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April 22, 2007  Volume 13, Issue 44


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The war against the media

The Head of the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI may have shuddered at the kind of complaint that came his way days prior to a meeting with the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse. For the latter, it is similar to having one's own demons following him all the way to the holy city. Or the misdeeds of his own siblings.

It would certainly have been embarrassing for the Sri Lankan President to meet His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI last week and be reminded of his errant brother, the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse.

As Rajapakse toured Italy came a stinging statement from Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), not only condemning the alleged threats made by Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse to the Editor, Daily Mirror, Champika Liyanarachchi, but it also made specific references that Rajapakse allegedly made to "exterminate" a young journalist for writing articles about the plight of civilian victims of the war.

RSF called upon Pope Benedict XVI to intervene with President Mahinda Rajapakse at their meeting in Italy in support of press freedom in the country and in particular about the latest threats.

The backdrop

The backdrop to this incident is now fairly known. Yet there are some appalling statements allegedly made by the Defence Secretary which are worth examining. First he sides with the Karuna faction and says not just the government but a gun toting para military organisation is unhappy with the newspaper. Next he adds insult to injury by claiming that if the Karuna group places the editor under some threat, he as Defence Secretary would not be able to protect her.

And many would be encouraged to pose the question at this point as to why this country needs a Defence Secretary in the first place if this were the case. But then again, here is a Colonel who made lofty claims that though not coming under his purview, the security of the island's only international airport was his responsibility. Two weeks later, the LTTE strikes the SLAF airbase in Katunayake.

The crux of the matter is that Colonel Rajapakse aka Defence Secretary appears quite unable to protect anything - from airports to editors. Or even to curtail his fiery temper.

However, Gotabhaya Rajapakse is not alone in this battle against the media. It began soon after brother Mahinda Rajapakse was elected the Executive head. The one-time human rights activists 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 report card - both on the human rights and media freedom fronts.

Track record

In this muzzling the media campaign, his brothers Basil and Gotabhaya now take their place. As a pointer to the collective Rajapakse track record, elsewhere on this page we reproduce the instances from deaths to harassment as recorded by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

As shown in the report, the muzzling exercise has been many faceted. Since Rajapakse's election to the presidency just 18 months ago there have been no less than 10 killings of media personnel, 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 credit has also forced the closure of a Sinhala newspaper, the Maubima and its English sister paper Sunday Standard.

Another noteworthy aspect is the type of restrictions 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 disliked for its investigative journalism and advocacy of a graft free administration, there has been a price.

Overt and covert pressures

First, The Sunday Leader was sealed in the year 2000 for two andhalf and months. Finally it was not a voluntary lifting of the clamp down, but a right established through the legal process.

Before thatcame the physical attack on the Editor of the newspaper. Then again, 40 bullets were fired into his home on a subsequent occasion.

The overt and covert pressures brought upon the newspaper throughout its 11-year history are too numerous to mention.

And then came the 'media friendly' Rajapakse. It began with a furious telephone call to the Editor of The Sunday Leader from President Mahinda Rajapakse himself, using filthy and abusive words.  The matter was not investigated into despite a complaint being lodged with the IGP.

Next, every attempt was made by his sibling and Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse to find legal ways to arrest the Editor of The Sunday Leader over the publication of  an article involving a presidential bunker.

But it is reliably learned that the Attorney General's opinion went against this move, and there was temporary peace even though an attempt was made to countermand the AG's opinion. The end result was the transfer of the CID officers who refused to carry out the illegal arrest order.

Sanction to arrest refused

In factdaysafter the newspaper carriedthe story aboutthe costly construction of a presidential bunker and the AG refused to sanction the arrest, the government mouthpiece, the Daily News published afront page story on the Editor being a 'LTTEagent' and givingthe 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.

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.

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 Mission report.

With authorities reluctant to probe murder and other 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.  

Success story

There is also an unofficial censorship in the northern peninsula of Jaffna and in parts of the east, which is recorded, in a separate story here. "The only success story was in securing the release of Maubima journalist, Munusamy Parameshwari who was detained for over 100 days without any charges," adds Deshapriya.

