Media & Culture

'Post war freedom' is a blatant lie'

As stated in the latest Press Freedom Index (2011/2012) compiled by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Sri Lanka ranks 163 out of 179 countries, moving lower in position compared to last year. Confirming the level of deterioration, another media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in January 2012 “in 2011, Sri Lanka ranked fourth worst in the world in terms of allowing murders of journalists to go unpunished.”

“The things have changed for the worst” says Sunil Jayasekara, the newly elected General Secretary of the Free Media Movement (FMM) of Sri Lanka. As an experienced journalist and a media activist, Sunil is reluctant to remain silent, in spite of the dire consequences it brings. “The strict repressive measures and climate of impunity prevent many from practicing their profession freely. If you cross the line, you pay the price” he said in an interview with the JDS.

The following excerpts are from the interview with FMM Secretary:

JDS: Tell us, about the current state of media in the country. Has there been any change in the government policy towards dissenting media and critical journalists?

Sunil Jayasekara: Let me put it this way - as far as the Sri Lankan media workers are concerned, our collective plight has always been pretty unfortunate. Throughout the past, we lived and worked under constant threats, intimidation, repressive laws, violent harassment etc. This particular violent tendency remains the same until now. On one hand, we are forced to fight for freedom of expression as a collective right while on the other we have to deal with our individual survival. So, being involved in critical journalism in Sri Lanka, is a tight-rope walk. If you look at the past three decades, over 114 media workers, writers and cultural activists have been murdered for simply expressing their views. When you consider the fact that this 114 men and women belong to a small country with just about 20 million inhabitants, you can understand the severity and magnitude of violence unleashed against free expression. Not a single perpetrator has been brought to book though. This fact alone demonstrates the level of impunity prevailing in the country.

This is extremely tragic. The atrocities become unstoppable, when it becomes clear that the authorities have no intention or willingness to take any effective action against the perpetrators. In some incidents, the targeted journalists survived just by mere chance. For example, if you can remember the abduction of defence journalist Keith Noyahr of 'The Nation' newspaper [1] or the attack on 'Rivira' Editor Upali Thennakoon and his wife [2] or the brutal assault on Poddala Jayantha [3], you will understand what I mean. But Lasantha Wickramatunge [4] or Mylvaganam Nimalrajan  [5] or Dharmaratnam Sivaram [6] wasn't that lucky. Lasantha Wickramatunge became the first Chief Editor of a mainstream newspaper to be gunned down. It happened inside a government designated high security zone. Before he was killed, he was threatened an even the printing press was  set on fire. And now it's been three years since his assassination, but not a single perpetrator has been brought to book. It's the same with other cases as well.

You don't need another journalist to get killed like Lasantha, Sivaram or Nimalrajan to understand that the negative climate for media still remains the same as in the past. The impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators for years can simply reflect the reality far better than my words.

JDS: Your explanation seems to cast doubt on the Government's position that the Sri Lankan media operate freely and the end of war has even brought greater freedom to free expression?

SJ: Such statements are utter nonsense. The government has never hesitated to demonstrate it's willingness to go to any lengths to silence any dissenting media. As I said the Sunday Leader printing press was attacked [7]. One of the most sophisticated studios that belonged to Sirasa TV was stoned and bombed. [8] During the attack, even claymore bombs were used by attackers. Who had access to such deadly weapons? Anyone can easily guess because it's just simple common sense. 'Sirasa' journalists were repeatedly and publicly attacked. The attacks were even recorded by others and therefore there can be no doubt about the identity of attackers. But no action has been taken so far and they never will. As long as the perpetrators walk freely with the blessings of the ruling politicians, the media cannot be free.

Poddala Jayantha was abducted and brutally assaulted two months after the end of the war. Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared eight months after the end of the war. The office of Lanka E News website was set on fire [9] one and half years later. Senior Tamil journalist Gnanasundaram Kuganathan [10] fell victim to a deadly assault, from which he narrowly survived, two years after the end of the war. Eventually all these journalists were forced into exile as a result of such continuous intimidation. Therefore to say that a greater freedom has been granted is just a blatant lie. As long as you refuse to live and work by the rules laid down by the government, the threats remain. Either you have to face the risk or to leave the profession.

JDS: Do you believe that there is a clear correlation between state of media freedom and the state of political and civil liberties in the country?

