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   Sad saga of post Rajapakse media freedom


Media abuse at a glance — a poster prepared some time back. Since then the scores have increased


   The Rajapakse Scorecard

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Arthur Wamanan and Nirmala Kannangara

In April this year, we produced a media report card which was a damning indictment on the powers that be. For it reflected the growing culture of threat, intimidation and even killing. Seven months later, we produce a second report card, studded with more incidents of violence and intimidation targeting the Fourth Estate.

We live in a country where top government officials telephone editors and threaten them with dire consequences, so much so that the editors end up considering that silence is not only golden but life saving. We live in a country where the CID comes rushing to arrest young journalists on flimsy and uncorroborated charges. We also practice a dangerous vocation at a time when goon squads burn printing presses to cinders and constructive criticism is anathema to some.

Family terror

What is documented here refers to a two year period of rule of Mahinda Rajapakse. It began soon after he was elected as the Executive Head. The one-time human rights champion and campaigner for media freedom shortly demonstrated his capacity to muffle the voice of reason through covert and overt acts. As a result, the Rajapakse administration today has an inexplicable and undefendable report card - both on the human rights and media freedom fronts.

In this muzzling the media campaign, his brothers Basil and Gotabaya too have subsequently taken their place. As a pointer to the collective Rajapakse track record, on the same page we produce instances from deaths to harassment as recorded by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Free Media Movement (FMM).

As the report shows, the muzzling exercise has been many faceted. This year alone has recorded 10 killings of media workers - nine of them Tamil (which speaks of a terrible ethnic dimension in media curbing).

There had been intimidation, harassment, threats and even economic pressure. The Rajapakse administration, to its dubious credit, also has forced the closure of a Sinhala newspaper, the Mawbima and its sister paper, the Sunday Standard. In addition, during the same period, the Leader printing press suffered arson attacks.

Restrictions

Another noteworthy aspect is the type of restriction placed on the Tamil media, both in government-controlled areas as well as LTTE held areas during the past 15 months. It is a sad reminder of a country that continues to suffer from the scourge of war.

As for this newspaper itself, a publication that three successive governments have loved to hate for its investigative journalism and advocacy of a graft free administration, there had been a price.

The Sunday Leader was sealed in the year 2000 for one and a half months. It was not a voluntary lifting of the clamp down, but a right established through the legal process that put the newspaper back in business.

The Editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge has suffered physical assault. The overt and covert pressures brought upon the newspaper throughout its history are too numerous to mention.

The advent of the Rajapakse regime brought no respite. It began with a furious telephone call from President Mahinda Rajapakse himself, using filthy and abusive words on the Editor of The Sunday Leader. The matter was not investigated into despite a complaint lodged with the CID by the Editor.

Next, every attempt was made by his sibling, Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapakse to find 'legal' ways to arrest the Editor of The Sunday Leader. But it was reliably learned at that time that the Attorney General's opinion went against this move, and there was temporary peace.

Continuous targeting

A week later, the newspaper carried a story about a costly construction of a presidential bunker. The following day, the government's mouthpiece, the Daily News published a snippet giving the state free advice as to how Wickrematunge could be arrested using the story as an instance of breaching emergency regulations and compromising national security. Yet, the attempt was aborted due to a stupendous display of media solidarity.

The overt and covert threats happen daily, and are multiplying.

According to the Free Media Movement (FMM), the year 2006 had been terribly marred with attempts to curtail media freedom. "Three reporters and six people working in media organisations have been killed in the past 15 months. But no one has been caught so far," says its Convenor, Sunanda Deshapriya.

Then he brings an important element - that government ministers are liberally accused through the state media and hate mail as being pro-LTTE and hence traitors. Like Wickrematunge, Deshapriya has also earned this label for the stance adopted on a formula for peace making.

Indictment

Quite naturally, Sri Lanka has now been dubbed one of the most dangerous places for journalists in South Asia, a title conferred by the International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression report.