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

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 tostifle Standard Newspapers Ltd. which carried articles critical of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse and Presidential Advisor, Basil Rajapaksewith its management being repeatedly warned 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 Terrorist Investigation Division arrested the company's financial director, Dushyantha Basnayake, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

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

Restricted freedom of expression

 Furthermore, fears the Emergency (Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities) Regulations invoked recently can be used to restrict freedom of expression 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 three Lake House journalists, Prasanna Fonseka, Ranga Jayasuriya and Lionel Yodhasinghe were questioned by policeover a defence report on December 21, 2006. It shows that the government would not consider anyone immune - when it suits them.

It was a disgrace to also see last Friday's (20) edition of the Daily News carrying an article entitled "British High Commissioner misled" which described a meeting held between the High Commissioner and Defence Secretary to discuss the role of the media in Sri Lanka. It was directly inferred, "that the journalist had misled him (the British High Commissioner) and given him bogus information."  It earned a prompt correction from the British High Commission.

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 today and another tomorrow. The truth is that the element of risk exists - it simply changes its objects depending on the occasion.

Until the media learns to stand as a collective forceand forget 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.

The chronology

Year 2006/07

Media personnel killed

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 waited 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, the marketing manager and Ranjith Kumar, working in the Circulation Department, were killed. Five others were injured and the office damaged. The police took six persons into custody in this regard but 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 a.m from his parents' home in Boralesgamuwa. He was 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.

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 clearly marked vehicle in an area controlled by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

 Sinnathamby Sivamaharajah (Managing Director) - On August 21, Sivamaharajah, the 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).

Subash Chandraboas (Editor) - On April 16, Editor of the Vavuniya-based monthly magazine Nilam, Subash Chandraboas (32) was shot dead at about 7.30 pm at his Vavuniya residence. He served a London-based magazine Tamil World  as a freelance journalist until last month and owns a printing press in Vavuniya.

Media personnel abducted

Year 2006

Nadarajah Guruparan (News Director) - On August 28, the News Director of Sooriyan FM radio, was abducted by an unknown group. He was released the same evening due to a national and international campaign for his release. He left Sri Lanka soon after the incident.

Year 2007

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 unknown group and is feared dead.

Media workers arrested

Year 2006

K. Kumarathas - On June 23,  news editor of Jaffna-based Tamil daily Uthayan, was arrested by police in Moratuwa and was detained at the Mt. Lavinia police station for more than 10 hours.

Parameshwari Munusamy - On November 24, a 23-year-old freelance female journalist was arrested by the Special Police Task Force at her boarding place in Wellawatte. She was handed over to the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID). She 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.

Media workers attacked 

Uthayan newspaper

On September 9 and 10, 2006, two incidents of intrusion and intimidation by armed personnel have taken place during curfew hours.

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 Seneviratne and Gananasiri Kottigoda

On January 9, 2007, an unruly mob assaulted two journalists, Ajith Seneviratne of Lanka E-News and Gananasiri Kottigoda of Haraya monthly and the BBC Sinhala Service, whilst disrupting the first public rally of the United People's Movement in Nugegoda. The mob also attacked another freelance cameraman taking photographs and confiscated his camera.

Media workers threatened and harassed

J. Sri Ranga

On November 2006, head of the Tamil television channel, Shakthi TV received death threats following his November 12, 2006 MINNAL talk show on the assassination of TNA Parliamentarian, Nadaraja Raviraj.

M. A. M. Nilam

On January 9, 2007, Minister A.H.M. Fowzie threatened the senior reporter of daily Thinakkural at a press conference. The Minister allegedly threatened Nilam to stop reporting on allegations of corruption related to his Haj pilgrimage or else 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 wereRavaya Editor, Victor Ivan;  Convener, Free Media Movement (FMM), Sunanda Deshapriya;  Producer and Presenter of Swarnavahini's Mul Pituwa Programme, Bandula Padmakumara; and Editor, The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge.

