7th May, 2006  Volume 12, Issue  43

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    


Another nail in the coffin of media freedom

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj

Two employees were killed and two injured seriously when armed Tamil youths suspected of belonging to a paramilitary group.....


 Top Issues Stories

  > Govt.'s subtle attempts to manipulate media ( ....Pot Shots)

  > Sri Lanka's press freedom exposed to the world

  > Back to barricades

Another nail in the coffin of media freedom  

Scene after the Uthayan newspaper 
office was wrecked

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj

Two employees were killed and two injured seriously when armed Tamil youths suspected of belonging to a paramilitary group close to the government attacked the office of Uthayan, a Tamil daily published in Jaffna. 

Five armed youths speaking fluent Tamil were involved in the attack which caused casualties among the non-editorial department staff though the assailants had come in search of two journalists working in the newspaper.  The gunmen had also wrecked office equipment including computers before they left. A sixth youth was guarding the assassins' vehicles on the road.

It was around 7. 45 p.m. on May 2 when a young man wearing black trousers and a dark blue shirt arrived at the  entrance of the Uthayan office located in a building , once owned by a prominent ayurveda doctor, at Kasthuriyar Street in Jaffna town. He informed the unarmed security personnel from a private firm on duty at the entrance that he wanted to meet  Kuganathan of the editorial department.

Search for Kuganathan

Kuganathan - called Kugan - is a senior reporter at Uthayan. It is Kugan who travels frequently to Kilinochchi to attend press conferences held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or interview Tiger officials for his paper. Kugan had also gone to Geneva for the latest round of talks between the government and the LTTE. Since the newspaper adopted certain procedures for security purposes the young man was told that he could not meet Kuganathan and that he could write down his particulars and reason for wanting to meet Kugan on paper which would be passed on.


Thereafter the youth wanted to meet Jegatheeswaran - called Jegan - another senior editorial staffer. Jegan was the usual night editor but was on leave on that day. Upon being told that Jegan was not working that night the young man got visibly angry and telephoned someone on his cellular phone. In an angry voice he told someone in Tamil "Inge karaichchal, udane vaangadaappa" (There is a problem here, you all come immediately).

At this point two men wearing dark clothes with balaclavas masking their face rushed in. Almost simultaneously two others in similar clothing and balaclavas jumped over the wall into the compound.

They had been waiting in a three - wheeler and motor cycle parked close by on the road. Three of the youths had guns believed to be T-56 s or AK 47s. The other two had hand guns. A sixth person waited with the vehicles on the road. While one youth with a handgun stood guard over the security guard, the other  two youths rushed in through the front entrance. They were closely followed by the other two armed goons.

Even as they entered the armed hoodlums began firing indiscriminately at some employees seated at the front office. There were six employees and at least four were hit. The gunmen now began shouting the names of Kugan, Jegan and Editor Vithyatharan saying they were going to kill them. Panic stricken Uthayan employees began to run awayfrom the spot.

The front office had the administration, advertising and circulation departments. The editorial department was at the rear end on the upper section of a newly constructed extension. No outsiders are allowed in to the editorial. There were about 30 people working in various sections of the office at that time. Hearing the gunfire most of them ran away through other back entrances and escaped death.

Uthayan office

The Uthayan office complex comprised three adjacent houses that were inter-connected. The gunmen fortunately seemed to have no idea about the internal office geography. Two of the gunmen ran around the office searching for the journalists but were unable to locate the editorial dept. By this time the journalists had jumped over the back wall with some others and escaped.

When the editorial dept. was located there were no journalists. Meanwhile the others began firing at random within the office. Employees had already run for safety as the firing in bursts began. The gunmen also  smashed the office equipment. More than 20computers were wrecked. The goondas also searched for the printing press but could not discover where it was.

The gunmen were in a highly emotional state. They were shouting out threats against the paper and staff while going round the premises in a wild state shooting all over. They screamed out that the paper was a Tiger paper in raw filth. The gunmen had been in the office on their violent spree for about 15 minutes.

The gunmen were unable to find Kugan or the  other journalists on duty. There were four people in the editorial section but they were all unharmed. But two other employees were killed. One was 37-year-old Bastian George Sahayathas also called Suresh, who was the circulation manager. The other  killed was 25-year-old Ranjithkumar Rajaratnam, the circulation superviser.

Employees who ran away returned slowly after the assailants left. They attended immediately to the needs of injured colleagues.

Two persons with serious injuries were admitted to the Jaffna hospital. They were N. Thayaparan and S. Uthayakumar, all from the circulation dept. Three others received no gunshot injuries.

No security personnel

The assailants then sped off in their vehicles towards the Manipay road side. There were two army sentry posts on either direction of Kasthuriar Road but no security personnel attempted to stop the vehicles.  In fact no security person was sighted at the time of or immediately after the attack.

