FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION SRI LANKA

For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya

SRI LANKA: Abuse of arrest and detention under the new presidential order

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

The arrest of the printer of a poster and the holding of his family members to force him to surrender indicates the type of suppression that will be extended to all political activities now within the new presidential order achieved through the completion of the authoritarian system by the passing of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. The responsibility for the publication of this poster has been publicly claimed by the United National Party (UNP) of Sri Lanka.

The UNP is the leading opposition party. The poster, which bears the title claiming that the President is a dictator, was in the process of being printed. It was meant to be part of the protest against the 18th Amendment which the entire opposition claimed as an attempt by the president to complete the enhancement of his powers.

Criticism of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which gives dictatorial powers to the president was made by almost everyone. Therefore it was a widely held opinion by a large section of the population that the amendment will lead to the president acquiring these powers. The poster was therefore only a depiction of a widely held opinion.

In political life, people express opinions in many ways. Some do so by speeches and others by writing. Yet others express themselves by various depictions of their ideas through pictures and commentaries. The production of cartoons and posters are forms of protest that are used all over the world. Suppression of a poster is therefore the suppression of public opinion and the right of publication. The arrest of persons on the basis of such publication is therefore an attack on the rights, not only of the printer and the publisher, but also of the entire population.

Debating political ideas is an essential part of the life of civil society. Suppression of this normal natural activity affects the inner life of society.

The discussion on the 18th Amendment was conducted by disallowing time and space for debating an amendment to the Constitution. The government itself admitted that there was such oppression. The government’s legitimation was that this was how the earlier amendments to the Constitution had been passed and that therefore, it was legitimate. In other words the government did not deny the fact that the people were not allowed to participate in the process of the making of an amendment to the basic law of the country which is the Constitution. The Constitution is the most paramount law.

It is an undisputed principle of the rule of law that if a law is to be obeyed by the people the law must be made with the consent of the people. The mere consent of elected representatives does not constitute consent for this purpose. A public debate is the means by which the people get to know about a proposed law and also that is the time that the people get to know the opinions of others. Civilised society allows all opinions to be expressed before a law is passed so that the people would know all the matters pertaining to that law. By listening to all these opinions the people are able to give their informed consent to the proposed law. Coerced consent cannot be considered consent under any circumstances. For consent to be meaningful it must be free and well-informed consent.

Public debate is not the only way in which to give informed consent but it is also the way in which the people get to know about a law. There is the presumption that everyone knows the law. Nobody who violates a law can take the defense that he was not aware of it. This also implies an obligation to the government that when a law is made it is made in such a way that the public would acquire this knowledge. Denial of public debate about a law is the denial of people to know about such a law. Denial of such knowledge stifles the very life of a society.

Therefore the suppression on a poster by confiscation and the arrest of the printer are therefore acts which are against society because they are acts which are meant to stifle public debate. This however, is no surprise. The new presidential order is intended to create a society where politics and opinion do not exist. The idea of a strong government now promoted by the president is one where there are no other opinions except that of the government. The only way to have the opinion of the government as the overall opinion of the society is to suppress every form of public discussion.

Of course the state cannot stop people from thinking and holding opinions in their hearts. However, the state can suppress the people from expressing their feelings. The new presidential order will be one in which whatever is in the hearts and minds of the people will not be allowed to be expressed as all such thoughts will be considered subversive. This new concept of subversiveness will spread through society.

In the previous decades the idea of subversion was defined in terms of terrorism. Anyone holding opposite opinions were categorised in this definition and many were arrested, detained and even extrajudicial killed on this basis. However, despite of terrorism being brought to an end a new kind of subversion is being defined now.

The creation of a society without politics is the aim of the suppression of the posters and all forms of the media. that was the aim of the forced disappearance of Prageeth Eknaliyagoda and also the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge. It was this that necessitated the fleeing of many journalists. This will now spread into every minute detail, even to the printing of a poster by the leading opposition party of Sri Lanka. The attack on the poster of the UNP should not be seen as a matter affecting this party alone but rather an attack on the right to make and hold opinions. The suppression of the UNP and the JVP and will be a characteristic of the new presidential order. The continuous arrest, detention and fabrication of charges against Sarath Fonseka are also another aspect of this same phenomenon. Anyone can join this new presidential order by abandoning their political opinion be rewarded for that. Those who hold on to any opinion that the government disallows will be treated in the same way that Jayampathi Bulathsinhala is being treated and even in the same way that Prageeth Eknaliyagoda was treated.

For the details of the arrest of Jayampathi Bulathsinhala kindly see:
SRI LANKA: The case of Jayampathi Bulathsinhala (the publisher of a poster) and some of his family members

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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