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Government Gazette

Democracy and media freedom prevail today - Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne


Health and Indigenous Medicine Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne said that the resounding victory achieved by President Maithripala Sirisena on January 08 Presidential election has paved the way to change the entire political scenario in the country. It is like the Middle East Spring. What they did by bullet, we did by ballot. That is the difference. The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said that this will change the picture, culture and the entire civilisation of the country. It is a small step that we took, but it would be a bigger one in the evolution of politics in this country.

Dr. Senaratne said that the Government would ensure full media freedom to the journalists to fulfill their duties. Those who used thuggery and involved in the murder of journalists, torturing and threatening them to leave the country will be severely dealt with. Soon after President Maithripala Sirisena's victory, I appealed to all media personnel who had left the country to come back and join hands with us. This is a new country. Now there is democracy and media freedom in the country so that anybody can criticise us. Nobody should be scared because there won't be any ‘phone-tapping hereafter. Nobody will be followed by the NIB. There will be no more interference with the political or social figures except in the context of the country's security and nothing else. The State media will be made independent under the present Government. All parties will be given an opportunity in the state media to express their opinion. The Government would ensure the right to information through an Act that will be passed in Parliament soon. This would pave the way for the journalists to have access to any transaction of any Minister.

Q: How would you explain this overnight silent revolution on January 8? What basically underlined this sort of political change?

A: It is like the Middle East Spring. What they did by bullet, we did by ballot. That is the difference. This is the trend everywhere in the world against dictators whether they are military or constitutional dictators. Here too the same answer was given by the electorate. That is why we took a bold decision at that time and most of the people expected that we will end up in political wilderness but we achieved it within one and half month.

The entire political scenario in the country has changed now - it will change the picture, culture and the entire civilisation of the country as well. It is a small step we took, but it would be a bigger one in the evolution of the politics in this country.

Q: The Sri Lankan voter is as enlightened as his counterpart in Europe or USA in providing oxygen to a waning democracy. How do you explain the democratic heritage of the Sri Lankan voter?

A: Actually this is a landmark decision by the electorate. The entire civilised world waited for this result to work against the tyranny of the Rajapaksas. The entire Europe, USA and all peace-loving people in the world are very happy about this victory. Even our neighbour India is also very happy.

There is no future for Sri Lanka without Europe, USA and India. We should learn from Cuba today. Last year Raul Castro's daughter Mariela Castro visited USA. She had an interview with the Time Magazine where she said that there is no future for Cuba without relations with the USA. She hoped for normalcy between USA and Cuba as early as possible. Now US President Barack Obama and Raul Castro talk to each other. It is a new chapter. Even our so-called socialists in this country who are talking of American imperialism must learn from Castro. Fidel Castro is an icon of revolution. His brother consulted him and took the decision. If Fidel Castro can come to an understanding with the USA, why not we? Here all revolutionists only talk of revolution. There is no revolution here. Let alone sacrificing their lives, they are not even ready to sacrifice their ministerial portfolios. But Fidel and Raul joined the revolution even to sacrifice their lives if necessary.

Q: Bribery, corruption, kickbacks and payoffs on one side and heroin, ethanol and such other dangerous anti-social vices were the hallmark of the UPFA rule. Would you like to elaborate on this and how those responsible for all these would be dealt with?

A: There were some UPFA Cabinet Ministers who were involved in the drug business. That is why all the containers carrying drugs were confiscated, but there were no owners. The owners were hanging around the Temple Trees. There were ethanol manufacturers who had permits and nearly five Cabinet Ministers also had ethanol permits. Even certain Basnayaka Nilames had ethanol permits. Those who were looked after by the gods are now being looked after by ethanol.

This is the country where we are living today. There are even Ministers who are making artificial toddy. It is only the former President who could issue ethanol permits but nobody else. He was the same leader who talked about the “Mathata Thitha”. This is how they have destroyed the country. The local alcohol consumption has increased. The beer consumption too has increased by two or threefold despite the “Mathata Thitha” program. That shows these are mere slogans only and nothing else. We will cancel their permits and take legal action against all of them. Those who resorted to thuggery and were involved in the murder of journalists, torturing and threatening them to leave the country will be severely dealt with.