It is believed that the armed youths belonged to the suspected paramilitary group.  In recent times meanwhile the, the EPDP has enhanced its ranks by enlisting members of the Karuna  faction, PLOTE Mohan group members and EPRLF Razeek group  remnants. While Social Services Minister Douglas Devananda and others like Maheswari Velayutham, S. Thavarajah etc. present the 'democratic' face of the EPDP to the world at large, other sinister elements working alongside the security forces are engaged in violent activity.

Many of the recent assassinations in the north-east are attributed to a particular paramilitary. The people killed were Tamil civilians suspected of having links to the LTTE or being Tiger sympathisers. It is also common knowledge in the north that EPDP members demand money from businessmen regarded as LTTE supporters. Those who pay up are spared while others who refuse are killed. EPDP controlled media then depict these killings as having been committed by the LTTE.

The reason

The reason for targeting the Uthayan newspaper is seen as politically motivated. The Uthayan is a Tamil daily published in Jaffna from 1986 onwards. Its sister paper Sudaroli is published from Colombo since 2000. Its managing director is Saravanabhavaan who earlier ran a finance company in Jaffna that wound up business amidst controversial circumstances leaving many depositors high and dry. The managing editor is Vithyatharan who worked earlier in the Dinapathy run by the MD Gunasena group. Both Saravanabhavaan and Vithyatharan are close relatives.

The Uthayan and Sudaroli have been pushing an unambiguous pro- Tiger line in their editorial columns. Their websites proudly displayed pictures of LTTE Leader Velupillai Pirapaharan reading the papers avidly - the only instance of the Tiger supremo posing for an 'advertisement' boosting privately owned newspapers. This phenomenon has made many suspect that the LTTE had invested heavily in the journals.

The newspapers also maintain close contact with LTTE leaders like Anton Balasingham and Suppiah Paramu Tamilselvan. This enables the newspapers to publish many scoops and exclusives relating to LTTE affairs. This in turn has led to many news agencies and journalists quoting the Uthayan/ Sudaroli in their reports. The news and views expressed are often cited as reflecting LTTE thoughts accurately.

The newspapers also carry venomous articles and news items attacking Tamil individuals who anger the LTTE. TULF Leader Veerasingham Anandasangaree has been often attacked. So too have been Lakshman Kadirgamar and Douglas Devananda. Even journalists like this writer have been attacked in these columns. The hatchet job on myself was done at the behest of a veteran Tiger ideologue.

It is this impression that the Uthayan/ Sudaroli  was pro-Tiger that may have led to this attack. It is possible that the management had been approached for kappam and been refused. This may have led to the attack.

Another possibility is that a series of recent cartoons had offended the EPDP deeply. One of them showed Douglas Devananda prostrating himself in front of Mahinda Rajapakse.

Kugan's column

Individual journalists like Jegan who wrote the highly popular  Theradi Arattai (chariot-side gossip) political column or Kugan the accredited political affairs reporter may have been the specific targets to drive home a lesson.

Sadly the point missed in these types of action is that every newspaper or journalist is entitled to freedom of expression. The LTTE through its violent acts in Sri Lanka and abroad terrorised Tamil journalists into toeing their line. The Tamil weekly Mancharie that I edited in Toronto had to cease publication because the Tigers intimidated advertisers and Tamil shopkeepers selling the paper. I was also the victim of assault and threats. I mention this to illustrate that the LTTE now condemning the attack on Uthayan  is no true respecter of press freedom.

Having 'disciplined' the Tamil media into following their line the LTTE has in recent times not felt any threat from the media. They are 'conditioned' like Pavlovian dogs and follow the approved line without any pressure. But the anti-Tiger groups resent this. Their efforts to mould Tamil media in their favour are yet to bear fruit. One major reason for this apart from LTTE conditioning is the oppressive activity of the state and its agencies. Most Tamils have strong feelings about this.

Anti-Tiger groups

The anti-Tiger groups are also as bad as the LTTE on issues like media freedom. Sadly individual journalists have been attacked and killed. Nimalarajan, Nadesan, Sivaram, Sugirtharajan were all killed by anti- Tiger elements. Sugirtharajan was the Uthayan  reporter for Trincomalee.

It is against this backdrop that the attack on Uthayan office has to be viewed. The paper has often fallen afoul of the military in Jaffna too. A few years ago grenades were thrown at the office. Bombs were also thrown at the Colombo office killing a security guard. What seems to have transpired now is a convergence of interests between security personnel and Tamil paramilitaries in targeting the Uthayan.  It does seem unbelievable that such an attack could have been launched without security force  support.

My position on this issue is clear. I do not for a moment approve of the Uthayan or its despicable editorial policy.  It deserves the highest condemnation.  At the same time I strongly support the Uthayan's right to express its views.  However much I disapprove of it, I do recognise and accept it as their fundamental right. No one can deny them that right. Least of all by cowardly attacks like these where innocent employees are killed and injured. I condemn this attack on Uthayan vehemently and urge that those  responsible be arrested.

