FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION SRI LANKA

For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya

Editorial: Why flay the messenger? – The Island

June 11, 2012,
We have a government of morons. A cantankerous minister notorious for putting both his feet in his extra-large orifice has audaciously claimed that a family of three could survive on a meagre income of Rs. 7,500 a month. Another ministerial nitwit wants a licenced liquor bar opened in every village to send shebeens in the rural sector out of business. Yet another minister with bats in his belfry, instead of calling for the rehabilitation of tanks or wewas whose capacity has been greatly reduced by silt, encroachment and years of disrepair, to irrigate fertile paddy land, is urging rice growers who ask for water to switch over to cash crops like maize!

Asininity of these ignoramuses, afflicted by the incurable foot-in-the-mouth disease, looks infectious. We thought no-nonsense Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is one of the few top-rungers in the administrative service, who arguably come close to being technocrats, was free from the contagious political infection. But, he, too, is beginning to sound like a politician.

Gotabhaya addressing a gathering at the Weherahena Temple in Matara the other day, flayed the media for what he called helping hostile, external forces throw Sri Lanka in a bad light, by overplaying crime and violence. But, is self-censorship or the suppression of information the way to prevent a black picture being painted of this country? The answer is an emphatic ‘NO’. The media are not exaggerating the incidence of crime and violence, which, in fact, is alarmingly high. The only way the government could repair its image as well as that of Sri Lanka is to eliminate the cause rather than the effect which is bad publicity.

Before asking the media to soft-pedal crime etc., the Defence Secretary owes an explanation to the public as to why the government has failed to prevent and/or investigate crimes against the media let alone bring perpetrators to justice? The Sirasa TV studio complex came under an arson attack in 2009, and the attackers have gone scot free. The same fate befell Siyatha TV in 2010 and the arsonists got away with remarkable ease surprisingly in a high security zone. The Sunday Leader printing press was attacked twice in 2005 and 2008 and investigations were hushed up. The Sudar Oli press was attacked in 2005 and the perpetrators got away with their crime. The Udayan newspaper office in Jaffna has come under attack several times but no one has been brought to justice. Among the many journalists killed the most prominent was The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, who was brutally murdered in broad daylight in 2009. No breakthrough has so far been made in what is made out to be a probe into his killing. Adding insult to injury, President Mahinda Rajapaksa keeps asking the media, Lasantha’s family and friends to furnish evidence and help the police with the probe! He gets locked into the same repetitive groove whenever he is questioned on ‘investigations’ into other crimes such as the massacre of five Tamil students in Trincomalee in 2006!

President Rajapaksa and his party, the SLFP, together with its coalition partners made quite a hue and cry when the late President J. R. Jayewardene, intoxicated to the gills by a five-sixths parliamentary majority and unbridled executive powers, in his characteristic measured tone with a sarcastic grin to boot, told an irate public that they had to take care of their own security. But, today President Rajapaksa has overtaken JRJ; he wants victims of crime or their kith and kin to conduct criminal investigations, so to speak, and pass their findings on to the police for follow-up action! If people are to solve crimes themselves, what is the use of having a police force or a government? Little surprise that people, having lost faith in the police and the legal system, take the law into their own hands at the drop of a hat. This disturbing trend is symptomatic of nascent anarchy. It is high time the government realised that crime, human rights violations, corruption, abuse of power, criminal waste of public funds and the blatant plunder of people’s wealth cannot be swept under the carpet of pseudo-patriotism.

Yes, there are some foreign organisations bent on tarnishing the image of this country. The best way to neutralise them, we repeat, is not for the government to hide facts or crack down on them but to deprive them of grist for their mill by restoring the rule of law, combating crime effectively and improving its human rights record. The government can decimate the underworld within a matter of few days, given the sheer number of military and police personnel, especially the STF commandos at its disposal, if it is really keen to do so. But, it is baulking at the task because the nether world of crime and drugs is controlled by pro-government criminals who do its ‘political work’. The SLFP has a history of coddling dangerous criminals like Kaduwela Wasantha, Indare, Chandi Malli, Beddegana Sanjeewa and Wambotta. Some government politicians openly protect and benefit from drug czars like Kudu Lal, who fled the country a few years ago, with the help of a ministerial toughie. So, how could the incumbent government be expected to rid the country of crime? It only selectively eliminates some criminals from time to time.

Instead of reproaching the messenger for reporting facts, the government must get its act together as regards crime busting operations, criminal investigations and prosecution. At present crime prevention is conspicuous by its absence and the conviction rate is as low as four per cent. The abominable nexus between the ruling party potentates and underworld figures came to light last October when presidential advisor Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and UPFA MP Duminda R. Silva got involved in a shootout, which left the former dead and the latter critically injured. The police have been reduced to an appendage of the ruling UPFA. And, worse, the Defence Secretary naively or wilily animadverts on the media for the manner in which they report crime!
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