For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Journalists in Sri Lanka began a campaign on January 25 in memory of colleagues who fell in the quarter-century long civil war in the island nation. This day of protest united all Sri Lanka’s principal professional journalism bodies and was planned as a reminder to those in power that the vital task of national reconciliation requires more than token gestures.
The campaign was also aimed at dispelling the climate of impunity for attacks on the media which was a feature of the years of ethnic strife, and at allowing a free voice for human rights defenders who stand up for a fair and just society.
Government spokespersons began to mobilise their own campaign of hostile rhetoric soon after the alliance of professional bodies announced plans for the January 25 observance.
IFJ sources in Sri Lanka report that in the second week of January the government-owned TV channel launched an attack, bristling with unseemly aggression, against the Free Media Movement (FMM), a voluntary body which some of Sri Lanka’s finest journalists have been associated with for close to two decades. While playing old footage of these journalists and activists from past campaigns, the TV channel ran a commentary on its main news programmes, attacking them in virulent terms.
According to a reliable translation provided by IFJ sources in Sri Lanka, the commentary accused these activists of “betraying” the “motherland for gold and titles”. With mock regret that the descendants of individuals who were “killed” during the reign of the kings “live on today”, the commentary promised that those who “do no good to the country, would some day face no good”.
On January 10, the government-owned newspaper accused the FMM of petitioning the European Union (E.U.) to terminate the bilateral trade preferences Sri Lanka enjoys. Two former convenors of the FMM and, by subtle implication, the current holder of that post, were accused of seeking to undermine a concession that many industries in Sri Lanka benefit from. The report did not stint in the use of suggestive and extremely hostile rhetoric, describing the individuals named as “anti-national elements” who were sustained on “foreign funds”.
The IFJ is unaware of any occasion when the FMM has urged the withdrawal of trade concessions to Sri Lanka. Rather, the FMM has invariably focused its attention on the Sri Lankan government and repeatedly underlined the need for it to live up to the human rights standards under which the E.U. trade preferences are granted.
Prior to the FMM’s planned demonstrations of January 25, the government secured a court injunction restricting the protests to a narrow area around the Fort Railway Station, a major landmark in Colombo, the capital city. Though the FMM and its allied organisations made it clear that they were not seeking confrontation, gangs of stick-wielding toughs reportedly took over the place where the demonstrations were planned. Placards carried by these gangs explicitly identified the FMM as an ally of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the ethnic insurgent group defeated by government forces in 2009 after a civil war marked by gross human rights violations by both sides.
On January 25, the government-controlled newspaper, the Daily News, carried an editorial which warned that any effort to “sabotage the progress of the country by disruptive elements (would) be put down”. The editorial identified the FMM, which coordinates the activities of all other professional bodies in the country – including journalists’ bodies organised on linguistic and ethnic lines – as “one of those organisations which have been in the forefront of lambasting the Lankan state on numerous issues”. The FMM, the editorial warned, “has been steeped in controversy and has a lot of soul-searching to do”.
The Daily News editorial then proceeded quite gratuitously to ask about the current whereabouts of the FMM’s leadership:
We wonder where its ‘Founding Fathers’ are today? Are they in this country or in some safe Western Comfort Zone?
The IFJ believes that these insinuations about individuals who were involved in human rights and media freedom campaigns in Sri Lanka through the difficult years of the civil war are completely misplaced. There is, moreover, no mystery about their current whereabouts, since most of them were virtually forced into exile by the events of January 2009, one of the worst months of a dark quarter century for journalism in Sri Lanka.
Yet this does not diminish the importance of the cause that they took great risks to advocate: media freedom as an imperative in the process of building peace.
As an organisation that has been closely involved with the FMM and its allied bodies, the IFJ believes that the tone of public comment in government-controlled media is unwarranted and speaks of a determination to pursue the policies that led to the bitter estrangement between Sri Lanka’s main linguistic communities.
With reconciliation being the proclaimed objective of the government of President Mahindra Rajapaksa, a more accommodating attitude seems called for in addressing the serious abuses of human rights that set the country back severely through its long civil war.
The IFJ notes that the report of an official commission appointed by the President as part of the process of national reconciliation was published late in 2011 and has led to some debate. This voluminous report, by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), devotes a modest amount of space to media freedom issues, but its language is compelling. Since these observations come from a duly accredited body constituted by the all-powerful president of Sri Lanka, we would like to quote from its findings at some length.