Ruwan Ferdinandez

On January 22, Ruwan Ferdinandez, Director Editorial of Maubima newspaper, lodged a complaint at the Rajagiriya police station regarding death threats over the phone. The anonymous callers were threatening Ferdinandez to desist from writing on any issue related to Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the Defence Secretary, and Basil Rajapakse, Adviser to the President.

Pathma Kumari

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

Media personnel displaced or in self exile 
Anurudha Lokuhappuarrachi, Rohitha Bashana Abeywardane and S. Rajkumar

In December 2006, three journalists, Anurudha Lokuhappuarrachi, senior photographer for Reuters; Rohitha Bashana Abeywardane of the Hiru group as well as freelance column writer for the Maubima newspaper; and S. Rajkumar, News Manager at the Colombo Bureau of Theepam TV  were forced to leave the country due to death threats.

Administrative, legal and economic pressure on media personnel
Government introduces regulations for media 

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

Rajpal Abeynaike - October 10, 2006

On October 10, 2006, Rajpal Abeynaike, Editor of the state-owned Sunday Observer, was asked to vacate his post as a consequence of an article published in his column on September 8. The article indirectly criticised a speech made by the President to Sri Lankan diplomats. 

Raja FM

On November 11, 2006, Raja FM, a private radio station, was banned by the Ministry of Media and Information on the premise of broadcasting obscenities.  

Chandrasiri Dodawatta

On November 20, 2006, Chandrasiri Dodawatta, Chief Editor of Sinhala daily Dinamina, was removed from his post without explanation. He is the third chief editor removed within a year from the Dinamina newspaper.

Ranga Jayasuriya, Lionel Yodasinghe and Prasanna Fonseka

On December 20, 2006, two senior journalists of the Sunday Observer, Ranga Jayasuriya and Lionel Yodasinghe, were summoned to the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) and questioned under the newly enacted anti-terror laws regarding a defence news report. Sunday Observer journalist, Prasanna Fonseka was also interrogated for the same.

Government Minister incites violence against media

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

Maubima and the Sunday Standard  

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

Obstacles for the free flow of information
Defence Ministry imposes unofficial censorship

On September 20, 2006, in a letter sent to media institutions, the Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law and Order indirectly requested all news relating to national security be submitted to the Media Centre for National Security before publication, telecast or broadcast.

Young Asia Television 

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

(Source: IFJ)

 

Northeast media in chains

Newspaper organisations and journalists in the north and east have faced increased threats and hardships in the past two years.

The Tamil daily in the north, Uthayan received the highest number of threats due to its style of reporting, openly being accused of toeing the LTTE line. Unidentified persons killed two of its staff members last year.

The Managing Director of Uthayan and Sudar Oli newspapers, E. Saravanapavan said journalists were reluctant to work for the organisation especially during the night.

"The attacks were carried out after dusk and during the curfew hours," he said.

Newspaper organisations in the peninsula have continuously requested protection for the journalists and other staff members. The Uthayan office has been given security by the security forces.

However, the journalists continue to feel threatened.

The newspaper organisations in the north are facing another challenge. They are short of newsprint and printing ink. The publishers in the peninsula complain that they do not receive materials since the closure of the A9 highway last August.

President Mahinda Rajapakse last month assured the northern based newspapers a free flow of material required for publication. But the promise to date has been confined to words. "We do not know how long we would be able to continue like this," an official at the Thinakkural office in Jaffna said.

Editor in Chief of Sudar Oli N. Vithyatharan told The Sunday Leader that permission was granted by the Essential Services Commissioner's Department to take 50 cubic meters of materials. He added that the permitted amount was sufficient for a month.

He added that the specific quantity was finalised after much struggle by the newspaper organisation.

"We managed to ship 30 cubic meters of the materials last week. The items have not been unloaded yet," he said.

What is worse, the newspaper organisations are continuing to print their newspapers with the 24 pages being reduced to a mere four pages -  and even this they have been forced to print on brown paper and tissue due to the shortage of material.