With authorities reluctant to probe murder and rights abuses, a culture of impunity has set in, leading towards a crisis in confidence by media organisations towards the government. It has resulted in driving journalists towards self-censorship.  

There is also an unofficial censorship in the northern peninsula of Jaffna and in parts of the east, which is recorded elsewhere on this page. "The only success story was in securing the release of Mawbima journalist, Manusamy Parameswari who was detained for over 100 days without any charges," adds Deshapriya.

There have been other attempts to keep the media well under control. These have been through legal means - through the invoking of tough Prevention of Terrorism laws. They were introduced in December 2006, a year after Rajapakse assumed office.

A weapon

Like all unpopular governments, these laws are now being resorted to whenever there is a need to curb and control. They were effectively used on March 29 to close the Standard Newspapers Ltd. which carried articles critical of Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse and Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapakse, after its management was repeatedly pushed to toe the line. Next, the same laws aided the government to freeze the company's assets, citing suspected links to the LTTE.

On February 27, the Police Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) arrested the company's spokesman and financial director, Dushyantha Basnayake, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and released him weeks later. 

"The Sri Lankan media is increasingly struggling to operate freely and without fear. In recent months, this has resulted in a significant decline in the number of independent voices in the country," former IFJ President, Christopher Warren said in a statement.

 Furthermore, fears of the Emergency (Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities) Regulations can be used to restrict freedom of expression and are proving to be valid with new reports of arrests and the interrogation of journalists under these laws.

As the horrific drama continues to unfold, snuffing life out of media practitioners and institutions, there is fair reason to warn the state media of impending disaster. Under the PTA police questioned three Lake House journalists - Prasanna Fonseka, Ranga Jayasuriya and Lionel Yodhasinghe over a defence report on December 21, 2006. It shows that the government would not consider anyone immune - when it does not suit them.

Words of wisdom

Thomas Serville, an eminent writer once said, "Never prostitute your pen by dipping it in the ink of servitude."  It could be the editor, Daily Mirror or that of The Sunday Leader today and another tomorrow. The truth is that the element of risk exists - it simply changes its object depending on the occasion.

Until the media learns to stand as a collective force and not to dip their pens in the ink of servitude, there will not be a way out. For media freedom is not something rulers and governments offer on a platter. It is something earned by sheer hard work and founded upon peer appreciation. Or else, media practitioners will fall from their lofty role of watchdog to lapdog. And that would be a tragedy for any nation.

Chronology of incidents against media institutions and journalists in 2007

Media Workers killed

Subash Chandraboas (Editor) On April 16, the Editor of the Vavuniya-based monthly magazine Nilam, Subash Chandraboas (32) was shot dead at about 7.30 p.m. at his Vavuniya residence. He served a London-based magazine Tamil World as a free-lance journalist and owned a printing press in Vavuniya.

Subramaniyam Sukirtharajan (Journalist)  On January 24, Sugirdharajan, a Trincomalee port employee as well as a journalist attached to Sudar Oli was shot dead as he was waiting for a bus to go to work in the morning.   

Suresh Kumar and Ranjith Kumar (Media Workers) On May 3, as journalists gathered in Colombo to celebrate Press Freedom Day, a group of unidentified men attacked the office of the Jaffna based Uthayan newspaper. Suresh Kumar, marketing manager and Ranjith Kumar, working in the Circulation Department were killed. Five others were injured and the office was damaged. The police took six persons into custody in this regard but they were allowed bail.

Lakmal de Silva (Journalist) On July 2, freelance journalist Sampath Lakmal de Silva was shot dead by an unknown group. He was abducted at 5.00 a.m. from his parent's home in Boralesgamuwa and was later found shot dead three kilometres from his home.

Mariathas Manojanraj (Media Worker)  On August 1, newspaper vendor Mariathas Manojanraj was killed by a mine that was set off while he was travelling to Jaffna. The attack came as death threats against the distributors of Tamil-language newspapers increased.

