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Freedom of Expression
Press freedom tug o'war never ends

Press freedom tug o'war never ends

2011 Feb 06

Whether we have press freedom in this country is an ongoing debate, not simply between journalists and the government but also among journalists themselves.  

Media freedom, after all is a relative concept. Also, any assessment of the quality of media freedom is a subjective exercise, depending on the personal experiences and opinions of the researchers and the sample group. Though, generally the sample group ought to be a cross section of the target group, our experience is that  much of the media related activism in this country is taking  place within the narrow confines of media rights activists. However, the media fraternity in this country is not a monolithic group.

Complex situation

To begin with, statistics of the past several years portray a gloomy picture of  press freedom in this country.

Twenty three media personnel, including several journalists were killed in the past few years; many others were assaulted, abducted and forced into exile. Several newspaper institutions were attacked, ransacked and riddled with bullets.The popular narrative of Sri Lanka published by the international press freedom groups describes a paranoid and intolerant state which is gunning down its enemies in the media.

And many others would tend to believe that since a few dozens of media personnel have fled the country - though many of them were not the practitioners of mainstream media - that free media in this country is dead and the press has cowed down.However, the situation is far more complex than what any press freedom report portrays.

Local media still criticizes and questions the government and there is a lively debate on the television — though, journalists, including this writer would admit that the institutional level self censorship has increased in recent times, which is by no means a welcome situation.However, the objective reportage of local press had not altered too much to make Sri Lanka a basket case viz media freedom.  But, surely, we have our share of problems.

But, by no means, the standard of  media freedom in this country could be described as worse  than that of the much of the Arab world, including  some of pro western, liberal leaning states such as Jordan and Dubai , where institutionalized restrictions stifle any form of criticism of  the regime. Same thing could be said about Singapore, where draconian libel laws prevent the media from criticizing the government. As far as the institutional framework is concerned, Sri Lankans are much better off, but, in those countries, journalists rarely get killed for doing their job.That is where the problem lies in Sri Lanka though it could be argued that not all journalists who were assassinated during the last few years were killed for their reporting. That could not discount the fact that some of the most outspoken critics of this government were killed, abducted and beaten up allegedly by the agents of the state.

5-1Though, there is an institutional framework for civilized debate, the contours of the framework is not respected by the government and some times, by certain practitioners of the media.

Prime suspect

This government is paranoid and intolerant of dissenting views. Its intolerance degenerates into violence as seen in numerous attacks carried out against the media.

As the other pillars of the government have been made subordinate to the whims and fancies of the Executive (and his family), those who attack the media with the connivance of the powers that be enjoy complete impunity, a situation which encourages further attacks.
As Gnanasiri Kotthigoda, the acting president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalist Associates alleges elsewhere in these pages, the government is the prime suspect of the attacks directed against media.

On the other hand, media is not guilt free; especially a handful of news websites and a few alternative newspapers have shown scant regard of basic ethics of journalism. They have regularly published slander, innuendo and rumor without due verification, which if nothing else gives a bad name for journalism and its practitioners.Once a popular anti government website published a doctored tape of what was described as President Mahinda Rajapaksa      screaming a racist rant directed at  Tamils who attended an election rally in Vavuniya. Later, it transpired, the president was, in fact, blaming some Sinhala participants who obstructed his speech when he was speaking in Tamil. He was basically telling them to learn Tamil, but the tape was skillfully doctored to give a different impression.

The concerned website which was operating from UK was later blocked in Sri Lanka on the orders of the government.

In another incident, another newspaper reported that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has bought over the Apollo Hospital, which it later transpired was not true.

Facts are sacred, comment is free; this old adage sums up the spirit of journalism. When facts are doctored, that is sacrilege.

Those segments of media, especially the alternative press should try to mend. That does not mean they become a servile press, but they could definitely be a better press.  But, whether that could stop state orchestrated attacks against media is doubtful. Because, once a system of impunity is institutionalized it could only be dismantled at the cost of those who thrived under that system.