The Free Media Movement (FMM) said that it was working in collaboration with international organisations to rectify this issue.

The situation in the east differs. Newspapers like Thinakkural and Sudar Oli have been banned from areas such as Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara for the past six months.

The agents were also threatened not to distribute newspapers in these areas.

Officials at the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance (SLTMA) told The Sunday Leader that the threats to journalists in the east increased during the ceasefire period. "The journalists have been receiving more threats during the CFA  than during the time of war," officials said. According to the SLTMA, more than 10 journalists from the east had migrated to other countries due to the threats since 2004.  

"Journalists like Nadeson and Sivaram were killed in 2004 and 2005 respectively, during the CFA. Journalists are intimidated in these areas and are not allowed to work as they wish," officials added.

The SLTMA said none of the authorities were paying attention to the issues faced by the media organisations in the northeast.

While the media organisations and activists accused the Karuna group for this situation in the east, the group denied the allegations.

The Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) had continuously stated that it never threatened or intimidated journalists and said it supported media freedom.

The Karuna group on previous occasions told the media that they had in fact requested the Tamil newspapers to report the truth and not resort to biased reporting. The group was critical on the reporting of papers such as Sudar Oli  and Thinakkural and accused them of being LTTE lackeys.

 

Support from British High Commissioner

British High Commissioner Dominick Chilcott visited the Daily Mirror office last week following Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse's alleged threatening call to its Editor, Champika Liyanarachchi.    

Chilcott met the Defence Secretary on Thursday.

Senior BHC officials claimed it was a private meeting. "The meeting took place at around 11 a.m. and continued for 45 minutes. It was a friendly and private meeting," officials said. They however admitted that the discussion touched upon the role of the media in Sri Lanka.


For whom the bell tolls

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Kumuthu Amarasingham, Shezna Shums, Arthur Wamanan and Nirmala Kannangara

As Gangster's Paradise played out yet again last week between the media and top government officials for the umpteenth time since President Mahinda Rajapakse's rise to the Executive throne, there was a simultaneous running of the age old, understated, good cop/bad cop game-show by the same bureaucrats.

The show however was amusing, if at all, for only one section of the cast. One of the key players this time, Editor, Daily Mirror, Champika Liyanarachchi was left literary speechless and silent - a silence brimming with fear and uncertainty.

It all began last Tuesday when at around 8 a.m Liyanarachchi received a call from Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse. Reports of the call have since varied: while some, including the international media organisation Reporters Without Borders stated she had received death threats from Rajapakse, Liyanarachchi's silence on the subject and refusal to make an official statement has led to some perplexity. That is, unless you let the silence speak for itself.

First female editor

That one call left a reputed media organisation and its first female editor, a journalist of long standing and the holder of numerous international designations for various media organisations (see box) stumped.

Rajapakse's call left this woman literally unable and unwilling to speak of her experience officially to any of her colleagues, despite the mass media (and other) support she would have known she was bound to receive, both locally and internationally. Whatever Rajapakse said to Liyanarachchi on the phone must then have been pretty powerful; dare one say even pretty scary?

Shortly following the call Liyanarachchi notified the heads of her institution. She also called several embassies to keep them informed. She was asked by the management of her newspaper to keep a lid on the story, and the Daily Mirror staff was instructed to do the same.

By late afternoon of the same day however text messages had begun to circulate amongst journalists with details of the incident. Soon calls were flowing in to the Daily Mirror and to Liyanarachchi from reporters.

Liyanarachchi however refused to give a statement and requested that she be kept out of the story, with the result that at least one wire service dropped the story when she declined to comment. Furthermore, a decision was taken by the Daily Mirror not to report on the incident in the issue immediately following. Some Daily Mirror staffers, The Sunday Leader reliably learns, were also worried about the other newspapers' coverage of the story and play on it, with particular emphasis on The Morning Leader, which was due the following day.

Caution and concern

Despite the caution and concern, by late afternoon the story was reported by the website Lankanews, followed by BBC Sandeshaya in the night.