Given past history this is not going to happen.  Already the security forces have concocted a story where they claim to have fired at two persons on a motor cycle near the Sivan temple. The men had 'escaped' after conveniently dropping a T-56 for the security men to recover.

When the UNP's Karu Jayasuriya telephoned Mahinda Rajapakse to protest at the attack the President said that security personnel were fighting with the suspected assailants even as the telephone conversation was on. Knowing the heat was on due to international media attention the 'authorities' in Jaffna began to act fast. There was string pressure from lokka that action be taken to prove to the world that justice was being done.

Four eastern youths were staying at a house in Jaffna and studying for their 'A' levels. Two were from Trincomalee and two were from Batticaloa. They were arrested as suspects. Two other young men were working in a jewellery business at Kannathiddy. The two youths were playing cards when they were arrested. Six persons were involved in the Uthayan  attack. Hey Presto! The cops had their six suspects.

Innocent youths

They were produced in court the following day but were released on bail. It is an open secret that the arrested persons were innocent. Several media outlets have stated so publicly. Representations have been made to the Human Rights Commission that the arrested persons are totally innocent.

Instead of going after the prime suspects - a paramilitary group close to the government -  the cops are attempting to obstruct justice by apprehending innocent people and making them scapegoats.

Meanwhile the EPDP has begun regaling the media that the LTTE was responsible for this and was now trying to tarnish the image by shifting blame on them. The reason attributed by the EPDP for the LTTE to target the Uthayan was that the paper had published an interview with Mahinda Rajapakse recently.

Uthayan Editor Vithyatharan who was in Colombo at the time of the attack told media that a Tamil paramilitary group was responsible. He also pointed out that several security posts were in the neighbourhood. The Managing Director Saravanabhavaan told President Rajapakse the same when Mahinda said: "this has been done to discredit the government."  The Tamilnet alleges that an EPDP member was seen among the attackers.

World Press Day

What is tragic and ironic about the incident is that it happened on the eve of World Press Freedom Day.  A three-day tamasha was organised in Colombo for the event. It was only in the evening that journalists demonstrated in Fort protesting the attacks on the media. Journalists were being hosted for dinner by Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana  Yapa when news of the Uthayan attack was received.

Free Media Movement Convenor Sunanda Deshapriya expresed his protest at the incident and most Sri Lankan journalists walked out from dinner in solidarity with their beleaguered colleagues.  LTTE  Leader Velupillai Pirapaharan has ordered that compensation be paid out of LTTE funds to the victims. The families of the dead persons are to get rupees one lakh each and the injured persons 50,000 rupees each.  A hartal was organised in Jaffna to mourn the dead Uthayan staffers and others killed in the recent violence.

The  Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in a statement released after the killings, said that it 'condemns' the attack on the Tamil-language daily. "CPJ calls on the government to fully investigate the attack and take measures to ensure the security of all media workers as more attacks undermine the increasingly unstable truce since planned peace talks faltered in April," the CPJ statement said.

Deathtrap for journalists

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), in a statement calling Sri Lanka  a 'deathtrap for journalism,' said, "the IFJ is calling for an immediate and thorough investigation into these killings in order to allay any suspicions of official state involvement in the attack."

"Intimidation of journalists working in the Northern and Western Tamil areas must be recognised as unacceptable state targeting of newspapers taking a pro-Tamil nationalism editorial stance,"  IFJ President Christopher Warren further said in the statement.

It is good that organisations in Lanka and abroad are issuing condemnatory statements. This is most welcome. One only hopes that these media organisations will be critical of the LTTE when the Tigers attack journalists too.  The Sri Lankan media in general and Tamil media in particular are under grave threat.

The Uthayan attack is symptomatic of this. The attack on Uthayan has to be condemned strongly.  My deepest sympathies to the families of the innocent victims.

Sri Lanka's press freedom exposed to the world

President Mahinda Rajapakse and Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa at the World Press Freedom Day ceremony at BMICH on May 3

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj

In an ironic incident illustrating the climate of grave insecurity amidst which Tamil journalists are working in Sri Lanka, a young Tamil woman broadcaster was arrested when trying to attend a conference in Colombo to mark  World Press Freedom Day.

Sivaramya Sivanathan, a 26-year-old working as a relief announcer at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation was arrested on May 1 at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall where a UNESCO-sponsored three-day conference for international media representatives to mark World Press Freedom Day was being held. Sivaramya was produced in court on May 2 and remanded in the Welikada prison. Her case is to be heard again on May 5.

Mangala's security

It is learnt that she was detained initially by the Ministerial Security Division personnel in charge of Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera who suspected her of being a woman suicide bomber targeting the minister. Sivaramya was then handed over to the Cinnamon Gardens Police who in turn produced her in courts. Colombo Chief Magistrate Kusala Weerawardena ordered Sivaramya to be held till May 5 at the Welikade remand prison.

May 1 saw  UNESCO-sponsored World Press Freedom Day conference being inaugurated at the BMICH in Colombo.  Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera delivered the keynote address. Invitations were sent out to many journalists in Colombo for  the ceremony.  Some journalists were also officially assigned to cover the event.