That is why soon after President Sirisena's victory, I appealed to all media personnel who have left the country to come back and join hands with us. I even personally invited the owner of the Lanka Enews, Sandaruwan to comeback and reopen his website.

This is a new country. Now there is democracy and media freedom so that anybody can criticise us. Nobody should be scared because there won't be any telephone tapping hereafter. Nobody will be followed by the NIB. There will be no more interference with political or social figures except in the context of national security.

Q: The current laws and the constitutional provisions are totally inadequate to prevent abuse of power by politicians. Do you have any plans to rectify these shortcomings?

A: The main thing is that the executive powers were exercised by a single person to govern the country. The former President didn't know what is good and what is bad. Whoever who helped him was looked after. That is why there are lots of bribery allegations, against the Ministers and other politicians, but nothing was investigated. All those investigations will be relaunched. The Executive Presidency will be abolished within the first 100 days and there will be a President who abides by the law of the country and answerable to Parliament.

The Executive powers of the President will be removed. The President will have to consult the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to take decisions. So he will be a new President. We are giving full media freedom to journalists to fulfill their duties.

The present parliamentary system will also be changed to the first- past- the- post and proportional representation. Preferential voting system will be done away with so that every constituency will have its representative.

Another important aspect is the setting up of new independent commissions. We will empower the Election Commissioner to conduct free and fair elections without bowing down to any political pressure.

Whether it is President or Prime Minister, they won't be able to interfere with. The other thing is the Police powers. The Police will be able to enforce the law without any fear or bias. Reforms will be made to the Public Service Commission and the Judicial Service Commission.

There will also be an independent audit commission without any political pressure. If anybody does any wrong, the Commission would take action against him. We will give enough powers to this Commission too. We will also give more powers to the Bribery and Corruption Commission to act independently and take action against anybody who is involved in bribery or corruption. All these will be fulfilled for good governance within the first 100 days.

Q: The pruning of the jumbo Cabinet is a worthwhile step in the larger interests of the country. Are there similar areas which deserves attention?

A: The entire structure would be changed. Politicians would become genuine people's representatives and not Maharajas. We will bring a new code of conduct in Parliament on February 2 for all people's representatives from Pradeshiya Sabhas up to Parliament. With that, whatever he represents, he will lose his membership, if he breaches the law. With regard to the security of politicians, except for Police, no other forces will be deployed.

Security will be decided on the security needs of each and every Minister or the politician. At present security has been provided to politicians haphazardly. Former Defence Secretary thought that the security was his family property. Even the Beruwala Urban Council Chairman was given Defender jeeps and STF security. We will investigate all these cases. Security had also been provided for drug dealers, illicit liquor businessmen and ethanol businessmen. All those people had been given bodyguards by the Security Forces. He not only misused but also ruined the Security Services of this country.

Even the dignity of the Security Forces was tarnished by giving security to all types of people. This is not a private security service to give security to anybody. There is a protocol to be fallowed as to what VIPs should be provided with STF or Commandos. But he has not followed any such procedure and an inquiry will be conducted against him.

Q: You have been very rational right through that the majority should coexist with the minorities in the larger interests of the country. The large number of Tamil and Muslim votes received by President Maithripala Sirisena is evidence of it. Could you explain the significance of ethnic harmony in the light of this?

A: We had an understanding with all Muslim and Tamil parties without conditions. Earlier they always emphasised their regional and ethnic claims. This is the first time in the history that Tamil parties in the North have come forward to resolve the national problem and that is for good governance.

They laid down five conditions which were entirely based on the national problem, nothing about the Tamil speaking people. They have a very good understanding. We have also the same understanding with the SLMC and Rishad Bathiudeen's All Ceylon Muslim Congress. They never put forward any conditions or signed any agreement.