That same night the Free Media Movement had, after much fretting over how to word the story due to Liyanarachchi's reluctance to contact them officially, finally released a statement. Following the lead of Reporters Without Borders, the organisation strongly condemned what the latter had termed Rajapakse's threat to "exterminate" a journalist, Uditha Jayasinghe on the newspaper, for writing articles about the plight of civilian victims of the war. A little known fact is that Liyanarachchi is the  contact person of Reporters Without Borders in Sri Lanka.

"Making such vicious threats against two journalists, one of whom is the first female editor of a daily newspaper in the history of the Sri Lankan press, is unworthy of a ministry secretary and a danger to the entire profession," Reporters Without Borders said.

Calling on Gotabhaya to apologise to Champika Liyanarachchi and Uditha Jayasinghe, the worldwide press freedom organisation said it had written to Pope Benedict XVI, urging him to intervene with President Mahinda Rajapakse at their meeting in Italy, in support of press freedom in the country and in particular about the latest threats.

Pope's intervention

Whether this request for the Pope's intervention had any bearing on President Rajapakse's actions, or whether they were the result of shrewd calculation cannot be said for sure. At any rate it marked the entry of the good cop - the worthy President Rajapakse - into the scenario.

Rajapakse contacted Liyanarachchi just hours after the incident to assure he would order an investigation into the episode. Of course, if this is the beginning of the end of terror-tactics and media stifling, and the President has, in a flash of divine inspiration (perhaps as a result of being in the presence of the head of the Catholic Church), decided to mend his ways, and more importantly, the ways of his wayward siblings, who are we to complain?

Be that as it may, back home the situation continued to deteriorate. Following British High Commissioner Dominick Chilcott's visit to the  Daily Mirror office, where he expressed solidarity with Liyanarachchi, Chilcott was 'invited' to Defence Secretary Rajapakse's office on Thursday. While both parties had agreed that the confidentiality of the meeting would be preserved, reports indicated that it was a 'friendly' 45-minute 'discussion' in which they talked about the role of the media. 

Meanwhile Daily Mirror's sister paper,  Lankadeepa  reported that Chilcott had expressed Britain's concerns about the security of journalists in Sri Lanka. Chilcott's unexpected visit to the Daily Mirror was seen by diplomats as a signal of Britain's deep concern over recent attacks against the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.

Gesture of support

His gesture of support came hours after the Sri Lanka government accused unnamed diplomats of interfering in the island's internal affairs and warned that those meddling would be kicked out.

While Chilcott was thus amicably dealt with by Rajapakse, it is interesting to note that Minister Keheliya Rambukwella conveniently used Liyanarachchi's absence of a complaint to refuse to answer any questions on the issue at a press conference the day after the incident.

When the Daily Mirror finally did report on the call on Thursday, it was based on the Free Media Movement release. It was on Friday, 72 hours after the call that the Daily Mirror at long last reacted to the malignant call in its editorial. That the FMM gave details of the threat in its statement and the Daily Mirror carried it without any editing was the surest proof of the contents therein.

Further, the diplomatic community was briefed on the incident by Liyanarachchi no less and they were fully alive to what had actually transpired during the conversation between her and the Defence Secretary.

The question however is not when the paper reacted, or even if it did. The big question that is buzzing in the head of every journalist, and all citizens who value their freedom of bexpression is: when will they get the dreaded call?

Recent decline in media freedom-NPC

Executive Director, National Peace Council of Sri Lanka (NPCSL) Jehan Perera opines that although the country had been fortunate to have a vibrant media, there had been a noticeable decline recently in expressing views without fear.

"The National Peace Council is gravely concerned about reports that high ranking members of the government have personally pressurised editors of national media institutions who have been critical of government policies and actions. We particularly deplore the threats levelled against the Editor, Daily Mirror and her staff regarding their reportage of the human tragedy that continues to unfold in the east."

