It was in the early 1970s that the United Left Front government led by Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike decided to take over the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd (popularly referred to as Lake House). The UNP protested vociferously against this decision both in Parliament and outside. Nevertheless, the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited Special Provisions Law No 28 of 1973 (Law No 28″) was passed.
In order to dampen public agitation, the ULF government said that the purpose of Law No 28 was not to run Lake House as a state enterprise but to break the media monopoly held by one family. It was argued that the law would provide for only a temporary vesting of the shares in the Public Trustee and that, as soon as the law was passed, steps would be taken forthwith to broadbase the ownership.
Law No 28 provided for 75% of the shares to be taken over by the Public Trustee and the remaining 25% to be left with the original shareholders providing, however, that no single shareholder could hold more than 2%. Article 5 provided for subsequent speedy divesting to the public of those shares which had been vested in the Public Trustee. However, thirty-two years have elapsed since the take-over and no government, whatever its hue, has carried out the divestiture required to be effected in terms of this law, notwithstanding the repeated pre-election promises made in the various party manifestos. All Parliamentarians belonging to successive governments have contributed to this betrayal of the pledges given to the people. The blatant and deliberate deceit practised on the public has been compounded further by the issuing of shares to state corporations so as to increase the governments control to 95% of the total shareholding. Far from broadbasing the ownership, this subterfuge, for all practical purposes, has kept Lake House under the rigid control of the government. This has enabled the parties in power to prostitute Lake House for their election and other propaganda purposes. This flagrant misuse of government resources for party political advantage represents corruption of a high degree.
In 1995, the PA government appointed the Sidat Sri Nandalochana Committee to recommend a scheme to broadbase the ownership of Lake House. This Committee proposed that 20% of the shares be given to the employees, 15% to a trust to be drawn from the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), universities and similar institutions, and the balance shares to be sold on the stock market. However, no effort has been made to implement these proposals.
CIMOGG unreservedly condemns the continued flouting of Law No 28 and, particularly, the sordid misuse of Lake House resources on behalf of the parties in power, particularly at election times. It, therefore, calls upon all political parties to state unequivocally in their election manifestos that they undertake to implement Law No. 28 within the first six months of the next elections, if they come to power. All politicians should note that Sri Lankan voters are becoming progressively less and less forgiving of unfulfilled pre-election pledges.
CIMOGG urges the public to consider the stand of the political parties, as set out in their manifestos, regarding the extent of their commitment to freedom of the press and the other media, and to protest vigorously through these media against those politicians who do not honour their election promises.