The only two agreements that we signed were with the Common Opposition and the JHU. We did it openly and there is no secret document. The TNA also met the President. We discussed the grievances of their people.

We will take action very soon specially to address the grievances of the Tamil-speaking people in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Most of these things can be done very easily and rationally. After that, we will have an All Party Conference to resolve the ethnic issue.

The former President never wanted to settle this matter. They couldn't appoint even the Governor or Chief Secretary to the Northern Province Chief Minister which is their right under the 13th Amendment.

They were not ready to concede even the basic things, because the former President and former Defence Secretary were so arrogant.

They thought that the minority communities are not the people of this country. They all are our brethren. They all have their grievances. As rulers, it is our duty to resolve those problems.

Q: Strictly speaking, there was no media freedom in the country and the newspapers were forced to practise self-imposed censorship for their survival. What had gone wrong?

A: That is why they thought that by suppressing the media, they can run it. I always stood against this idea. In 1973, the late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike took over Lake House. The Times newspapers were given to over Anura Bandaranaike. Then Dawasa newspapers were sealed. All media was under Bandaranaike including the SLBC.

The late President J.R. Jayewardene had only an eight page tabloid. But he won with a five-sixth victory. So this is mere nonsense of having a State media. The State media will never be able to bring victory to any Government. They can only ruin the Government in power. That is what happened to the former President. The editors of Lake House newspapers ruined him.

Who read these newspapers? Nobody believed what these newspapers said. That is why the people are turning to the private media. The State media will be made independent under our Government.

All parties will be given an opportunity in the State media to express their views. We will give complete freedom to the press. We will give journalists the right to information through an Act that will be passed in Parliament very soon.

This would ensure the right of the journalists to access any transaction by any Minister.

Q: By and large, the Sri Lankan voters basically voted for a change this time. What is this change they hoped for?

A: Actually they voted for freedom and independence. That is where the Rajapaksas couldn't be believed. The Philippines also had the same development under President Marcos.

But the people rejected Marcos. The people protested against Marcos and toppled him. Suharto also faced the same fate in Indonesia.

He also initiated massive development. Airports, roads and other infrastructure facilities were provided. In fact, they had earned a lot but there was no freedom for the people. Therefore, the people stood against him. The same plight befell such rulers everywhere including Gaddafi in Libya and Mubarak in Egypt. They had provided certain things to the people.

But the people wanted freedom and independence. Here was also the same situation. They built high-rise buildings, expressways, ports and airports. The people wanted jobs and to get rid of poverty as well. Finally, the people wanted freedom to write, express their views and to read whatever they like.

That is the freedom. The poor wanted freedom to have three meals, provide shelter and employment to their sons and daughters. These basic needs of the people should be addressed. So all these groups came together in quest of freedom.

Q: As a former Minister, could you give reason to the debacle of the UPFA which was elected to office with an overwhelming vote? What were your own experiences or tragedies you met if any?

A: The situation is similar to what was in 1970s. In 1970s, the late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike won with a two thirds majority. But in 1977, she lost to J.R. Jayewardene for a five-sixth majority.

This is the power of the ballot. Here also Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa thought that there was nobody to compete with him. But Maithri and we left the Government and showed how to defeat him within a short span of one and half month.

This is a very good lesson for all tyrannies, not only for Rajapaksas but even for the future rulers who try to ignore the people. This is just only a quick project.

When we gave up our portfolios and all perks, some people thought that we would be finished. We overcame the Rajapaksas and the tyranny in the country. We won freedom and independence.

We will never allow anybody to sabotage. We will be very firm and take action against all those who breach the law. This is a Government for good governance. Good governance doesn't mean passive and it is a very dynamic one. We have the courage to tackle anything created by this so-called mighty families and the Opposition. We are ready to face any threat and overcome it as we did in the recent past.

The worst struggle is now over. All other future struggles, will not be so severe and we will face them successfully. We will give our people a new country, new culture and a new civilisation. You would be able to see that and when you all journalists reach our age, it will perhaps be another world.

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