For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
“Today, what remains of democracy and the rule of law in Sri Lanka is no different to the dream that amputees have about the continued existence of their lost limbs. The phantom limb complex prevails, while in reality, justice is impossible for those who have been victims of political crimes, as well as those who have suffered serious crimes, such as murder or rape.”
by Basil Fernando
(June 29, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian) For many decades now, international journalists have interpreted every story that has emerged from Sri Lanka to be some kind of war story. Some journalists have proposed that Sri Lanka’s use of overwhelming force was able to eradicate terrorism in the country, and that other countries such as the United States, should follow suit. The pathetic failure of international journalism is demonstrated by these endeavours.
In recent years, Sri Lanka has undergone a systemic collapse, as the rule of law system and any semblance of democracy have crumbled. This is a story that has never been portrayed adequately by international journalists; instead, almost all journalists continue to refer to Sri Lanka as a democracy. Journalists focus on Sri Lanka as a war zone, and there is little reflection about the development of Sri Lanka outside of the discourse of war.
In the south, the Sri Lankan government carried out one of the most ruthless acts of repression in history, killing tens of thousands of civilians between the 1970s and 1990s. The official number of disappearances at the hands of Southern rebel group, Janatha Vimuksthi Peramuna (JVP) is estimated to be around the figure of 30,000. Numerous civil society organizations and international agencies believe that this figure does not fully represent the magnitude of this repression. In terms of statistics, the scale of disappearances that took place in Sri Lanka is similar to what took place in Argentina in the late 1970s. However, while the disappearances in Argentina gained international outrage, the references to similar occurrences which took place in Sri Lanka have been few and far between. The disappearances took place in the south, and the Sri Lankan police and military were mobilized to kill Southern rebels, most of whom were Sinhalese. Since this story did not conform to the ethnic war story that international journalists were constructing about Sri Lanka, it was discarded in favor of a story that was more appropriate for their cause.
In 1978, Sri Lanka adopted a Constitution wherein the Executive President was raised above the law. It was a staggering change; instead of the Constitution being used to bring checks and balances to the Sri Lankan government. It obliterated checks and balances for the Executive President and effectively dismantled Sri Lankan democracy. This experiment has survived, and there has begun a discussion of removing the two-term limit of the President in power and creating a possibility for political transformation equivalent to that which took place under Suharto in Indonesia and in several African countries. However, for international journalists, this issue still did not contest the importance of stories about the war.
The transformation of the Sri Lankan democratic government into an authoritarian system has made freedom of expression an almost impossible function. Media agencies bow to the pressure of this repression. Disappearances and other kinds of attack continue to remain a threat to anyone who exercises their right to oppose this political transformation in the country. The murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga and the brutal attack on several other journalists as well as the fleeing of journalists from Sri Lanka remains a symbol of this vicious repression. Even these stories have been only a passing fancy to international journalists. The story of Lasantha Wickramatunga would have been entirely forgotten had he not received international awards for his actions. Even so, no justice of any kind has been dealt to the perpetrators of this murder. In fact, the identity of those who killed Mr. Wickramatunga remains a mystery. There was no credible investigation into the murder of any kind, demonstrating that the once sclerotic justice system is now entirely incapacitated. The story of the collapse of the administration of justice in Sri Lanka has still not been covered by the international press.
Today, what remains of democracy and the rule of law in Sri Lanka is no different to the dream that amputees have about the continued existence of their lost limbs. The phantom limb complex prevails, while in reality, justice is impossible for those who have been victims of political crimes, as well as those who have suffered serious crimes, such as murder or rape. One story which recently came to the surface was of a man traveling with his wife on a motorbike. The couple was stopped and the woman’s arm was cut off so that the thieves could steal her gold bangles, and her finger was cut off so they could take her gold ring. When her husband tried to resist, he was shot. Last week, a CID inspector who dumped the dead body of a murdered person into the sea was discovered. The magistrate had to issue a warrant to get the Deputy Inspector General arrested because he was avoiding court. Such difficulties which face ordinary Sri Lankans do not attract the attention of international journalists.
The collective failure of the international press has aided Sri Lankan authorities in consolidating an authoritarian regime in which the norms that were established to protect citizens have been broken down. Those journalists who believe in the importance of their role in disseminating information must question why the international media has failed to discuss and analyze the situation in Sri Lanka. There are many similar cases going on in other Asian countries and countries around the world. However, the issue remains that the international press has failed to reflect the depth of the crisis that ordinary Sri Lankan citizens continue to face.