There are many instances where journalists attend events and functions to which they are not officially invited or assigned to cover. The journalists do so because of particular interest in the event or to meet particular persons.  Journalists also turn up in large numbers at events of relevant interest to the media. This writer recalls with wistful  nostalgia many such events attended by him though not officially assigned or invited. Of course those were the days when security was not a major concern as it is now.

Journalists close to Sivaramya say that she too had wanted to attend the inaugural function of World Press Freedom Day. Sivaramya has been a relief announcer at the SLBC Tamil service since 2003. She has also been selected as a news reader for Independent Television Network. She had gone to BMICH for the function without an invitation . She had gone because of its significance to her profession.

Invitation card

Many people including women were attending the function without invitations. There was no problem as most of them were from the majority community. But Sivaramya Sivanathan being a Tamil woman had a problem. She was asked to produce her invitation which she did not have. The security personnel became suspicious.

Mangala's security men in particular were agitated. She produced her national identity card and media accreditation card and SLBC ID card but these were of no avail. She was searched and nothing was found. Yet Minister Samaraweera's men insisted on her being handed over to the police.

The suspicion was that Sivaramya was a suicide bomber come to target Samaraweera. The lack of communication between Sivaramya and her captors due to her 'weak' Sinhala and their 'weak' Tamil and English was another problem.

The police then took over. Upon checking with SLBC they found her credentials to be genuine. SLBC Tamil Services Director Jeevendra Kumar vouched for her. He told the police that she was not officially assigned to cover the event but had gone there out of interest and with his permission.  It appeared to be a straight-forward matter and had the suspect been a non-Tamil would have been released without much fuss.

Recent explosion

But the suspect was a Tamil and a woman. It was only last week that a suspected Tamil woman had allegedly exploded at the Army Headquarters. So Sivaramya was held overnight and produced in court the following day. The courts do have power to exercise their judgement and discretion in cases before them. It is not mandatory that courts should believe everything the cops tell them.  But when Tamils are produced as suspects in cases like these the courts remand them as a matter of routine.

The police told courts that the case was to be handed over to the national intelligence service terrorist investigation division to inquire into Sivaramya and ascertain whether she had any terrorist connections. So Chief Magistrate Kusala Weerawardena duly remanded Sivaramya until May 5.

Meanwhile members of her family, the SLBC and media organisations began agitating. UNESCO officials too were upset at this and made representations at the highest levels. Initially security personnel had spread the story that a suicide bomber had come to kill Mangala Samaraweera and had been arrested. This led to much excitement among the delegates at the conference. But soon the truth emerged. There was much anxiety and horror among the foreign journalists at this ill-advised arrest.

Some of these journalists too began agitating for Sivaramya's release.  Any political capital that Mahinda Rajapakse could have made by staging the WRFD conference in Colombo was lost due to two matters.  One was the attack on Uthayan newspaper office in Jaffna. The other was the arrest of Sivaramya Sivanathan. The foreign journalists got a first hand impression of what life was like for Tamil journalists in Sri Lanka. If this was the plight of journalists then the situation faced by ordinary Tamils had to be even more difficult.

One reason for security suspicion was the birthplace of Sivaramya.  She was born in Jaffna and was originally from Wyman Road in Nallur. She has been living in Colombo since 1996.  Sivaramya had her education at Chundikuli Girls High School in Jaffna and the Hindu Ladies College in Colombo. In addition to her journalism Sivaramya is also an external student of Peradeniya University.

Interestingly enough Sivaramya's uncle, Sivathasan was a senior administrative services official who held many top positions under governments headed by J.R. Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Chandrika Kumaratunga. Her grandfather Sivagnanam was also a former Government Agent. Her father Sivanathan is a lawyer attached to the Human Resources Centre in Kollupitiya. In spite of this background she is 'presumed guilty until proved innocent' and languishes at Welikada.

Womens' Journalists Association

The Tamil Speaking Womens' Journalists Association of Sri Lanka has strongly condemned this as an act of discrimination against women journalists of the minority community.  According to President, Tamil Speaking Womens' Journalists Association of Sri Lanka , Krishni Kandasamy, this young talented journalist is described as 'bright and dynamic' by her colleagues. The arrest has caused much distress to journalist colleagues.

Free Media Movement Convenor, Sunanda Deshapriya in a press release refers to the arrest of Sivaramya Sivanathan and observes that "journalists who didn't have invitation cards were allowed to enter the conference and in general invitation cards were not asked to be produced at the entrance."

"The only reason FMM could think of for asking Ms. Sivaramya for an official invitation was that she belongs to the minority Tamil community. FMM understands security concerns of the government in the dangerously volatile situation developing in the country but would like to emphasise that discriminatory practises usually do more harm than good. "FMM urges the government to look into this incident urgently and instruct the police to speed up the investigations and release Ms. Sivaramya Sivanathan if she is proved innocent."

