Lawbreakers as judges



Wednesday 4th October, 2023

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, speaking in Parliament, yesterday, tore into the government for summoning some radio journalists before the parliamentary privileges committee over a news report. He accused the government of violating media freedom. His principled stand on the issue has struck a responsive chord with all those who are resisting the government’s determined bid to suppress dissent.

The MPs’ right to safeguard their privileges cannot be questioned, but the past several decades have seen many legislators leveraging their privileges to settle scores with the media. Most MPs are labouring under the misconception that their privileges grant them a blanket immunity, and anyone who criticises their actions must be hauled up before the privileges committee, and harassed. There is a pressing need to knock some sense into those worthies with deep pockets and shallow minds; they are the reason why public trust in the national legislature has eroded severely, and protesters wear Guy Fawkes masks, demanding that all 225 MPs go home.

The despicable practice of some MPs abusing their parliamentary privileges to harass journalists must be condemned unreservedly. Premadasa deserves praise for having addressed this issue, but there is a far worse problem that has gone unaddressed, and it warrants a serious discussion.

The MPs are vested with enormous powers. The Constitution allows Parliament to exercise the judicial power of the people directly in certain situations. Article 4 (c) of the Constitution says, “The judicial power of the People shall be exercised by Parliament through courts, tribunals and institutions created and established, or recognised, by the Constitution, or created and established by law, except in regard to matters relating to the privileges, immunities and powers of Parliament and of its Members, wherein the judicial power of the People may be exercised directly by Parliament according to law ….” This constitutional provision enables the MPs to act as judges where their privileges are concerned.

Nobody can become a member of the judiciary, which interprets and applies the law, unless he or she has acquired necessary educational qualifications and professional competence. But no one has to go through any such sifting process to become a member of Parliament. Even a shady character who is wealthy enough to throw money around can win parliamentary elections, or secure a National List slot by greasing the palms of political party leaders, and sit on a committee that is empowered to summon even judges.

The incumbent government sought to summon some judges before the parliamentary privileges committee over a judicial order pertaining to the delayed elections. Its intention was to intimidate the judiciary. Worryingly, the parliamentary Committee on Ethics and Privileges, at the time, had, as one of its members, Ali Sabry Raheem, MP, who had been nabbed and fined by the Customs for trying to smuggle in gold and mobile phones, a few months before. For the past several decades, a large number of anti-social elements such as killers, pickpockets, extortionists, chain snatchers, bootleggers, cattle rustlers and drug dealers have entered Parliament. They can, by virtue of being elected representatives, exercise the people’s judicial powers directly and even have judges appear before them! One may recall that in 2012, a group of UPFA MPs, who had earned notoriety for bribery and corruption and various other offences, insulted the then Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, who appeared before a parliamentary select committee.

Thus, when the people exercise their franchise, they ought to vote for the candidates who are educated and competent enough not only to carry out legislative functions and duties but also to exercise judiciary powers directly. The problem of the lowest of the low entering Parliament must be tackled at source. It is incumbent upon all political leaders including Premadasa to nominate only decent men and women to contest elections. Equally, the public cannot absolve themselves of the blame for the deterioration of the national legislature. Parliament will continue to stink to high heaven as long as the people are swayed by party loyalties and other factors such as caste, religion, ethnicity and patronage, when they vote at elections. They must stop the practice of electing political dregs, and then trying to set Parliament on fire.