Sri Lanka’s National Reconciliation Efforts Must Address Journalists’ Concerns

 

Journalists in Sri Lanka began

a campaign on January 25 in memory of colleagues who fell in the

quarter-century long civil war in the island nation. This day of protest united

all Sri Lanka’s principal professional journalism bodies  and was planned as a reminder to those in

power that the vital task of national reconciliation requires more than token

gestures.

 

The campaign was also aimed

at dispelling the climate of impunity for attacks on the media which was a

feature of the years of ethnic strife, and at allowing a free voice for human

rights defenders who stand up for a fair and just society.

 

Government spokespersons

began to mobilise their own campaign of hostile rhetoric soon after the

alliance of professional bodies announced plans for the January 25 observance.

 

IFJ sources in Sri Lanka

report that in the second week of January the government-owned TV channel launched

an attack, bristling with unseemly aggression, against the Free Media Movement

(FMM), a voluntary body which some of Sri Lanka’s finest journalists have been

associated with for close to two decades. While playing old footage of these

journalists and activists from past campaigns, the TV channel ran a commentary

on its main news programmes, attacking them in virulent terms.

 

According to a reliable

translation provided by IFJ sources in Sri Lanka, the commentary accused

these activists of “betraying” the “motherland for gold and titles”. With mock

regret that the descendants of individuals who were “killed” during the reign

of the kings “live on today”, the commentary promised that those who “do no

good to the country, would some day face no good”. 

 

On January 10, the

government-owned newspaper accused the FMM of petitioning the European Union

(E.U.) to terminate the bilateral trade preferences Sri Lanka enjoys. Two former

convenors of the FMM and, by subtle implication, the current holder of that post,

were accused of seeking to undermine a concession that many industries in Sri Lanka

benefit from. The report did not stint in the use of suggestive and extremely

hostile rhetoric, describing the individuals named as “anti-national elements”

who were sustained on “foreign funds”.

 

The IFJ is unaware of any

occasion when the FMM has urged the withdrawal of trade concessions to Sri Lanka.

Rather, the FMM has invariably focused its attention on the Sri Lankan

government and repeatedly underlined the need for it to live up to the human

rights standards under which the E.U. trade preferences are granted.

 

Prior to the FMM’s planned

demonstrations of January 25, the government secured a court injunction

restricting the protests to a narrow area around the Fort Railway Station, a

major landmark in Colombo, the capital city. Though the FMM and its allied

organisations made it clear that they were not seeking confrontation, gangs of

stick-wielding toughs reportedly took over the place where the demonstrations

were planned. Placards carried by these gangs explicitly identified the FMM as

an ally of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the ethnic insurgent

group defeated by government forces in 2009 after a civil war marked by gross

human rights violations by both sides.

 

On January 25, the

government-controlled newspaper, the Daily News, carried an editorial which warned that any effort to “sabotage the progress of the country by

disruptive elements (would) be put down”. The editorial identified the FMM,

which coordinates the activities of all other professional bodies in the

country – including journalists’ bodies organised on linguistic and ethnic

lines - as “one of those organisations which have been in the forefront of

lambasting the Lankan state on numerous issues”. The FMM, the editorial warned,

“has been steeped in controversy and has a lot of soul-searching to do”.

 

The Daily News editorial then proceeded quite gratuitously to ask about the current

whereabouts of the FMM’s leadership:

 

We wonder where its 'Founding Fathers' are today? Are they in this

country or in some safe Western Comfort Zone?

 

The IFJ believes that these

insinuations about individuals who were involved in human rights and media

freedom campaigns in Sri

Lanka through the difficult years of the

civil war are completely misplaced. There is, moreover, no mystery about their

current whereabouts, since most of them were virtually forced into exile by the

events of January 2009, one of the worst months of a dark quarter century for

journalism in Sri Lanka.

 

Yet this does not diminish

the importance of the cause that they took great risks to advocate: media

freedom as an imperative in the process of building peace.

 

As an organisation that has

been closely involved with the FMM and its allied bodies, the IFJ believes that

the tone of public comment in government-controlled media is unwarranted and

speaks of a determination to pursue the policies that led to the bitter estrangement

between Sri Lanka’s

main linguistic communities.

 

With reconciliation being

the proclaimed objective of the government of President Mahindra Rajapaksa, a

more accommodating attitude seems called for in addressing the serious abuses

of human rights that set the country back severely through its long civil war.

 

The IFJ notes that the

report of an official commission appointed by the President as part of the

process of national reconciliation was published late in 2011 and has led to

some debate. This voluminous report, by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation

Commission (LLRC), devotes a modest amount of space to media freedom issues,

but its language is compelling. Since these observations come from a duly

accredited body constituted by the all-powerful president of Sri Lanka, we

would like to quote from its findings at some length.