The International Federation of Journalists has also issued a statement calling for a "speedy inquiry and early release of Sivaramya Sivanathan."  The arrest of a journalist at an event designed to celebrate and promote freedom of the press,  raises serious concern about the independence of the media and their ability to move freely and perform their duties of reporting,"  said IFJ President, Christopher Warren.

Back to barricades

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Jamila Najmuddin and Arthur Wamanan

There is no question that Sri Lanka's security situation is fast deteriorating with the fear of an outbreak of war once again being very real.

Security officers taking up positions at as VIP residence

In these troubled times, there can be no dispute about the security of the head of state as well as other very important persons (VIPs). However, the issue we raise today is one that concerns the entire nation - how to combine national security and personal safety of our leaders in a way that it would not infringe upon the civil liberties of a population that had been at the receiving end for 23 years - ever since the outbreak of war.

Besides their rights as citizens, it is necessary to draw attention to the importance of maintaining a climate that is conducive to the conduct of business. There is no need to over-emphasise the need of a country that has a war battered economy that had just begun to breathe following the truce.

Following the attempt on Army Commander Lt. General Sarath Fonseka that killed 11 and injured 27, barricades have sprung up in the city overnight blocking entry to many a road in Colombo. However, the police is unable to state how many roads have been closed since the incident and how may barricades have been erected in VIP residential areas.

The situation has developed however, to an extent which is unbearable for some. While it is natural to expect the community to undergo some alterations to their lifestyles and suffer some inconvenience without protest, the state should also bear in mind that it is necessary to ensure that security concerns do not affect the country's economics.

A case in point is the number of reputed business premises that were subjected to sudden closures for brief periods and forced removal of clients and diners simply by making an unceremonious announcement that President Mahinda Rajapakse is scheduled to travel that way shortly.

The Sunday Leader received several complaints last week from angry business owners and residents who had to temporarily close their business premises and request clients to move out.

It is necessary to understand that while there should be no compromising of security, that there should be some method to closing roads and moving civilians out.

Three effects

These announcements would naturally have three effects. People would begin to view their head of state as someone who grossly interferes with their right to free movement and other personal liberties. Secondly, and most importantly, it would not do anyone any good to announce the presidential travel plans well ahead of time. Thirdly, these adhoc security measures would drastically affect the business community.

A case in point is what happened at Cotton Collection/Leather Collection located down Flower Road, Colombo 3 last week.

Managing Director, Cotton Collection/Leather Collection, Niloufer Anverally told The Sunday Leader that while her shops are located on Flower Road, Colombo 3, the closure of roads in order to allow the President to pass had caused heavy losses to her shops as well as other businesses in the area.

Anverally urged the authorities to take immediate action in order to provide alternatives to the public. "Our businesses are our livelihoods and if roads remain closed in order to allow the President to pass, how are we supposed to run our businesses? There are many shops in the area which are affected by this problem and though we have complained to the IGP, no action has been taken to date," Anverally said.

Customers told The Sunday Leader that police officers simply walked into the premises and informed the customers to clear out and those in the tiny parking area to simply drive away within a few minutes.

" I have never experienced that kind of notice being issued about VIP travel or the need to clear roads. It was downright rude. It was really uncalled for to have the customers ordered out. We were given a few minutes to clear out as if we were common criminals. After all, we were all there to purchase items of requirement and just imagine being unceremoniously told that they cannot continue with it," Arun Bosh, an angry Indian told The Sunday Leader.

While business people would naturally suffer in terms of money, it is the ordinary civilians who have to bear the brunt of unplanned security measures that call for a suspension of their regular activities.

Several residents living down Flower Road, Colombo 3 also complained that while no prior notice was issued to the residents before closing the roads, Flower Road remained closed at least twice a week, leaving the residents trapped inside their homes, facing rude and errant cops.

"No vehicles are allowed to remain parked on the road when the roads are closed. The cops storm into shops and houses and demand that all vehicles be cleared from the roads. No prior notice is issued before closing the roads and we are left dealing with very rude cops," angry residents said.

They further protested that several complaints had also been lodged with the IGP against the foul language used by the police officers when clearing the roads. However, all complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

Closed for five hours

A manager of a popular restaurant situated on Colombo 5, on grounds of anonymity told The Sunday Leader that while the roads remained closed for more than five hours due to the President  'passing by,'their business suffered heavy losses as no customers were allowed to enter the road. "Without any prior notice, the police officers close the roads at 8  a.m. in order to secure the area for the President's visit. At times it remains closed till 6 p.m. only to be told that the President had changed his route. We lose out on a day's business," the manager said.

He added following the sudden decisions taken by the police to close the roads, customers who were already present in the shops were ordered to leave much to their humiliation, so as to  clear the roads. This has also caused serious concern amongst the tourists who visit the area during festive periods.