Nilakshan Sahadavan (Journalist) On August 1, when a curfew was in force, 22 year old Nilakshan Sahadavan was shot dead by gunmen riding on motorcycles near his home in Kokuvil, an area heavily guarded by the military.

Sathasivam Baskaran (Media Worker) On August 16, driver cum distributor of the Jaffna based Uthayan newspaper was shot dead.  Baskaran, 44, was gunned down in his Uthayan delivery vehicle. He was shot while driving his vehicle in an area controlled by government armed forces. His vehicle was clearly marked as one serving the newspaper.

Sinnathamby Sivamaharajah (Managing Director) On August 21, Sivamaharajah,  managing director of the Jaffna Tamil daily, Namadu Eelanadu was reportedly shot dead at his residence in Tellippalai, Jaffna. Sivamaharajah was a former parliamentarian and a senior member of Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK). 

Media workers missing

Subramaniam Ramachandran, (Journalist) On February 15, the correspondent of the Tamil dailies Thinakural and Valampuri in the Vadamarachchi region north of Jaffna was abducted by an unknown group and is feared dead.

Vadivel Nimalarajah (Proof Reader) employed with the Jaffna-based Tamil daily Uthayan is missing since November 17. His colleagues say he was kidnapped near the Navalar Road railway while cycling home after a night shift as copy editor at the newspaper. 

Media workers arrested

Parameswari Manusamy - On November 24, 2006 a 23-year-old freelance female journalist was arrested by the Special Police Task Force at her place of lodging in Wellawatte. She was handed over to the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) and was released on February 24, 2007.

Asoka Fernando - On November 28, The Sunday Leader photographer Asoka Fernando was assaulted and arrested by the Maharagama police. Fernando was photographing an ongoing dispute at the Maharagama Buddhist Temple. He was given bail the same day.

Arthur Wamanan Sornalingam of The Sunday Leader was arrested by the CID on October 24 for allegedly demanding Rs. 5 million as ransom to withhold the publication of a news story from Enterprise Development Minister, Mano Wijeratne. He was released on bail two days later and the journalist has petitioned the Supreme Court for the violation of his fundamental rights through illegal arrest. 

Media workers attacked 

Tissa Ravindra Perera

On January 6, 2007, a group of about 30 policemen from the Homagama Police dressed in civvies allegedly assaulted Rivira defence journalist, Tissa Ravindra Perera and his family, causing injuries.

Ajith Senaviratne and Gananasiri Kottigoda

On January 9, an unruly mob assaulted two journalists, Ajith Senaviratne of Lanka E-News and Gananasiri Kottigoda of Haraya monthly and the BBC Sinhala Service, whilst  the first public rally of the United People's Movement in Nugegoda was disrupted by unruly elements. The mob also attacked another freelance cameraman taking photographs and confiscated his camera.

K. P. Mohan

Journalist Mohan was harassed on June 28 by airmen and assaulted a day later in the Fort. He was hospitalised for a week. Again on August 15, 2007 an unidentified gang threw acid on him while he was on his way home from hospital, and Mohan had to be admitted back into the same hospital for treatment. 

Media workers threatened and harassed

M. A. M. Nilam - January 9, 2007

On January 9, 2007, Minister A.H.M. Fowzie threatened the senior reporter of the daily Thinakkural at a press conference. The Minister had allegedly threatened Nilam to stop reporting on allegations of corruption related to his Haj pilgrimage saying his limbs would be broken.

Victor Ivan, Sunanda Deshapriya, Bandula Padmakumara and Lasantha Wickrematunge

In early January 2007, a death list was e-mailed widely, specifically naming four senior journalists for allegedly being 'traitors to the nation.' The journalists named were Victor Ivan, Editor Ravaya, Sunanda Deshapriya, Convener, Free Media Movement (FMM), Bandula Padmakumara, producer and presenter of Swarnavahini's Mul Pituwa programme and Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor The Sunday Leader.