SJ: Absolutely yes. No one can criticize the government without taking the risk of facing grave consequences. A sense of fear always guides one's action. A democratic space for unhindered civil and political liberties hardly exists. The government's behaviour during the recent Human Rights session in Geneva clearly reflects the repressive realities. Coinciding with the session, an unprecedented hate campaign was launched by the state media targeting human rights defenders and journalists for highlighting rights violations. State television continuously vilified the prominent rights activists in the most degrading and slanderous manner for taking part in Geneva sessions while accusing them for 'betraying the motherland.' If the Human Rights Commissioner has to intervene in order to ensure the personal security of a woman who simply went to Geneva to complain about her missing husband, what other evidence you need to prove the current precarious state of affairs.

JDS: Currently there is no official state censorship imposed on media. But except for media activism demonstrated through agitations and protest campaigns, we can hardly see any attempts to practice any form of critical journalism even by non-state media. Why?

SJ: This is quite an interesting issue. We all know that there is a general belief held by many that media can act relatively free if they are not owned by the state. But as far as the facts are concerned, this belief seems to have been based on absolutely false and deceptive grounds. Even if the state does not own certain media, there are many structural methods to control and filter all the information efficiently and effectively according to the wishes of the government. Most importantly, as we all know, non-state media is generally owned by private or commercial enterprises, whose interests are always intertwined with the state. This is a general rule. In Sri Lanka this connection has gone far deeper than usual. Let me elaborate a bit more on this. The Managing Director of the leading private media group Upali Newspapers, which publishes 'The Island' (English) and 'Divaina' (Sinhala) newspapers, is also the Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom whose appointment was made by the President himself. This is apart from the fact that his brother serves as a Cabinet Minister. I personally know that some of the journalists who work in those two newspapers hold VIP passports as they have been rewarded with post of 'Presidential Advisor'. The same links can be traced to most of the other private media too. The owner of the Sumathi Newspapers, publishers of ‘Lakbima’ (Sinhala daily) and ‘Lakbima News’ (English weekly),  is a ruling party parliament member. One of the prominent and senior journalists attached to Vijaya Newspapers was appointed by the President to the Sri Lanka Press Council, which is in fact a state mechanism in place to curtail press freedom. Another leading private TV station is owned by powerful minister's daughter. So this list goes on. The government owns all air wave frequencies and that determines who would get the opportunities to start radio and TV stations. Everybody knows well, what the criteria is.

Now the government is determined to control the cyberspace as well. The state Telecommunications Regulatory Commission has been ordering Telephone companies to block certain news websites, simply because they were seen as 'too critical' towards the government policies. So, you can see how the structural mechanisms can be effectively utilized at a certain point to shape and filter information, instead of imposing blanket censorship.

Notes:

1. On the 22nd of May 2008, Keith Noyhar, Associate Editor of 'The Nation' newspaper, was abducted and brutally assaulted by an armed gang in Colombo. Subsequently, he went into exile.

2. Assailants on motorbikes attacked and wounded the Editor of the 'Rivira' newspaper, Upali Thennakoon, and his wife as they drove to work on January 23, 2009. Subsequently, they went into exile.

3. Poddala Jayantha, the secretary of Sri Lanka Working Journalists' Association, was abducted and assaulted while returning from work on June 01, 2009. Subsequently, he went into exile.

4. Lasantha Wickramatunge, the Editor of 'The Sunday Leader', was shot by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles as he drove to work on January 08, 2009.

5. Mylvaganam Nimalrajan, Jaffna correspondent of the BBC's Sinhala service, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on October 19, 2000.

6. Dharmaratnam Sivaram (Taraki), the Senior Editor of Tamilnet website and a regular columnist for 'Daily Mirror', was abducted in Colombo on April 28, 2005. His body, with gunshots to the head, was found the following morning within close proximity to Sri Lanka's parliament.

7. 'The Sunday Leader' printing press was attacked by arsonists on November 20, 2007. The press was located within a high security zone, in close proximity to a military airport.

8. Privately owned Sirasa TV's studios were bombed in an early-morning raid on January 06, 2009. Attackers held the staffers at gun point before destroyng the broadcast equipment.

9. Office of the Lankaenews, a website critical of the government, set on fire by a group of unidentified persons during the early hours on January 31, 2011.

10. Gnanasundaram Kuganathan, News Editor of the Jaffna based 'Uddayan' Newspaper, was attacked by unknown men wielding iron bars on July 29, 2011.

Photo courtesy: vikalpa

© JDS