Arson at Lanka e News : the Bahu-bootha story

The story doesn’t add up. It sounds like a poorly concocted cover up. A heroin addict receives a phone call from an anonymous overseas caller who instructs his friend to burn down an anti government news website. The drug addict, Soosa still does not know who the caller was. But, still he decides to carry out the orders of the caller with his partner Boothaya another drug addict and the two set ablaze the office of the anti-government website, Lankaenews  on the night of January 30th. Intriguingly enough, the arson attack took place a week after the website   reported that President Rajapaksa during his private visit to the US last month, visited Anderson Cancer Centre. The story, which many mainstream media did not publish, has not yet been officially confirmed. However, it caused quite a stir among some sections of local population as well as the Tamil diaspora.

In the day following the arson attack, while the attack was making headlines in media, the president ordered an ‘independent’ investigation. Police promptly arrested Soosa, 42 old drug addict from Wellampitiya - while he was doing his laundry at home.

Police took him

However, S.S.P. Deshabandu Thennakon, who lead police investigations told media that Soosa was arrested while he was loitering in Daham Mawatha, where the office of the Lankaenews was located.

However, Soosa’s ageing mother, 72 - year - old Nandawathi contradicts the police version and says that her son was taken to the Wellampitiya police station by a police officer, while  he was at home. When she asked why her son was summoned to the police, the officer had replied that the OIC of the Wellampitiya police wanted him.She has acknowledged that her son is a drug addict, but insisted  that on the   night of 31st when the office of the web site was torched, he was at home.

Soosa was, later, transferred to Thalangama police and was produced at Kaduwela Magistrate’s  Court. When Nandawathi was finally allowed to see her son, who had been held incommunicado for one night, he had told her that the OIC wanted him to sign a confession, implicating him in the arson attack against Lankaenews.

Later, Soosa was remanded by the Kaduwela Magistrate.

Not many are convinced by the police version of the events.  In the eyes of many, a hapless drug addict with little means for legal recourse is being made a scapegoat for an attack.
Bennet Rupasinghe, the Editor of Lankaenews says he does not expect that real culprits of the attack would ever, be brought to book.

But he stops short of blaming the police for the failure. “Police would have caught the arsonists, if politicians let them do their job,” he says.

He says that some police officers confide in private that investigations are a sham.
“We can only sympathize with them,” he says. “Because, we know how politicized things have become,” says Rupasinghe, a veteran  local journalist in his own right, having begun his career in the old communist party newspaper, Ettha.

Drawing from the past experience of government ordered investigations into attacks against media personnel and institutions — none of which led to a successful prosecution — Rupasingha says the on-going investigation too is an eyewash.

But, none of the perpetrators was ever brought to book.
One of the victims of the media suppression was Rupasinghe’s colleague and the former cartoonist of Lankaenews,  Prageeth Ekneligoda, who disappeared on the eve of the presidential election.

A year has passed since his disappearance and many colleagues fear that he was abducted by the state. A joint police and CID investigation into his disappearance has led no where.

Should find him

“They (government) alleged that Prageeth was in hiding. So they should be able to find him. They should, at least, tell the family whether he is dead or alive,” Rupasinghe says. He adds bitterly:”I have little hope that this government would  ever investigate any of these attacks on media”.
Many appear to share Rupasinghe’s sentiments. Last week, media activists took to the streets to protest the latest attack on media. But, they had no illusions that their protests would ever compel the government to change its course.

Gnanasiri Kottigoda, the acting President of Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) says the government itself is the prime suspect of many of the attacks carried out against media.
“We know that most of these attacks are carried out with the connivance of the government,” he charges. ‘The government may regularly condemn the attacks and order investigations to divert attention. But that can’t fool us.  We know that the government is the prime suspect.”
“If government believes the Sri Lankan police is not capable of catching suspects, they should ask for international help,” he adds.

Exiled owner of Lankaenews, Sandaruwan Senadhira in an article published on his site has alleged that the arson attack had been ordered by a top defence official, enraged by the publication of a leaked intelligence document.  He further added that the attack was carried out by a group of soldiers who were brought down from the North specifically for the mission.

These reports could not be independently verified.  However, in a context where attackers act with complete impunity and the government continues to turn a blind eye, one can’t help but feel people far more powerful than a heroin addict wanted to see that Lankaenews  was reduced to ashes.

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