 

The LLRC records that it has

been “deeply disturbed” by the reports that have persisted since the end of the

war about “attacks and obstacles placed on journalists and media institutions”.

These difficulties have been experienced even by “news websites”. The “killing

of journalists” is another matter of serious concern flagged by the LLRC, which

goes on to remark that the failure to “conclusively” investigate and bring the

“perpetrators” to justice does little credit to the Sri Lankan government.

 

The LLRC notes, with some

severity, that even while its deliberations were in progress, there was a

“deplorable attack on the Editor of the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna”. Such “actions”,

the LLRC has warned, “clearly place great obstacles in the way of any

reconciliation efforts”. Indeed, it points out, “any failure to investigate and

prosecute offenders would undermine the process of reconciliation and the Rule

of Law”.

 

The LLRC report is still

being debated in Sri Lanka

and diverse opinions are being voiced about the utility of its contribution to

national reconciliation.

 

The IFJ and all its global

associates are, however, encouraged by the LLRC recommendations that have a

bearing on journalism. These need to be quoted in some detail:

 

Freedom of expression and right to information, which are universally

regarded as basic human rights, play a pivotal role in any reconciliation

process. It is therefore essential that media freedom be enhanced in keeping

with democratic principles and relevant fundamental rights obligations, since

any restrictions placed on media freedom would only contribute to an

environment of distrust and fear within and among ethnic groups.

           

This would only prevent a constructive exchange of information and

opinion placing severe constraints on the ongoing reconciliation process.

 

The Commission strongly recommends that:

a. All steps should be taken to prevent harassment and attacks on media

personnel and institutions.

b. Action must be taken to impose deterrent punishment on such offences,

and also priority should be given to the investigation, prosecution and

disposal of such cases to build up public confidence in the criminal justice

system.

c. Past incidents of such illegal action should be properly investigated.

The Commission observes with concern that a number of journalists and media

institutions have been attacked in the recent past. Such offences erode the

public confidence in the system of justice. Therefore, the Commission

recommends that steps should be taken to expeditiously conclude investigations

so that offenders are brought to book without delay.

d. The Government should ensure the freedom of movement of media

personnel in the North and East, as it would help in the exchange of

information contributing to the process of reconciliation.

e. Legislation be enacted to ensure the right to information.

 

Global organisations

affiliated with the IFJ are seriously concerned that, despite these very clear

recommendations, the government of Sri Lanka seems intent on

confronting the independent media, escalating the violent rhetoric against

journalists, and questioning their motives in seeking restitution due for years

of hardship.

 

The IFJ recalls that this manner

of rhetoric contributed directly to the brutal

attack on Poddala Jayantha, then the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working

Journalists’ Association, in June 2009. Jayantha, a highly awarded journalist,

suffered permanent disability and now lives in exile.

 

Leaked diplomatic cables

from the U.S. mission in Colombo through the later

years of the civil war have recently emerged, showing that the Sri Lankan

authorities were in the know about the agencies behind the most outrageous

attacks against the media.

 

In January 2006, S.

Sukirtharajan, a photographer with the Tamil daily from Colombo, Sudar Oli¸

was shot dead by  assailants on

motorcycles just days after he had published photographs proving that five

Tamil students found dead in the eastern city of Trincomalee had been victims

of an execution by state security agencies. A cable from the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka at

the time has now come to light which records President Rajapaksa’s brother

Basil Rajapaksa, then as now a senior minister, admitting that the “Special

Task Force” of the Sri Lankan military may have carried out the killing of the

five students.

 

In August 2006, the Jaffna office of the Uthayan newspaper – part of the same group as Sudar Oli – was attacked with

fire bombs and seriously damaged. As narrated to the U.S.

ambassador in Sri Lanka,

again by

the President's brother, this attack was in all probability carried out by

the Sri Lankan Navy in league with a Tamil political party that is a close ally

of President Rajapaksa’s.

 

In one of the most shocking

incidents since the civil war was officially declared over in May 2009, the

news editor of Uthayan was attacked with iron rods on the streets off Jaffna and left for dead shortly after elections to local

bodies in the northern province

were concluded in July 2011. The newspaper had editorially supported the

opposition parties which registered significant wins in the elections.

 

The LLRC had taken note of

this attack and commented sharply on it. The IFJ and its global partners

conclude with extreme regret that the Sri Lankan government’s continuing

failure to act against this manner of lawlessness, indeed its seeming eagerness

to promote the rancour that contributed to the violence, suggest not a desire

for national reconciliation, but its very opposite.

 

For further

information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific

on +612 9333 0950

 

The IFJ

represents more than 600,000 journalists in 131 countries

 

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