 "Most of our customers do not come back when they are asked to leave the premises. They are humiliated and leave blaming the staff as if we manage presidential security. We have lost a lot of customers in the past due to this reason," an official from a reputed garment store in Colombo 4,  said.

He added while the police officers also spoke in a rude manner to the customers, they threatened to tow away all vehicles parked on the road within five minutes if the roads were not cleared to their satisfaction. This had also caused great humiliation amongst foreign tourists who visited the city during peak tourist seasons.

According to an overseas-qualified head of a private owned security firm, there should be no prior announcement of a VVIPs travel schedule or route before hand as it increases the security vulnerabilities.

Threat to security

Road clearing, according to him should be done in a subtle manner thereby not alerting certain parties that may actually prove a threat to a VIP's security.

What we have recorded is only the overzealous action of security personnel just within the space of one week. Owners of these establishments fear to find out what would happen in the weeks to come if VIP  security does not get   combined with a programme to protect civil liberties so that Sri Lanka would not end up driving away its own business community as well as potential investors.

Security officers penalise the people

Senior lawyer M.L.M. Ameen PC told The Sunday Leader that the people would be called upon to relinquish some of their rights and liberties for the safety of the head of state or other VIPs.

"Most of the times the security advisers try to do more than what is necessary, thereby penalising the public," he opined.

He however said that the police and the relevant authorities had the right to take necessary measures such as changing the route during emergency time.

"They have the legal cover to take steps like diverting the routes, but, most of the time, these arrangements are done after an incident has occurred and they overdo it," he added.

He however said that he was unaware of any legal provisions that could provide reasonable solutions for the public affected by the sudden closure of roads.

"No such law is being tested now. They can be implemented after a court decision," he said.

President's office ordered closure of roads

Officials from the Presidential Security Division told The Sunday Leader that clear instructions had been issued by the President's office to close all roads during the time of the President's travel. "This law has been practised for years, even when  Chandrika Kumrataunga was the president of the country. Therefore it is nothing new," officials said.

They added that considering the tense climate which prevails in the country, it is only right to close all roads the President uses as it was their duty to protect the leader of the nation. However, the officials refused to comment on the inconvenience caused to the public by the closure of roads which are carried out in an ad hoc manner.

Public greatly inconvenienced

In order to mark the World Press Freedom Day last week, several roads in Colombo remained closed for more than four hours due to the President's visit to the BMICH.

Chaos erupted amongst travellers who were trapped inside vehicles and buses when no alternative routes were provided to them.

"I was on my way home from office when I was stopped by the police. I have been stuck on the road for more than three hours only to be told that the President is passing this way. They will not answer any of our questions and only demand that we sit in our vehicles till the roads are cleared," C. De Silva, of Kollupitiya said.

He added that while the closure of roads had caused immense traffic, the police should provide alternative routes in order to avoid inconveniencing the public.

While CTB buses were used to block the roads instead of barricades, motorcyclists and cyclists stood in bus halts and little boutiques as it started to rain, hoping that the President would make his appearance soon so that the stranded public could reach home safely. "We should have been issued prior notice so that we could have left our work places before the roads were closed. In the middle of a heavy traffic jam, the police officers demanded that all vehicles be parked onto a side as they started parking buses in order to block the roads. There is no  law and order," Dinesh Dammulla, a resident of Wellawatte said.

DIG Colombo defends the police

According to Colombo DIG, Pujitha Jayasundera  these arrangements are made at the last minute to prevent the leaking of   vital information about the President's travel arrangements.

Jayasundera said that it is never the intention of the security forces or the police to disturb civilians, but said that when it came to  VIP  security and information such as the President's destination, roads would have to be closed.

However he refuted that roads were closed for hours. He added that roads are closed for a few minutes and there have been no reported instances of people being ordered out of premises as alleged.

He could not provide figures on the number of barricades or the roads closed.

Govt.'s subtle attempts to manipulate media

The prestige in every profession, starting from politics, has been degraded by several rogue elements within the respective professions. Unfortunately, the field of media too has become victim to the aforesaid circumstances.

Whenever a new government comes into office, several media personnel take it upon themselves to promote the respective government and suck up to the politicians and it is the independence of several media personnel that has helped preserve the profession to an extent.

Media freedom

Every regime since Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandarana-ike has challenged media freedom in the country due to the misdoings of several rogue elements in the field.

However, President Mahinda Rajapakse who until November 17, 2005 portrayed himself as a true friend of the media, seems to have changed his stance.

Since assuming office, Rajapakse has become the unofficial head of several private media institutions following the advice of several rogue elements holding high office in the respective media institutions.

Pseudo media heads

These pseudo media heads used their newspapers to promote the President and the government instead of highlighting their misdoings.

They even went to the extent of hiding the true picture in the north and east from the people, ordered cartoonists to stop drawing cartoons that humiliated well known politicians and threatened journalists to highlight the internal conflicts of the UNP, instead of writing about the government as they would otherwise be forced out of a job.

Rajapakse who felt that this was an easy way to rule the country went along with it, which in turn has now made the v ery same media turn on him as an enemy of the free media.