Ruwan Ferdinandez

On January 22, Ruwan Ferdinandez, Director Editorial, Mawbima newspaper, lodged a complaint at the Rajagiriya police station stating he received death threats over the phone. The anonymous callers were threatening Ferdinandez to desist from writing on any issue related to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse and Advisor to the President Basil Rajapakse.

Pathma Kumari

On March 30, a group of armed men in civilian clothes visited the workplace of Pathma Kumari, a provincial correspondent of the  Lankadeepa newspaper and threatened her with death.

Saman Pathirana

MBC/MTV Polonnaruwa District correspondent, Saman Pathirana was threatened with death by a group of illegal sandminers while covering a mass scale illegal sandmining operation in the Amban Ganga area.

Vincent Jeyaram

The Tamil journalist, Jeyaram, attached to Associated Press (AP) and working in the Jaffna peninsula had to flee to Colombo following death threats via mobile text messages.

Suranga Rajanayake

A gang threatened Lankadeepa journalist Rajanayake with death on June 23 at Gampola for allegedly reporting against treasure hunters.

Sandaruwan Senadheera

Editor of Lanka e news, Senadheera, received a number of threatening e-mails over the past few months.

N. Jeevendran

A Tamil language producer from YA TV, has been receiving indirect e-mail threats for a long time.

FMM and Editor's Guild

On July 2, 2007, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe accused the FMM of 'keeping quiet' on the intimidation of the media, only rising up after criminal defamation was to be reintroduced. He criticised the Editor's Guild and declared that its president should be removed and replaced by one who could stand up to the government.

Derana TV

On July 13, 2007 UNP MP Lakshman Kiriella blasted a female journalist from Derana TV and lashed out at a male journalist from the same institution.

Jafrall Askhant

On August 10, 2007, Deputy Minister K.A. Faiz berated the journalist from the Tamil Daily Veerakesari threatening to kidnap and "finish off" Askhant.           

Defence Ministry Media Chief brands critical media as treacherous

On October 8, 2007 Defence Ministry's Media Centre for National Security, Director General, Lakshman Hulugalle told media that "we consider anyone who criticises the defence forces to be a traitor to the nation." 

Administrative, legal and economic pressure on media workers

Manusamy Parameshwari

On June 14, Parameshwari's passport and national ID card were taken away by two persons carrying small arms while she was walking in the Borella area.

On June 13, Chairman, Standard Newspapers Limited, Tiran Alles who was remanded for allegedly financing a terrorist organisation was released on bail. His passport was impounded and bank accounts were frozen.

Its managing editor was in custody for months and released sans charges in May. 

Bandula Jayasekera

The Daily News Editor was removed from the post without any notice. 

Government introduces regulations for media 

On June 22, 2006, Information and Media Minister, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa announced that cabinet had approved the reintroduction of state-controlled regulations for the media in Sri Lanka.  

On June 27, President Mahinda Rajapakse made a move towards the reintroduction of criminal defamation law. The obnoxious law was repealed in 2004 by a unanimous vote in parliament.

On October 29, the government stealthily introduced through Gazette Extraordinaire a censorship banning any reportage on military procurements. The appointment of a competent authority was also dealt with the same regulation. 

Government minister incites violence against media

On February 19, 2007, Environment and Natural Resources Minister, Champika Ranawaka made an abusive statement to Ravaya newspaper, advocating the brutal suppression of democratic dissent, even through extra-judicial means. 

Mawbima and the Weekend Standard  

March 13, 2007, the bank accounts of the Sinhala language weekly Mawbima were sealed by the government. Published by the Standard Newspaper, by April 1, Mawbima and another Standard Newspaper publication, the Weekend Standard closed down due to financial and other constraints.  

Obstacles for the free flow of information

Young Asia Television 

On March 19, 2007, police entered and investigated the YA TV production house.

Joseph Fernando

The Mannar journalist was prevented from taking photographs when the security forces surrounded Pesalai on June 24.

Two Tamil newspapers - the Jaffna based Thinakkural and the Colombo based Virakesari newspapers were searched on June 8 and June 18, respectively. The search failed to discover any incriminatory material.

