I am running short on time these days to keep up with the local news, especially the spontaneous decisions that the government comes up with. So my best source for information of the past day, is the early morning chat I have with my father as he irons his clothes for the day. Something that came up in that chat was the apparent decision by the government to appoint Mr. Mano Tittawella to the post of Secretary of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP). He is currently the Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) since 29th, March 2016. I thought that was quite a quick decision by the cabinet, but I was also confused as to how Mr. Tittawella would function as both head of two national organisations working on reconciliation efforts.
When we inquired about this from the Secretariat for the Coordination of Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) and obtained their press release, I understood the matter clearly.
The whole thing was one huge mess in the information system of the country. As most messes in the country start, this one also starts at the top; from none other than the Cabinet Co-Spokesperson Minister Rajitha Senaratne. A Daily News article yesterday reported that the Minister stated at the weekly cabinet media briefing, that the cabinet has recommended Mr. Tittawella to be appointed to the post of Secretary of the OMP. Most media outlets reported the same matter and overnight Mr. Tittawella was the inaugural Secretary of the OMP.
But he was not. The press release by the SCRM today makes this quite clear; “Mr. Tittawella is neither the secretary nor a member of the OMP”.
The 7 member body that is to run the OMP is to be appointed by the President on recommendations made by the Constitutional Council. A Cabinet recommendation cannot confirm the Secretary of the OMP, since the Constitutional Council and the President are yet to take any decisions on the matter. It looks like journalists just grabbed on to the story, forgot the word ‘recommendation’ and went about telling on TV, radio and print media that the OMP has an inaugural Secretary. National Media will have to seriously reconsider their fact checking mechanisms without simply being victimised by ‘gotcha journalism’.
Then, one could also question whether the Cabinet has actually made such a recommendation. Because I would personally question how the same individual could head both the Secretariat for the Coordination and the OMP at the same time. It just makes no sense. Minister Rajitha also has a history of saying all sorts of things at the these cabinet media briefings. He has in the past put other Ministers, including Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayke, in the spotlight via factually incorrect statements.
In the Press Release today, the SCRM clarified that at the “cabinet of Ministers at its last cabinet meeting approved the structure of the SCRM and the required funding for its operations. Accordingly, Mr Abesinghe Arachchige Dayananda was appointed to the post of Head of Establishments.”
Minister Rajitha is also someone who is surely under quite a lot of strain and with a lot of things to keep in mind. Considering that at the cabinet meeting he had discussed the SCRM, which is headed by Mr. Tittawella, it is possible that he made a slip of the tongue or his memory messed up the facts when questions about the OMP came up at the briefing.
Whatever the reason, it is advisable that the Minister and his staff prepare well for the scheduled weekly cabinet media briefing. Following a script is advisable and his staff should ensure that he has the required information at his fingertips. This is not the first time he has made such mistakes and if his staff doesn’t act to prevent it, this won’t be the last either.
This incident also throws into light the importance of the ongoing process to set up a National Information Centre headed by former Media Minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar. Such a centre would provide a national institution for media to clarify the authenticity of the spontaneous statements made by ministers and government officials. But if our national media outlets continue to go down the ‘gotcha journalism’ road, even that won’t do much good.