For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Sunday, February 07,2010
COLOMBO: The increasing number of assaults, abductions and arrests of journalists has raised concerns about the freedom of expression and the safety of Sri Lankan journalists among local and foreign media and media rights groups. According to sources some personnel were assaulted a few days after the Presidential election on January 26. Hema Ajith, secretary of the pro-UNP union Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) was interdicted and several members of the Production Directors Union were sent on compulsory leave while some directors too were interdicted.
The president, vice president and secretary and some members of the Rupavahini Television Programme Producers Union were also interdicted, according to state media sources.
Rupavahini Television Programme Producers’ Union organiser Ravi Abeywickrema was assaulted after he was called into the office of the Chairman of the SLRC, the sources alleged. They said several members including the president and vice president of the SLRC Employees Union were also interdicted.
A member of the pro-government union too was sent on compulsory leave, sources said. One of the employees who was interdicted a few days ago saidtheir unions have been continuously pressurising the top level management to follow the Supreme Court rulings and even staged protests demanding state media to be unbiased as well as to put a stop to the financial loss incurred on advertisements of one of the candidates.
“On the 29th we reported for work only to hear that one of the producers, Ravi Abeywickrema had been assaulted by an assistant transport officer and an additional DG. He had sustained injuries to his right eye.
Then they, including the chairman of the SLRC, called all of us and verbally abused us using filth,” he charged. He said they would not hesitate to take the matter up in the Supreme Court.
He said several employees of the Independent Television Network / Lakhanda and members of the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya were told they were interdicted before being verbally abused in front of other staff members on January 28.
“On February 1, security officials did not allow us to enter the building. We were seated outside till about 3.15 and then the letters of interdiction were handed over,” he alleged.
There were also allegations that employees who supported the presidential opposition candidate at the state print media Lake House were also assaulted. “A manager, a member of the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya and secretary of the union were assaulted and later hospitalised,” an employee charged.
He said a letter has been sent to the Inspector General of Police while letters were being drafted to be sent to the Mahanayake Theras and Bishops requesting their intervention to stop this brutality. “Most of us are in hiding and some have not been to their homes since the 27th”, he said.
Meanwhile, Lanka, a pro-JVP newspaper started its operations this week after the Gangodawila magistrate’s court ordered the CID to allow the newspaper to operate after it was sealed last week.“Coming back to work was a great victory for us. The CID had asked court to seal the office for a further two weeks but the Gangodawila magistrate stated as there was no evidence against the newspaper to allow us to resume work,” P. Dayaratne, a staff member of Lanka editorial said.
One of the directors of ‘Lanka’ Lal Tennakoon, who was released after questioning this week said they were questioned on the administrative functions, number of employees, sales information and mode of funding.
He said the CID had a collection of anti government articles published in the newspaper. However, editor of the paper Chandana Sirimalwatte is still in CID custody over articles that were published on January 17 and January 26, one regarding Kumaran Pathmanathan (K.P) and the other over alleged mansions owned by the Rajapaksa family.
Anti-government website Lanka e-news staff meanwhile expressed concern over missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, who disappeared on January 24.
Bennett Rupasinghe, editorial staffer of Lanka e-news said when they contacted a senior minister he had assured that Ekneligoda would be released in two to three days time. “The Human Rights Commission has shown reluctance to look into the complaint by the wife of Ekneligoda. They have said that the HRC does not investigate such disappearances,” he charged.Meanwhile media minister, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said several state media groups were presently conducting internal disciplinary inquiries over the conduct of employees during the election period.
He said with regard to the arrest of Lanka Editor Chandana Sirimalwatte, the CID investigations were still on and if they did not find evidence they would produce him in court and he would be released on bail.
“He was taken into custody for revealing information of an ongoing investigation. Most probably he would be bailed out,” the minister said. He said that the Ministry has sent a letter to the Police Chief requesting the speeding up of search operations for Lanka e-news journalist Ekneligoda.
Meanwhile, more than ten days have passed since lankaenews.com journalist Prageeth Ranjan Bandara Ekneligoda disappeared or was possibly abducted, but police have got no good news for his grieving family members, who say they live with the hope that he would be with them soon.
Fifty-year-old Mr. Ekneligoda who was a livewire at the website that carried stories critical of the ruling UPFA disappeared two days before the presidential election. His 47-year-old wife K. M. Sandhya Priyangani said she had gone to several police stations but little or nothing had come out of the inquiries.
On January 24, Ekneligoda left his Pannipitiya home for office at Delkanda in Nugegoda around 10.30 a.m. Later he went out on an assignment and returned to office around 4 p.m. He had told his colleagues that he wanted to cover common opposition candidate Gen. (retd.) Sarath Fonseka’s pooja at the Kelaniya temple.