Pro-Tamil website, Tamil Net was blocked by the state since early June. This is the first time an internet based media became a target in Sri Lanka.


Northeast media continues to suffer

One would feel it is bad enough to suffer from the war conditions in the northeast without restrictions on the freedom of expression adding to their lot. But a stifling climate prevails in the northeast where media institutions and practitioners come under attack, intimidation created both by the state and the LTTE, paramilitary groups and those with vested interests making hay while the sun shines.

The situation in the north and east has seen a very slow improvement during the past few months.

Newspaper organisations were threatened during the past months. Some journalists were killed in the north.

These organisations which experienced problems due to shortages of printing material and staff a year or so ago say that the situation has improved slightly.

Managing Editor, Uthayan and Sudar Oli, E. Saravanapavan told The Sunday Leader the newspapers were being printed in the peninsula without much problems now.

"We can't say the situation is completely ok. But it is better than what it was a few months ago," he said.

Killed or abducted

Free Media Movement (FMM) Convener, Sunanda Deshapriya told The Sunday Leader that 13 media workers and journalists had been killed or abducted in the north and east during the past two years.

The majority of these incidents had been reported from the north.

However, as far as Batticaloa was concerned, many journalists had been forced to leave the area due to pressure exerted by many parties.

"Around 25 journalists from Batticaloa have left the country due to threats and pressure," Deshapriya said.

Tamil newspapers which were banned in the east, are being circulated again. However, certain agents in the east continue to be fearful of the consequences they would face if they undertook to distribute these papers.

"They are worried as to what would happen to them. However, we continue to send these papers," Saravanapavan said.

The distribution of the newspapers in the region however is not uniform, he added.

Hampers distribution

"The papers are also sent to Ampara and Batticaloa. However, they are not distributed to all the places. Some don't get the papers," he said

Deshapriya also said that the distribution network had been affected in the east due to threats from various parties.

Freedom impeded

A statement issued jointly by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI) recently said that press freedom has been seriously impeded in the country due to many obstacles in the way of independent news reporting in the country's provinces.

The report stated, "Journalists in the east insist that they are being deliberately denied access to places such as Vaharai, Kathiraveli and Kokkadichcholai, and their environs, merely because there is ethnic reengineering underway there, from which the Muslim community would emerge distinctly worse off."

The statement had said that journalists had to establish their ethnicity and prove their loyalty to officially dictated policies before they are allowed access to these areas.

On a statement issued on November 21, the IFJ is also concerned for the safety of Vadivel Nimalarajah, a proof reader for the Jaffna-based Uthayan newspaper who was reported missing on November 17.

The FMM has received information from its safety network sources in Jaffna that Nimalarajah was abducted by an unidentified group at a railway crossing around 7.30 a.m. as he was cycling home.

Uthayan management told FMM it believed Nimalarajah might be held in the office of a paramilitary group in Jaffna.Uthayan has come under tremendous pressure in the past two years with three of its staff shot dead, its computer section destroyed and its newsprint storesset on fire in targeted attacks. The Editor of Uthayan, M.V. Kanamailnathan has been living in the newspaper's office for more than a year, and the news editor, G. Kuganathan, has lived there for more than six months for fear of going outside.

IFJ/FMM urge

The IFJ joins the FMM in urging the Government of Sri Lanka to take immediate action to rescue Nimalarajah, and to bring to account those responsible for the continuous threats against Uthayan and Leader Publications.

"The arson attack and the disappearance of Nimalarajah are of extreme concern and underline yet again why Sri Lanka has a reputation as one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world," said IFJ Asia-Pacific Director, Jacqueline Park. "The Sri Lankan government must put a stop to this culture of impunity that is paralysing media freedom in all regions of the country," she said.

(Sources: IFJ and FMM)


What they had to say...

Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena

Non Cabinet Media Minister, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardana said the government did not approve any attack on the media, irrespective of the quarters they came from.