He added that the team of young journalists who head the Daily Mirror are a credit to the media profession. We are shocked at the threats against them and their safety and regret the subsequent government attempts to downplay the incident.

I was not officially informed-Media Minister

When contacted by The Sunday Leader, Media Minister, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa said he was unable to comment regarding the alleged threats received by the Editor, Daily Mirror from Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse because neither he nor the Ministry of Media and Information has received an official complaint.

"I heard about this problem only from a third party and through the media," he said.

He said it was not fair for him to make assumptions when he has not received any official complaint or even informed of the matter by an aggrieved party.

Minister Yapa promised to attend to the matter if he receives a complaint or a request to look into the matter.

Rulers threatening subjects -- Kiriella

UNP Parliamentarian Lakshman Kiriella told The Sunday Leader that the very same person who is responsible for providing security to the nation has now started to threaten professionals.

"This is the first time that a Defence Secretary has threatened an individual, especially a lady. If he says that the government cannot provide security to Editor, Daily Mirror, Champika Liyanarachchi and add insult to injury by adding that the Daily Mirror reporting may lead to other forms of harassments to her from the Karuna fraction, we would like to question Rajapakse as to why he continues to retain his post? If he can’t protect an individual, then how can the Defence Secretary protect the entire nation from the LTTE," Kiriella demanded.

‘This incident clearly demonstrates his mentality and this is why the UNP as a responsible main opposition demands that he be replaced with a sensible officer who could handle the important post in a satisfactory manner,’ he added.

Ranjit Wijewardena unavailableals.

"This is the first time that a Defence Secretary has threatened an individual, especially a lady. If he says that the government cannot provide security to  Editor, Daily Mirror, Champika Liyanarachchi and add insult to injury by adding that the Daily Mirror reporting may lead to other forms of harassments to her from the Karuna fraction, we would like to question Rajapakse as to why he continues to retain his post? If he can't protect an individual, then how can the Defence Secretary protect the entire nation from the LTTE," Kiriella demanded.

'This incident clearly demonstrates his mentality and this is why the UNP as a responsible main opposition demands that he be replaced with a sensible officer who could handle the important post in a satisfactory manner,' he added.

A brief look at 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 Act (PTA). When Part II of the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) 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.

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, suspension of the operation of any law and to apply any new law.

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.

  

Champika Liyanarachchi's profile

Whether the silence maintained by Editor, Daily Mirror, Champika Liyanarachchi is golden, gutless or letting the journalists' side down is not for us to decide, and beside the point. The fact remains, she must at one point have been fearless enough in her stance, to attract the reprisals and reprimanding of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse just last week. That the failure to deal with the issue publicly so that it will act as a deterrent and help other journalists in the future too is a matter for Liyanarachchi and that organisation to decide.

That she preferred not to comment on the incident at all when The Sunday Leader spoke to her last Thursday, whatever her reasons, is a personal and institutional choice she of course has every right to make. But that alone points to the frightening effect Gotabhaya's call has had not only on Liyanarachchi but the entire organisation.

In addition to being editor of the Daily Mirror, Liyanarachchi, a journalist of repute, holds several international posts. She is the Sri Lanka representative of the Paris based international media rights group - Reporters Without Borders, Executive Committee Member - Commonwealth Journalists' Association (CJA) and Member - Women in International Security (WIIS) Group of Georgetown University, Washington.

In addition she was also a recipient of the Woman of Achievement in Media award presented by the Sri Lanka Chapter of the Chicago based international professional group - Zonta Internationa.

Violence against women journalists on the increase 

On March 8, International Women's Day, a statement issued by Reporters Sans Borders (RSF) drew attention to the fact that violence against women journalists was increasing worldwide.

"More and more women journalists are the victims of murder, arrest, threats or intimidation," RSF said. At the same time, "more and more women are working as journalists, holding riskier jobs in the media and doing investigative reporting likely to upset someone."

Of the 82 journalists killed worldwide in 2006, 11 per cent (nine) were women, a higher percentage than in recent years. In 2007, so far no woman journalist has been killed.