For the past six months after Rajapakse assumed office, many media institutions faced immense problems. Ironically, all these issues came to light on World Press Freedom Day.

Manipulating the media

It happened at a time when media personnel representing various organisations and institutions from all over the world gathered in Colombo to mark World Press Freedom Day.

The government enjoyed the benefits of manipulating the media so much that when the government's attack on Sampur was highlighted, foreign media institutions - like BBC, CNN and Reuters - people like Wimal Weerawansa, Keheliya Ram-bukwella and Champika Ranawaka retorted that the news items were false.

Even editorials appeared in certain newspapers with regard to the ethics of the BBC.

Mangala says nothing 
objectionable in BBC report

It was under trying circumstances that the government organised World Press Freedom Day and the chief guests were Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa.

Samaraweera is known to have conflicts with the media time and again. Although a critique of certain media institutions and news items, Samaraweera is known in media circles as one who generally has a good relationship with local and foreign media personnel.

After the ceremonial opening of the event, Samaraweera was engaged in a friendly tłete-a-tłete with media personnel and had to end up answering questions that kept coming his way.

Attack on Sampur

One of the questions were on the events that have unfolded following the news reports published by BBC, CNN, and Reuters with regard to the air attack on Sampur.

Samaraweera responded to the question with a smile and said there was nothing objectionable in the news reports, which he had personally gone through.

It was then pointed out that it was the pro-LTTE TamilNet website that had carried a story of the 40,000 persons displaced by the attack on Sampur and that the foreign media had picked it up from there.

Responding to that, Samaraweera admitted that he could not find fault with journalists for picking up on the news item as the government at that time had not stated officially the number of persons displaced.

However, the biggest blow to free media was the attack on the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna on Tuesday night.

Around 7:25 p.m. several people who had entered the Uthayan office in civvies had asked for a journalist and since he was not there, opened fire at everyone present while ransacking the office.

At the same time in Colombo, the government was hosting local and foreign media personnel to a banquet at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo and news of the attack reached the ears of media personnel attending the function.

Spokesperson, Free Media Movement (FMM), Sunanda Deshapriya heard the news on his arrival at the venue. Speaking to several other media personnel at the venue, they decided to protest against the attack at the function.

Uthayan attack

President Rajapakse too heard of the attack on Uthayan and immediately inquired to find more details and also spoke to the Media Minister. The President advised the Minister to condemn the attack and inform those present at the function that it was an act by the LTTE to embarrass the government.

Yapa followed the advice and made a statement at the outset of the dinner.

After the Minister's speech, Deshapriya walked up to the Minister and informed him that he could not enjoy dinner at a time fellow journalists have been attacked and free media has been dealt a serious blow. He said that he together with several journalists have decided to walk out of the dinner to protest the attack.

Several media personnel who were enjoying all the perks offered by the government opposed Deshapriya's move and requested the group not to boycott the dinner. However, Deshapriya and Co. walked out of the dinner regardless.

UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya was informed of the attack and was to immediately call Rajapakse and voice the UNP's concern over the severe blow to the country's free media. He informed the President the government should not take for granted the UNP's decision to support him in the peace process by attacking the media, adding that if such acts were to continue, the party would withdraw its support to the government.

Rajapakse responded that the attack was carried out by the LTTE to tarnish his image. He went on to ask Jayasuriya as if it was credible that such an act would take place with his knowledge at a time the country was celebrating World Press Freedom Day. The President however told Jayasuriya that he would look into the matter.

'Not the LTTE'

Rajapakse was also well aware of the damage the attack has done to the government.

He then called the Managing Editor, Uthayan, Saravanabavan and said the attack was the work of the LTTE.

Saravanabavan had told the President to think twice before uttering a statement and said that it was not an attack carried out by the LTTE as a certain group had been after several journalists who had taken photographs in Sampur.

Saravanabavan had further said that the staff at Uthayan had recognised the attackers and noted that it was not the work of the LTTE. Rajapakse had assured Saravanabavan that he would not hesitate to act against anyone behind the attack and asked if he needed protection.

The President who was in constant contact with heads of the army and police in the area requested an immediate report on the attack. At 11 p.m., Rajapakse was informed that the police had recovered the weapon used during the attack.

He then communicated the latest news to Jayasuriya and asked him what course of action he planned to take. Jayasuriya informed the President that the party would first release a statement condemning the attack and decide on what to do next after consulting party members.

Jayasuriya pointed out that if the President did not take steps to stop the threats on free media, it would become a problem of such magnitude the government would not be able to face.

Manmohan Singh to
welcome Tamil refugees

The assassination of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi resulted in the LTTE being banned in India.

The decision made by several political leaders to chase away the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) from Sri Lanka resulted in India being very cautious in supporting the country at crucial moments thereafter.

However, since of late, India has softened its stance on the role it would perform in Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict.