"On hearing of the recent attack on The Sunday Leader, President Rajapakse instructed the IGP to conduct an impartial inquiry and bring the perpetrators to book despite the differences the government had with this group of papers," Abeywardana said at a media briefing. 

Gayantha Karunathilake

The UNP always stood for media freedom in the country and condemned all attacks on media institutions and practitioners, said UNP Spokesman, Gayantha Karunathilake.

 "A country needs media freedom. Or else how can people receive accurate information? We thoroughly condemn media suppression. The more one tries to suppress the media, the more it boomerangs," he said.

Karunathilake told The Sunday Leader that whenever international organisations visited Sri Lanka in the recent past, media freedom and its absence in the country became a topic of discussion.

Speaking on how Tamil journalists were harassed in the past, Karunathilake said that harassing Tamil journalists is part and parcel of the government's ploy to score points with a section of society. "The government points towards Pirapaharan as the reason for the rising CoL. He next cancelled the licence of a radio network on baseless allegations and took legal action against journalists," Karunathilake further stated.

"There is no law and order in this country now. Bribery and corruption prevails from the top to the bottom. We even have a corrupt legislature. The legislature helps to protect corrupt elements," added Karunathilake. 

Sanath Balasooriya

According to Balasooriya legal action could be taken against journalists if they are found to be genuinely guilty over any news. "It is sad that the army and police too are acting according to the whims and fancies of politicians. Why harass media institutions and journalists on baseless allegations?" queried Balasooriya.

"It is disturbing to note that the state owned media too is pointing a finger at the free media. Why is this? The government is using the state owned media as a cat's paw to promote the government's viewpoint. The state media is being used shamelessly. This is a dangerous trend," added Balasooriya.

Balasooriya called upon the government to bring those corrupt to book rather than chasing after journalists and threatening them.

Anura Priyadarshana Yapa

Mass Media and Information Minister, Anura Priyadharshana Yapa said that this government highly appreciated media freedom and denied allegations of making any attempt on media suppression.

"As a democratically elected government we value the freedom of expression, freedom of publication and the opportunity to practice investigative journalism without hindrance. We have never suppressed media freedom but in the meantime the media institutions and journalists too have a right to provide accurate information to listeners and/or readers." He cautioned that journalists should act with responsibility when publishing sensitive military information, particularly at a time when there were military engagements.

Minister Yapa told The Sunday Leader that media freedom flourished during the present government and when questioned as to why the government ministers take the law into their hands and lodge baseless complaints against journalists, the Minister said that any person in the country could lodge complaints but the matter was up to the judiciary to adjudicate upon the complaint.


Applicable legislation

Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees every person the freedom of speech and expression, including publication.

Under 14(1), everyone is entitled to (a) freedom of speech and expression, including publication.

However there are a gamut of other legislation that curtails this freedom, chief among them the provisions of the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) and the Prevention of Terrorism (PTA) Act.

When Part II of the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) No 25 of 1947 becomes operative, it empowers the President to enact emergency regulations which have the effect of over- riding, amending or suspending provisions of any law except the provisions of the constitution.

Unfettered powers

The emergency regulations confer unfettered powers upon the President including the authorisation of the detention of persons, take possession or control on behalf of the state, of any property or undertaking, the acquisition on behalf of the state any property other than land, authorise the entering and searching of any premises and amending of any law, suspending the operation of any law and to apply any new law.

The PTA empowers

The PTA is an Act made with the purpose of preventing acts of terrorism in Sri Lanka and of other unlawful activities of any individual or group or body of persons within or outside the island.

Part V of this Act, which deals with the prohibition of publications, can come into operation by a separate order by the Minister of Defence. Section 14(2) debars persons, without the approval of a competent authority from printing or publishing in any newspaper any matter relating to specified categories of information.

One aspect relates to the incitement of violence, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups.

Any newspaper that acts in contravention of any of the provisions shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction be liable to imprisonment of either description for a period not exceeding five years. 



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