He had also told his colleagues that he wanted to meet a “contact” coming from Dambulla to get some information. “On several occasions, my husband told me that he felt he was being followed. He even told me that our home telephone lines are tapped and warned me not to talk any controversial topics over the phone. We even saw a vehicle without number plates near our house,” Ms. Ekneligoda said, adding that on January 19, her husband looked terrified and when she asked why he said a friend had informed him that his name was on a list of “disloyal journalists”. “I consoled him saying that he would be safe. I told him that the maximum they could do was to give him a threatening call,” she said.
Ms. Ekneligoda charged that the authorities were not so helpful in entertaining her complaint. She claimed that even officials of the Human Rights Commission accepted her petition only with much reluctance.
“The HRC officials said that although they might accept her complaint, they could not hold any inquiries because disappearances did not come under their purview,” she said. “They accepted the complaint only after the lawyer who accompanied me argued with them and insisted they could pursue the matter.”
Ms. Ekneligoda said she and her two sons were helpless and urged the President or the Media Minister to intervene to help find her husband.
Mr. Ekneligoda’s elder son Sathjith Sanjayabandara, 16, said his father believed in the freedom of expression and that he never showed fear in presenting the truth as it is. The younger son, Dhananjaya Sooriyabandara, a Grade 8 student, was talkative and friendly, but since his father’s disappearance he has become sulky and silent. He refused to speak to us but later added that he wanted his father back.
Ekneligoda was no stranger to abductions. On August 27 last year, an armed gang abducted him. He was questioned and released the following day.He entered journalism during the 1988-89 era of terror and has contributed political articles to a number of newspapers from the alternate media.
Meanwhile, eight media institutions. including the Free Media Movement (FMM), the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka (NSSL), the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF) , the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance (SLTMA), the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka, the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) and the Federation of Media Trade Unions (FMTU), have written to President Mahinda Rajapaksa over the recent attacks on media personnel and related issues.
The letter states: “As someone who has repeatedly expressed commitment to upholding the values of a free media as an essential component of democratic society, we wish to bring to your attention the grave situation that has arisen with regard to media freedom in the country. We have already pointed out incidents that took place during the Presidential Election campaign where the media faced suppression and was prevented from expressing diverse and opposing views. We observe that the situation has deteriorated further after the conclusion of the presidential elections. The following incidents provide evidence of this trend.
1.The whereabouts of well-known political commentator Prageeth Eknaligoda remain unknown since his disappearance at midnight on January 24 ,2010. A regular contributor to the Lankaenews website and a father of two children, Eknaligoda suffers from a diabetic condition and has undergone open heart, bypass surgery for which he requires daily medication. His wife has lodged a complaint with the Police and has been informed that investigations are on -going. At a media conference on January 25, 2010, Minister of Information Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene stated that the Government has information regarding his disappearance. Media organizations have called for any information relating to his disappearance and for his early release but have not received a favourable response so far.
2. The Lankaenews website was blocked on the eve of the presidential elections. After complaining to the elections commissioner about it, and following his order to Sri Lanka Telecom not to prevent access to the website, the editor and staff of Lankaenews received threatening phone calls. The continued presence of unknown persons in the vicinity of the Lankaenews office has also been noted and the Welikada Police have been duly informed.
3. On January 28, Programme Producer Ravi Abeywickreme of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation was assaulted by the Transport Co-ordinator, in the presence of the Chairman and the Director General. Other programme producers Kanchana Marasinghe, Herbert Kumara Alagiyawanna, Gamini Pushpakumara and Daya Mahinda Gunatilake were verbally abused. Subsequently, Herbert Kumara Alaguyawanna has been dismissed and the others have been interdicted. They have been informed of this decision by their SLRC Employees Union. They are officers and member of the SLRC Producers’ Association and Free Media Movement.
4. On January 30, Chandana Sirimalwatte editor of Lanka, a weekly newspaper was asked to call over at the CID to make a statement. Following questioning he was detained by the CID. The office of the newspaper was sealed thereafter, but was subsequently removed following a court order.
5. Among the reports of post election violence in various parts of the country is the attack on the residence of provincial reporter from Kurunegala, Gunaratne Liyanarchchi, by an unidentified group on the night of January 28.
6. On February 01, an unruly crowd attacked a group of media employees from Lake House. Reports indicate that two people have been hospitalized.
7. We would like to remind you of the behaviour of the state media during the lead up to the presidential election. The elections commissioner has also expressed his displeasure on the manner in which the state media behaved. Even after the election concluded the state media continues to harass certain media institutions and organizations by publicizing false statements using abusive language. The state media has also broadcast reports saying that in the event of the Opposition candidate winning the election, he would assassinate you and others, and that he would use journalists and resources of the state media to create a state of confusion in the country.
Your Excellency, all these incidents taken as a whole are creating a sense of terror within the media industry in the country due to the intimidation and suppression taking place in different parts of the country by unruly groups targeting members of the Opposition. We believe that if this escalating situation is not brought under control immediately there will be unforeseen repercussions.
If your election victory is to be celebrated in a democratic manner it should not be only limited to your voters, and should not include the suppression of selected media institutions and journalists. We believe that if this situation continues it would not bring you repute but disrepute instead.