For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
* Ongoing Trial Set To Take Prominence
By Vimukthi Yapa
The ongoing trial against The Sunday Leader is set to take prominence with a hearing held last Tuesday, October 19, where Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is seeking Rs. 1 billion in damages for articles published in 2008.
In another court case he is seeking a further Rs. 1 billion because of the publication of his photograph which he deemed to be defamatory. The newspaper is also facing a contempt of court case following the publication of a profile of the Defence Secretary, which Rajapaksa considered to be in violation of an agreement with The Sunday Leader.
International media organisations have begun to voice concerns reiterating that The Sunday Leader while continuing to be known as ‘one of the leading opposition newspapers’ in the country has come under constant attack from the Sri Lankan government. Besides the numerous legal cases facing the newspaper, its Founding Editor in Chief Lasantha Wickrematunge was murdered in January 2009.
In an article published last week titled ‘Trial Starts Against Leading Sri Lankan Opposition Newspaper’ by the World Press Freedom Review, The International Press Institute’s Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills was quoted as saying ‘despite the pressures and threats faced by the newspaper, The Sunday Leader remains today a vocal opposition newspaper in Sri Lanka. It plays an important role in holding the government to account.’
Mills went on to add that ‘The survival of non-governmental media outlets, such as The Sunday Leader, is instrumental to Sri Lanka’s democratization and peace process. Similarly, Sri Lankan institutions’ ability to act in full respect of the rule of law and international democratic principles is a necessary element to the success of the peace process.’
The primary case was initiated by Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he sued The Sunday Leader after a series of articles were published in 2008 highlighting the outcome of investigations carried out by the newspaper showing irregularities in the purchase, by the Sri Lankan government, of arms and aircraft.
The article described the purchase in 2006 of four MiG aircraft from the Ukraine, which had been rejected by the then tender evaluation committee headed by the present Commander of the Air Force a few years earlier. In 2006, however, the government bought the same four aircraft for 40 per cent more on the basis that they had been overhauled. The deal was said to be between the Ukrainian and the Sri Lankan governments.
The Sunday Leader did not specify who had benefited from this purchase; however it carried a picture of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is also the finance officer of the Defence Ministry. After Lasantha’s murder, the legal case has been prosecuted against The Sunday Leader, and its Chairman Lal Wickrematunge.
In another article, Lasantha Wickrematunge called the attention of the Defence Secretary to the fact that the new National Identity Cards were faulty in that the security features were inadequate. This article also carried a picture of the Defence Secretary, which he felt was defamatory, and so he filed another case against the newspaper, again seeking Rs. 1 billion.
Following these events, The Sunday Leader was given a restraining order asking the newspaper to stop defaming the Defence Secretary.
Traitors in Black Coats
After Lasantha’s murder, the group of lawyers originally defending The Sunday Leader said they did not want to appear for the newspaper anymore. The new lawyers, who appeared in court to defend The Sunday Leader after Lasantha’s death, excused themselves from court on the first date on which the Defence Secretary was in court, together with the Commander of the Air Force and high ranking Army and Military officers.
A third group of lawyers, who agreed to defend The Sunday Leader in the contempt of court case on July 9, 2010, were featured the next day in the lead story on the official website of the Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law & Order as “Traitors in Black Coats” (“Traitors in Black Coats Flocked Together?” was the title of the article on the website.) The website also carried the lawyers’ pictures.
Even after the International Bar Association and the local Bar Association issued statements condemning the article and requested that it be removed from the site, the Defence website continued to carry the story.
The defamation case was then adjourned until December 8. The contempt of court case will begin next on November 29.