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The media killing field

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Saturday, 24 January 2009 22:50 No Comment]

Sri Lanka TV Attack With Sri Lanka earning the dreaded classification of being declared the world’s second most dangerous place for journalists, political parties, civil society and media organisations are now calling for immediate action to halt the slide to anarchy.

The International Federation for Journalists (IFJ) in its latest report listed Sri Lanka as the second most dangerous country for journalists to work in. War ravaged Iraq occupied the top spot.

Opposition political parties, civil society and media organisations have now decided to join together to fight the ongoing media suppression.

The arson attack on MTV/MBC in Pannipitiya and the assassination of The Sunday Leader Editor in Chief, Lasantha Wickrematunge had resulted in these forces joining hands to launch a concerted protest campaign against the silencing of the media.

Last week saw several political parties including the UNP, SLFP (M) Wing, Democratic People’s Front (DPF) and the JVP together with several civil society groups launching separate protest campaigns in Colombo and in the outstations against what they termed as the growing threat to "media freedom and democracy in the country."

The government meanwhile admitted in parliament last week that while nine journalists have been killed, 27 journalists had been assaulted since January 2006.

Chief Government Whip, Dinesh Gunawardena gave these statistics in response to an oral question posed by UNP Parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake. Gunawardena also said that five journalists were abducted during the same period. However, he added that four of the abducted journalists had been found.

Joint meeting

It is in this backdrop that the main opposition UNP last Tuesday (20) organised a meeting of leaders and representatives of several opposition political parties, including the SLMC, SLFP (M) Wing, DPF and New Left Front among others, NGOs, trade unions, rights groups, media heads and lawyers to form a common front against the suppression of freedom.

The new front is to campaign across Sri Lanka in support of the fundamental right to life and freedom of expression. A steering committee too was appointed at the meeting to coordinate the course of action in this regard. The three conveners appointed to the committee are Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Attorney J.C. Weliamuna, and rights activist Nimalka Fernando. The committee was scheduled to meet on Friday (23) evening to discuss and formulate an action plan.

The international community meanwhile also joined in to express concern over the deteriorating state of media freedom in the country. They noted that the recent incidents threatened the foundations of democracy in Sri Lanka.

In an unprecedented move, six former US ambassadors in a stinging letter addressed to President Mahinda Rajapakse last Tuesday (20) expressed their displeasure over the situation in the country following Wickrematunge’s assassination.

Expressing their personal views, the six ambassadors, Marion Creekmore (1989-92), Teresita Schaffer (1992-95), A. Peter Burleigh (1995-97), Shaun Donnelly (1997-2000), Ashley Wills (2000-03) and Jeffrey Lunstead (2003-06) stated, ".It is for all of these reasons that we are now so upset by developments in Sri Lanka, the most recent of which was the murder of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. We fear that, even as Sri Lanka is enjoying military progress against the LTTE, the foundations of democracy in the country are under assault.

"The killing of Wickrematunge has prompted this letter, but there have been many previous incidents in which the rights of individuals and the media have been violated."

Not credible

The ambassadors in their letter have also stated that the argument forwarded by the government that the attacks are carried out by forces hoping to embarrass the government was not credible and called for action to be taken to stop these acts.

".Some have suggested that these events have been carried out not by elements of the government, but by other forces hoping to embarrass the government.

"We do not find such arguments credible. We are familiar with your history as a defender of those whose rights were threatened by the government. We assume, therefore, that if government forces are carrying out these acts, they are acting without your permission and knowledge. We believe it is imperative that these actions stop, and that those who have carried them out be prosecuted," they have stated.

Later that very day, US President Barrack Obama during his inauguration speech was to also touch on the subject, making it clear from the word go that his administration, now enjoying unprecedented support, would take a dim view of regimes around the world that silenced dissent.

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history," Obama was to say.

In US Congress

Two days later, on Thursday, the recent incidents, especially Wickrematunge’s assassination were to feature in no less a place than the United States House of Representatives. Wickrematunge’s assassination and his final editorial were the subject of a speech made by Congressman (R) Adam Schiff to Congress Thursday.

Congressman Schiff, the co-founder of the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press stated that threats, attacks and murders of journalist are becoming all too common in Sri Lanka.

"Mr. Speaker, in 2006, I co-founded the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press and since then, this bipartisan, bicameral caucus has sought to highlight the importance of free expression around the world.  I rise today to honour, Lasantha Wickrematunge, a brave journalist who was gunned down while driving to work in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo.

"Threats, attacks, and murders of journalists are becoming all too common in Sri Lanka.  Mr. Wickrematunge knew the dangers well, but courageously continued reporting."

Congressman Schiff had proceeded to quote extensively from the final editorial comment penned by Wickrematunge titled And They Came For Me, which was posthumously published.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic Britain was also not ready to let the heat off with Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs David Miliband  urging the Sri Lankan government to take ‘strong action’ to prevent human rights abuses in the country and condemned the attacks on the media, specifically referring to the killing of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge.

