led Opposition made an attempt to go on the offensive by exploiting the economic woes of the public, but the phone scandal has helped the government put it on the defensive again. The media feeding frenzy is not likely to fizzle off in the near future.