For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
(February 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
The premises of Lanka E-News, a well know website which has suffered several attacks in recent times has been set on fire in the early morning of January 31. According to reports the equipment and the premises where the website was maintained has been destroyed. Previously the editor of this website was constantly attacked and had to leave the country for his safety as he had been receiving death threats. A reporter and a cartoonist for this website, Prageeth Eknaligoda disappeared in January 2010 and his whereabouts remain unknown. The present editor of this news website, Mr. Bennett Rupasinghe, has stated to the press that the arson attack had taken place between 1:30 and 2:30 am on January 31st. Just before the incident at around 1 am an anonymous caller accused the Rupasinghe of campaigning on behalf the United National Party Member of Parliament for Hambantota, Sajith Premadasa and threatened him with death. Following the attack the fire fighters were called. However, by the time they arrived the Lanka E-News offices had been completely gutted.
The independent media in Sri Lanka has been under constant attack for several years now and widespread fear has been generated in the media about any kind of independent reporting on political issues in the country. This widespread fear is from time to time, reawakened by attacks such as the one that occurred this morning. Earlier, other independent media channels such as Sirasa TV and the Sunday Leader have been subjected to such attacks as arson and violence against the staff. Many journalists have been attacked and the best known incident in this regard was the murder, in broad daylight, of the editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge. A list of these attacks is provided below.
The responsibility of the government for these attacks is that the victims believe that it is the government itself that is behind these attacks because of the independent stances they have taken and their refusal to follow the government’s guidelines relating to the media that requires that there should be no political criticism against the government. However, there is no proof of who the culprits are because no inquiries are carried out into these attacks. Inquiries are always promised but nothing ever happens. That is the basis on which the government bears responsibility. The government fails to provide protection to all citizens including the media. It is this obligation that the government fails to carry out and this failure, in the face of enormous criticism from the public and various political groups in the country as well as the international community points to a deliberate policy of the prevention of inquiries. Thus the failure to have independent and credible inquiries is not a matter relating to the police alone but into the restraints that are exercised on the police by the government.
The deeper question in Sri Lanka is this deliberate policy of the prevention of inquiries into such serious attacks on the media by the government. A government that does not carry out its function of protecting its citizens is failing in one of its most fundamental obligations of governance. That fundamental obligation is to provide protection to its citizens. Any talk of good governance in a country where there is a failure on the part of the government to protect the basic rights of the citizens by ensuring inquiries into attacks on their rights are naturally quite fake.
A government that deliberately prevents inquiries into attacks on the media should be taken to task on that very issue. No society can be safe if the government takes deliberate measures to prevent criminal investigations into criminal acts. The basis of the maintenance of social order and civilised society is the obligation that a government has to conduct serious and credible investigations into all criminal acts. The failure to do this itself suggests criminality on the part of the state. If the state connives to remain a situation of criminality within society that society can no longer be safe. The fundamental obligation of the government to ensure social stability and the security of the people are thus being criminally neglected by the Sri Lankan government.
The opposition fails to take up this issue with the required seriousness and commitment. Part of the reason is that the United National Party, which is the leading opposition party engaged in similar criminal action in the past. They attacked freedom of expression and the media and also refused to conduct serious criminal investigations into those acts. Like the present government, the previous UNP government was also unwilling and incapable of inquiring into criminal acts about which the suspicions are that the culprits of such acts are those associated with the government itself.
When the government becomes the perpetrator of criminal acts and when the main political parties are unable to raise that fundamental issue within society that society is in great danger. It is in the worst form of danger because very protector of social security violates that security and ensures that the legal system cannot operate to wipe out criminality. When a government is engaged in suppressing the criminal investigation mechanism from investigation into crimes because of its own complicity into these crimes virtually the people have no way of protecting themselves. The major problem of Sri Lanka’s violence is this situation because the state itself engages in criminal acts and prevents the basic criminal mechanism from functioning. There cannot be any situation as bad as this.
In the failure of the political opposition to take on the issue of the criminality of the state apparatus Sri Lankan society is today in great danger. Much of the expression that comes through the creative media such as the various tele-dramas reflects the depth of this crisis. In these tele-dramas the heroes have become the underground. When people have problems, either regarding their family affairs or property affairs, as shown in these tele-dramas, the people no longer turn to the state authorities such as the police for investigations and for activation of the judicial process to protect themselves. Instead they seek the personalities of the underground. The powerful persons use the underground by means of their financial resources and get their problems solved through the intervention of these persons. On the other hand, the hero among the poor as portrayed by these tele-dramas is the ‘good guys’ in the underground who want to settle matters through violence on behalf of the oppressed. In both extremes it is the personalities of the underground that are called upon to settle the problems of society.
It is this terrible situation that creates the insecurity within Sri Lanka. When there is no protector, when the criminal justice system is prevented from exercising its authority by powerful political elements then the society is in the kind of chaos for which there is no solution.
The international community completely fails to understand this situation. Many declarations that Sri Lanka has become a safer place after the end of the war is based on this inability to understand the complete transformation of political life which basis itself on the possibility of criminal actions by the ruling party and by paralysing the criminal justice system is a difficult notion for the people who live in developed countries to understand. Therefore they wish to believe that the end of the war has brought peace to Sri Lanka. The kind of societal violence generated by the involvement of the state in criminal acts and the paralysis of the criminal justice system by the state is the issue that the international community needs to understand if they wish to understand the kind of nation that Sri Lanka has become.
This latest attack on the media in the form of the arson attack on Lanka E-News which was earlier preceded by the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda who was a reporter and cartoonist for the E-publication should bring home to the Sri Lankan people as well as the international community the kind of insecurity that exists within Sri Lanka. That is the problem that needs to be addressed if social stability is to return to the people of Sri Lanka so that they can live free of the nightmare of violence for which the state itself contributes.