British statement

"Creating an environment in which people from all communities in Sri Lanka can live without fear is essential to creating the conditions for a sustainable end to the conflict," said David Miliband in a statement.

"Recent weeks have seen a considerable number of high profile attacks on media freedom in Sri Lanka," he had also stated.

"We condemn such brazen attacks. Of particular concern was the murder, on 8 January of the Chief Editor of The Sunday Leader newspaper, Lasantha Wickrematunge.

"The Sri Lankan authorities have a duty to take prompt action to ensure that a thorough and independent investigation is carried out," Miliband had said.

Meanwhile, large crowds gathered in Nugegoda to attend a protest rally organised last week against media suppression.

The JVP together with the Patriotic National Centre (PNC), Intellectuals for Human Rights, Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, National University Teachers’ Organisation and several others organised a massive protest rally under the theme "Lets’ rally against media repression"  last Monday (19).

President, Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association Sanath Balasuriya addressing the rally said that while it is a healthy thing to fight with different ideas, physically fighting with weapons was unacceptable.

Stating that an attack on a journalist was an attack on the people, he charged that the country was faced with a problem regarding free expression and the right to information.

Right to information

"We can fight with ideas, but not with swords, poles and knives. If we are prevented from fighting with ideas we will have to live in a blind, deaf and dumb society. The rulers want such a society. What exists today is not an issue regarding the freedom of the journalists. It is an issue regarding the free expression and the people’s right to get information. Attacking journalists is attacking the people."

He went on to say that the present administration is not the only government that has assassinated journalists. "We have come through a history of killing journalists. However, none of those involved in these killings have been punished," he noted.

President, PNC, Ven. Dhambara Amila Thero in his speech highlighted the necessity for a powerful humanitarian operation than that currently launched in the Wanni to restore democracy in the country. He said that the anti-democratic path of the government reached its peak with the attack on MTV/MBC and the assassination of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge.

"A more powerful humanitarian operation than the one deployed for the north is necessary to establish democracy. When Killinochchi was captured one media institution was destroyed. When Vishwamadu was captured a journalist was murdered. It is yet to be seen how many will be killed when Mullaithivu is captured. This should be stopped," he said.

Ven. Amila Thero charged that the elected leaders were not acting in a patriotic manner as expected by the security forces and the masses. "If these leaders become an obstacle in establishing democracy we, who have fought against the ideological front of separatism, would not hesitate to commence the next stage of that struggle," Ven. Amila Thero said.

Peak

The Thero went on to say, "The anti-democratic path of the present government that started with non establishment of the independent commissions as outlined in the 17th Amendment, has reached its peak by setting fire to Sirasa and murdering Lasantha Wickrematunge. We are prepared to rally the masses if democracy is denied."

Also addressing the rally, JVP Parliamentary Group Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said that the torching of Sirasa and the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge were not isolated incidents.

"This is the height of the threat to democracy, especially media freedom," he said.

He said that the 17th Amendment is an important piece of legislation to ensure democracy in the country. "It is a law that was passed by all MPs except Champika Ranawaka. According to the 17th Amendment the Constitutional Council has to be established. Already nine out of 10 representatives have been appointed. This was two and a half years ago. However, the President has not appointed his representative. The first citizen of the country violates the constitution of the country," Dissanayake charged.

He said that as a result, the opportunity to carry out an independent inquiry in to an arson attack or a shooting though an independent commission has been denied. "The gentlemen in the Police Department cannot take a correct decision for they would be transferred the following day. The 17th Amendment has not been implemented in order to be able to manipulate the police," he alleged.

Obstacle

Dissanayake also said, "Today the Supreme Court has become an obstacle to the undemocratic course taken by the Rajapakse government. Therefore, the government creates clashes with the judiciary. The President wants a police that he could manipulate; journalists and media institutions that dance to his tune. This is how Marcos started in the Philippines. What has been arranged is a journey towards a dictatorial frenzy.

"Hence, we should all rally to preserve the right for free expression.  Political parties have their own definitions on various things. However, government officials cannot do so. Hence, we have to accept a top defence official’s statement that setting fire to Sirasa was an inside job. If so he should reveal the information he has managed to find, to the country. We want to know why this has not been done as yet. 

"It was only in tribal societies that anyone could be named as traitors and killed. Today society is civilised.  Hence, we invite all of you to join us in opposing this journey of destroying democracy and denying media freedom,"  said Dissanayake.

Addressed

President, All Ceylon Medical Officers Union, Dr. Gishantha Dasanayake, representing Intellectuals for Human Rights (IHR), Dr. Jinasena Hewage and Dr. Chandana Abeyaratne from the National University Teachers’ Alliance also addressed the rally.

A large number of journalists were present among the large crowd that turned up to witness the protest.

This campaign to fight against media suppression is to be taken to the districts as well. Seminars are being organised to create awareness among the people on the present situation as well.

According to Dissanayake, everyone needs to unite to stand against the anti democratic acts and media suppression now taking place.

[Full Coverage]

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