RSF added that seven women journalists were currently known to be in prison in connection with their work including Sri Lanka's Munusamy Parameshwari who was released two weeks after the RSF statement.

Statements against Gotabhaya's threat

Free Media Movement (FMM)

This gross misconduct of a high-placed public official clearly demonstrates the challenges facing free media in Sri Lanka today. The FMM unequivocally deplores the threat made by the Defence Secretary and condemns what is tantamount to violence against the media.

We strongly feel this latest assault on free media essentially ridicules this government's promises to uphold and strengthen media freedom. Given the volatile situation in the country, the FMM also fears that this threat  sends a chilling message to the media community at large in Sri Lanka.

The FMM notes that on previous occasions as well, government leaders had criticised the Daily Mirror over its coverage of the conflict. It is an open secret that government leaders and close allies are pressurising independent media to toe its line on war and peace. We see this latest development as a calculated process of coercion by the government that forces media to abandon its role of watchdog of democracy, and instead adopt the supine role of a lap dog to those in power.

The FMM urgently and firmly requests the government to make its position public regarding this incident and also call upon the government to take remedial steps to ensure that loose tongues and wild imagination of  its ministers and allies are kept in check by educating them on the need to secure and strengthen free media as a vital foundation of democratic governance.  

Human Rights Watch (HRW)

The Sri Lankan government is abusing anti-terrorism legislation to clamp down on journalists who expose human rights abuses, official corruption, or otherwise question the government's handling of the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

International Media Lawyers' Association (IMLA)

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse's reported threatening of Daily Mirror Editor Champika Liyanarachchi is a clear infringement of the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression including publication guaranteed by the constitution, says Vasana Wickremasena, the Sri Lankan member of the International Media Lawyers' Association based in the Oxford University.

It is saddening to hear public officials such as the Defence Secretary threatening the Daily Mirror Editor over the phone. It is a clear infringement of the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression including publication guaranteed by the constitution.

The Defence Secretary must be aware that even in the USA, where he has very close links, freedom of the press is well protected under the First Amendment to the American Constitution since 1791.

On the other hand, it is the duty of the Defence Secretary to ensure the security of every citizen of Sri Lanka including the Daily Mirror Editor. In the event  he cannot guarantee the security of an editor who is simply exercising her fundamental right of freedom of  speech and expression including publication, the Defence Secretary should resign. 

International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has expressed deep concern about the many threats that work against the media in Sri Lanka.

In its January statement encapsulating the media culture in Sri Lanka, IFJ President, Christopher Warren said, "Every day there is more reports of terrible incidents occurring in Sri Lanka."

"Journalists are disappearing, newspapers are being shutdown, and media workers live in fear for their lives and independence," Warren said.

"The Sri Lankan government can no longer turn a blind eye as the safety and press freedom situation deteriorates further," said Warren. 

Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka

The Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka (TEGOSL) in a statement issued on April 18 condemned the alleged threat and attempts to intimidate the Daily Mirror Editor by Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse.

"We consider this as a serious threat to media freedom and also to editorial independence. The TEGOSL totally condemns the behaviour of the Defence Secretary. Being the brother of the Executive President and also being the head of the defence establishment, the public of this country would expect decent and professional conduct from Mr. Rajapakse. Threatening and intimidating the editors cannot be tolerated at any cost.

"Therefore we request President Mahinda Rajapakse to conduct an impartial inquiry into this incident. We also request all officials and politicians to act with a sense of responsibility and dignity at this crucial juncture," President, TEGOSL, Upali Tennakoon added. 

Muslim Media Forum (MMF)

Secretary, Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum, M.Muzammil in a  statement  said that threats to media personnel have continued for the last couple of months and this included abductions and killings.

The MMF added that the threats to the Daily Mirror Editor should not go unnoticed as turning a blind eye would lead to anarchy. 

The MMF stressed on the fact that the threats posed to the media were not something new and was one incident in a series of similar or sometimes worse incidents in recent times. 


For whom the bell tolls


 

 


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