The LLRC records that it has been “deeply disturbed” by the reports that have persisted since the end of the war about “attacks and obstacles placed on journalists and media institutions”. These difficulties have been experienced even by “news websites”. The “killing of journalists” is another matter of serious concern flagged by the LLRC, which goes on to remark that the failure to “conclusively” investigate and bring the “perpetrators” to justice does little credit to the Sri Lankan government.
The LLRC notes, with some severity, that even while its deliberations were in progress, there was a “deplorable attack on the Editor of the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna”. Such “actions”, the LLRC has warned, “clearly place great obstacles in the way of any reconciliation efforts”. Indeed, it points out, “any failure to investigate and prosecute offenders would undermine the process of reconciliation and the Rule of Law”.
The LLRC report is still being debated in Sri Lanka and diverse opinions are being voiced about the utility of its contribution to national reconciliation.
The IFJ and all its global associates are, however, encouraged by the LLRC recommendations that have a bearing on journalism. These need to be quoted in some detail:
Freedom of expression and right to information, which are universally regarded as basic human rights, play a pivotal role in any reconciliation process. It is therefore essential that media freedom be enhanced in keeping with democratic principles and relevant fundamental rights obligations, since any restrictions placed on media freedom would only contribute to an environment of distrust and fear within and among ethnic groups.
This would only prevent a constructive exchange of information and opinion placing severe constraints on the ongoing reconciliation process.
The Commission strongly recommends that:
a. All steps should be taken to prevent harassment and attacks on media personnel and institutions.
b. Action must be taken to impose deterrent punishment on such offences, and also priority should be given to the investigation, prosecution and disposal of such cases to build up public confidence in the criminal justice system.
c. Past incidents of such illegal action should be properly investigated. The Commission observes with concern that a number of journalists and media institutions have been attacked in the recent past. Such offences erode the public confidence in the system of justice. Therefore, the Commission recommends that steps should be taken to expeditiously conclude investigations so that offenders are brought to book without delay.
d. The Government should ensure the freedom of movement of media personnel in the North and East, as it would help in the exchange of information contributing to the process of reconciliation.
e. Legislation be enacted to ensure the right to information.
Global organisations affiliated with the IFJ are seriously concerned that, despite these very clear recommendations, the government of Sri Lanka seems intent on confronting the independent media, escalating the violent rhetoric against journalists, and questioning their motives in seeking restitution due for years of hardship.
The IFJ recalls that this manner of rhetoric contributed directly to the brutal attack on Poddala Jayantha, then the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association, in June 2009. Jayantha, a highly awarded journalist, suffered permanent disability and now lives in exile.
Leaked diplomatic cables from the U.S. mission in Colombo through the later years of the civil war have recently emerged, showing that the Sri Lankan authorities were in the know about the agencies behind the most outrageous attacks against the media.
In January 2006, S. Sukirtharajan, a photographer with the Tamil daily from Colombo, Sudar Oli¸ was shot dead by assailants on motorcycles just days after he had published photographs proving that five Tamil students found dead in the eastern city of Trincomalee had been victims of an execution by state security agencies. A cable from the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka at the time has now come to light which records President Rajapaksa’s brother Basil Rajapaksa, then as now a senior minister, admitting that the “Special Task Force” of the Sri Lankan military may have carried out the killing of the five students.
In August 2006, the Jaffna office of the Uthayan newspaper – part of the same group as Sudar Oli – was attacked with fire bombs and seriously damaged. As narrated to the U.S. ambassador in Sri Lanka, again by the President’s brother, this attack was in all probability carried out by the Sri Lankan Navy in league with a Tamil political party that is a close ally of President Rajapaksa’s.
In one of the most shocking incidents since the civil war was officially declared over in May 2009, the news editor of Uthayan was attacked with iron rods on the streets off Jaffna and left for dead shortly after elections to local bodies in the northern province were concluded in July 2011. The newspaper had editorially supported the opposition parties which registered significant wins in the elections.
The LLRC had taken note of this attack and commented sharply on it. The IFJ and its global partners conclude with extreme regret that the Sri Lankan government’s continuing failure to act against this manner of lawlessness, indeed its seeming eagerness to promote the rancour that contributed to the violence, suggest not a desire for national reconciliation, but its very opposite.
For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +612 9333 0950
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