Dozens of journalists have been killed, abducted or have disappeared in the past two decades in Sri Lanka, with 2005-2010 being the most dangerous. According to Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) 44 journalists and media workers were killed or disappeared during this period. Disturbingly, there are hosts who have been arrested and detained, assaulted, threatened, intimidated and harassed. And media institutions have been subjected to arson, with one Tamil newspaper in the war-ravaged north and one Colombo based English weekend paper targeted repeatedly during and after the war. Such incidents have occurred under all recent administrations, with the Jayawardena / Premadasa led United National Party governments in the late 1980s and Rajapaksha family-led government between 2006-2014 being particularly bloody years for media.
Against this backdrop of repression, media freedom organizations, journalists’ unions, rights activists and others in Sri Lanka, along with their international allies, have campaigned relentlessly for justice. Commemorations are held, statements released, protests are carried out and more recently, online events and campaigns have been organized.
Last month, commemorations were held to remember a journalist killed 20 years ago, with no accountability to date. On the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, “Vikalpa” (Alternative), a Sri Lankan website, featured eight journalists killed, disappeared and assaulted, with no accountability for 3995 days to 7319 days. According to the Free Media Movement (FMM) of Sri Lanka, not a single person has been convicted for crimes against any journalist. FMM also states that only two cases have reached the prosecution stage. One has been laid aside, while the other is subject to an ongoing trial that faces serious obstacles since the election of the new government. Many journalists have informed me that most cases are not even investigated, or initial police inquiries and reports to Magistrates die a natural death with the passage of time.
Impunity has served as a license for continuing crimes and violence against media. Last month, five provincial journalists were assaulted in four districts across the country. All were hospitalized; one’s camera was damaged, another lost his camera, two lost data and some still fear for their safety. Impunity also leads to self-censorship of journalists and media institutions. Last month, a Facebook commentator, who had been jailed for five months before being released on bail, said he is now subjecting himself to self-censorship due to the continuing case against him. Many journalists have retreated into exile, with at least one leaving Sri Lanka this year, with the fear of reprisal overriding travel concerns during the global pandemic.
The case of the disappearance of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda in January 2010 has seen the most progress in terms of seeking accountability for a serious crime against a journalist in Sri Lanka. For about five years, there was hardly any progress. Then, after a change of government, investigations by the Criminal Investigations Department of the Police were recorded in Magistrate Courts, despite obstructions and lack of cooperation from the Army. In a historic and rare step in crimes against journalists in the country, late last year, the Attorney General filed indictments against nine Army personnel who had been previously arrested and released on bail. However, prospects for justice in this lone case now also look bleak. The indictments coincided with the return to power of the ruling family under which the disappearance occurred, who had had pledged not to prosecute war heroes (i.e. military persons). A key prosecution witness defied a court order to go before a Presidential Commission, where he said his previous testimony had been under duress. A top investigator went into exile and his chief overseeing the investigations has been arrested and detained.
The driving force behind the case’s progression to the stage of prosecution is Prageeth’s wife, Sandya Ekneligoda. For nearly 11 years, she pursued justice with extraordinary determination and exceptional courage, braving death threats, defamation and harassment, all while raising two children who had lost their father. She has attended hundreds of court hearings, organised and joined countless protests, vigils and marches, met with politicians, engaged with the Attorney General and Army Commander, diplomats and UN officials, journalists and lawyers. She pursued justice through local courts when she was threatened, refused mediation and appealed to the Supreme Court when the monk convicted of threatening her was given a presidential pardon. A local journalist had estimated she has travelled at least 411,220km in pursuit of justice.
Sandya’s decade long work in ensuring Prageeth’s case reached trial is an example we should look to and reflect on our efforts to challenge impunity. Areas which may deserve greater effort include: diligent documentation of progress or lack of progress in relation to individual cases, as well as overall trends; systematic and comprehensive monitoring of legal processes inside courtrooms, ensuring quality and consistent legal representation for aggrieved parties; other forms of direct legal interventions and principled engagement with relevant bodies such as the Police and the Attorney General departments. There must also be monitoring and documentation of social, cultural and political developments. International support should be sought when helpful to advance accountability, and greater attention should also be paid to support survivors and the families of victims.
Successive governments have failed to ensure accountability for very serious crimes against the media in Sri Lanka and there is no sign this will change. The recent 20th amendment to the constitution, providing the President with absolute discretion in appointing the Attorney General and judges to higher courts, further compromises accountability. Now more than ever, journalists, media freedom organizations, journalist’s unions and media agencies that employ journalists and media workers, bodies like the editors guild and broadcasters guild, must be more creative, consistent and comprehensive in their approaches to challenge impunity. This work must be done, difficulties notwithstanding.
Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan human rights activist and writer. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka. His writings are available at www.rukiiiii.wordpress.com.