The Sri Lankan conflict heads the agenda of South Indian states where a large number of Sri Lankans are currently seeking refuge and it is these states that decide the fate of India's central government.

South Indian politics and LTTE

LTTE Leader Velupillai Pirapaharan who has understood this has now slowly made inroads into South Indian politics.

As a result, Pirapaharan would prevail if either party - Jayalalitha or Karunanidhi - gained victory at the Tamil Nadu elections on May 8.

Under such circumstances, Indian Premier Manmohan Singh cannot ignore Sri Lanka. Singh's conversation with President Mahinda Rajapakse following the attacks on Trincomalee show India's renewed interest in Sri Lanka.

He noted that the people in the east should not be affected by the attacks and advised Rajapakse on several steps to be adopted.

News of displacement of thousands of Tamil people in the east following the government's air attack on Sampur, prompted Indian Defence Minister Pranap Mukherjee to call Rajapakse and request him to immediately halt the attacks, which had serious implications on the civilians.

Singh at the time was on tour in Europe and Mukherjee spoke to Rajapakse on behalf of the Prime Minister.

Attention on Sri Lanka

However, Singh who returned to India on Thursday (27) first attended a cabinet subcommittee meeting on the situation in Sri Lanka and Nepal. Since the problems in Nepal were resolved, attention was paid to the situation in Sri Lanka.

It was highlighted at this meeting that due to the attacks carried out by the Sri Lankan security forces, Tamil refugees were making their way to South India.

Since the Sri Lankan issue also played a key role in the South Indian elections, Singh's Congress Party, which is also engaged in politics in the south asked him to take some immediate decisions with regard to the situation in Sri Lanka.

The first decision was to deliver orders to the Indian navy and the coast guard. The orders were to increase security between northern Sri Lanka and South India.

The second decision was to welcome the refugees from Sri Lanka and place them in refugee camps in the south.

The Indian cabinet has also decided to keep a close watch on the goings on in Sri Lanka.

Rumy - good social worker

At last Wednesday's (3) cabinet meeting, though President Rajapakse's mind was occupied by security concerns, he had to give ear to a matter raised by Housing Minister A.H.M. Fowzie.

Fowzie raised the matter of Prison's Commissioner General Rumy Marzook whose contract had not been extended, and the fact that a new appointment, that of Maj. Gen.Wajira Wijegunawardena, had been made.

Fowzie spoke fervently in favour of Marzook. He highlighted the good work he had done in the prisons and pointed out that Marzook had given up a magisterial post to take on this job and that by terminating his period and throwing him out, he was left on the road without a job.

President unmoved

However, President Rajapakse was unmoved by this speech. He said the cabinet memorandum appointing the new chief was already tabled and this could not be reversed now.

Rajapakse then went on, "In any case Rumy could not control the prisons and handle that job. There was no discipline in the prisons but he is a good social worker. I have nothing personal against him so I can give him some other job."

Rajapakse was to then settle his eye on Fowzie and say pointedly, "Minister Fowzie, if I were to look at this case properly, it will be a bigger problem for Rumy as there have been a lot of complaints against him even by the Attorney General himself."

A new job

"But," said the President relenting a little, "since he likes to work with people we will see if we can get him a job in social welfare."

Mahinda suspicious of moves to sideline Leader

While several persons fought for media freedom, the behaviour of a certain head of a media institution was to the contrary.

A presidential advisor, who visited this media head at his residence some time last week, had taken him to meet the President for a special discussion at Temple Trees at 7:30 a.m.

The meeting was to get a list of journalists who wrote for and against Rajapakse at the particular media institution during the presidential election last year.

Advice for the President

The media head had given the names as requested and said that several media personnel who worked against the President at the time were now posing off as friends of the President and advised the President to be careful in meeting journalists from his media institution.

The media head had also touched on the President's monthly meeting with all media heads in the country. He had informed Rajapakse that he should not invite the editors of The Sunday Leader, adding that other editors would stay away from the meeting if The Sunday Leader editors were invited.

In the midst of the discussion, another Presidential advisor, who is also a parliamentarian entered the room and hearing what was being discussed agreed with what the media head said.

The media head who was going taken back in the vehicle of the Presidential advisor said,  "There, I have done it. Now make sure that news of this does not leak out."

The advisor responded, "No, It is a great merit for you. Otherwise, all these fellows will come and meet the President. We have decided to somehow stop this meeting. Now it's done."

The President is known to be open about his sentiments and the contents of his morning discussion came out that evening.

At a meeting with another media head and several journalists, the President had spoken of his meeting in the morning.

Serious problem

"This is bad, no intelligent person is allowed to come near me, they cut them. This situation has been created by those around me. They do not allow anyone with a brain and who can do good work to get close to me. I'm faced with a serious problem," Rajapakse said.

He also named several officials who were involved in the task. Rajapakse commenting on The Sunday Leader editors said, "See, I have asked them to invite The Sunday Leader editors, but they somehow ignore it. The next time, I will personally have to call them and invite them." 

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