For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
When this correspondent went to the Fort Railway Station to join colleagues in a planned demonstration of media activists last Thursday, he was confronted by an unexpected situation. The site of the proposed demonstration was already occupied by (presumably) agents of the government who held a counter protest. Their placards read: “Free Media Movement is a Tiger voice,” and reviled the exiled media activist Poddala Jayantha — who was abducted and had both his legs broken by his abductors, who it was widely believed at the time had acted under the orders of the powers that be. Jayantha subsequently fled the country.
State orchestrated protests are all too familiar in this country and where in our part of the world, highly politicized societies create sycophants in overwhelmingly large numbers. From autocrats to plain tin pot dictators, ranging from Gaddafi to Mubarak, some brought in their own stooges to hold protests in their favour in recent months.
As I was about to leave for the Lipton Circus where the media demonstration was moved to, to avoid a confrontation, I could see lunch packets and soft drinks be distributed among protestors.
At the Lipton Circus, protesting media activists demanded that the government investigate a series of unresolved attacks and killing of media personnel. The government described the protest, predictable enough, as an international conspiracy. That is an old worn-out tactic which has lost its resonance for many but apparently not to this government. Notwithstanding the government’s rhetoric, the bitter and sordid truth remains that none of the high profile attacks on media institutions and personnel in this country have been properly investigated.
Last week’s demonstration was called the Black January protests in recognition of the fact that an overwhelming number of high profile attacks against media in the past few years have taken place in the month of January.
January – a ‘black month’
A correspondent of the Jaffna based the Uthayan newspaper , Sugirdharajan was shot dead on January 24, 2007, days after the Uthayan newspaper published pictures showing close range gunshot wounds of five slain students in Trincomalee which suggested that they were shot execution style, contrary to the official version that they died in a grenade explosion blamed on the victims themselves. The investigation into Sugirdharajan’s murder led nowhere and his killers are still at large.
On January 3, 2009 Sirara TV studio was attacked. The attackers are still at large. On January 8 the same year, the editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge was assassinated. Again, the investigation into his murder has not yielded any tangible results.
The soldiers of the directorate of military intelligence who were initially detained were later released and the then head of the directorate of military intelligence, who was recalled from a diplomatic posting in Eretria, was later appointed to a command position of a military division in the Vanni.
On January 24, 2010 cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared. As to why the investigation into the disappearance of Ekneligoda was stalled, soon after the CID investigators traced the last caller who contacted Ekneligoda on the day of his abduction, to somewhere in Batticaloa, is a mystery equal to his abduction itself.
Later that year, Poddala Jayantha was abducted in a white van and his abductors grievously assaulted him, leaving his as a cripple.
Those are a few incidents in a long list of attacks carried out against the media in recent times which also include the assassination of Taraki during the time of the Chandrika Kumarathunga administration, the raid by the gunmen on the Uthayan newspaper office — which resulted in two employees being killed on the World Press Freedom Day, and the arson attack launched against Lankaenews, last year.
The Government of Sri Lanka has not adequately investigated a single assault or killing or an abduction of media personnel. Its failure, one could suspect, stems from its culpability in those incidents. The suspicious nature as to how investigations into many attacks are stalled is proof of those concerns.
A responsible government would have seen that a disproportionately high number of attacks on media committed during its reign as a black mark on its integrity. However, such soul searching is absent in the current regime.
The government has, instead, sought to label media activists and media organizations as NGO agents and part of an international conspiracy. Sri Lankans, in general, are sick of hearing these concoctions about international conspiracy theories. And it is rich, especially when it is coming from a government which has not only miserably failed to investigate, but also stands accused of connivance and complicity in those heinous attacks.
Prone to repeat mistakes
However, nations which fail to acknowledge their past wrongs are prone to repeat them. Sri Lanka has seen three separate occurrences of extra judicial killings and disappearance as the nation could not adequately address those concerns when they first emerged with the government crack down of the 1971 JVP rebellion.
When the killers of Sivaram were allowed to roam free in early 2000s, it gave a license for the killers of Sugirdharajan in Trincomalee and Lasantha in Colombo. Many more media activists have been victims to this climate of impunity fostered by the government.
And future killers would be much at ease in carrying out their deeds, as many would feel, with overwhelming empirical evidence, that the rule of law is in disarray, and that the state itself is on their side. What media activists demanded resonantly at the Black January protest was that justice be delivered to the slain colleagues and the climate of impunity brought to an end.
“What we ask from the government is that those unresolved killings, abductions and attacks against the media be investigated,” says Gnanasiri Koththigoda, the acting president of the Working Journalists’ Association of Sri Lanka, who succeeded Poddala Jayantha after he was forced into exile.
“When the government fails to do so, and instead labels us as part of an international conspiracy, we wonder if that is because the government is involved in those attacks,” adds Kottigoda.
Is this government trying to confirm this looming suspicion, through its conduct?