South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in The Sunday Times ::

More than 70 groups, activists speak out in protest

More than 70 civil society organisations and rights activists have called for media freedom and freedom of assembly in light of recent incidents involving journalists being hindered in carrying out their jobs.

The government has “clearly violated” its own assurances under the National Action Plan of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to protect the freedom of movement of journalists from the North and the East, lawyer and human rights activist Nimalka Fernando said at a press conference conducted by Civil Society Collective to “defend the rights of human rights defenders”.

The activists were referring to an incident on Saturday, July 26, where seven journalists on their way to a media workshop in Colombo were detained by security forces at Omanthai checkpoint.

Army spokesperson Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya said military personnel at the checkpoint had received a “tip-off” that the van in which the journalists were travelling was carrying heroin.

Two police officers with the “assistance of the army” searched the journalists’ van and found a cigarette packet containing ganja (Indian hemp) joints, Brigadier Wanigasooriya claimed.

Mayoopriyan, one of the journalists detained, later issued a statement saying the van had been stopped at two checkpoints because the army wanted to know why the van had not stopped at the Elephant Pass checkpoint. The driver had replied that the van had not been pulled over at Elephant Pass.

Then military personnel in uniform and civvies had stopped the van at Omanthai and told everyone to get out. Mayoopriyan claims that he and two others saw a “man who had a styled beard wearing a military uniform” slip a parcel through the driver’s window and leave.

Then the “police came out of nowhere” and confiscated the parcel and arrested all seven of them with narcotics smuggling, his statement read.

The journalists said they were held for about three hours at the police station, without charges, before finally being released. The driver of the vehicle was arrested and was released on bail later that night. The van was taken into police custody and was released on conditions last Friday.

“The case is still in the B-report, investigative stage,” K. Thayaparan, attorney for the van driver, said. “The case is currently pending in Vavuniya Magistrate court.”

Early the following morning the “Digital Security” workshop they had been travelling to in Colombo was also disrupted by a group calling itself the “Alliance to Foster National Unity,” who accused the organisers of the workshop and participating journalists of being “terrorists”. The same group was also involved in disrupting several media workshops for Northern and Eastern journalists conducted by Transparency International couple of months ago.

“[In the case of] legitimate civil society organisations, we know their track record and position,” said Sudharshana Gunawardena, executive director of Rights Now: Collective for Democracy, the group that organised the workshop. “But groups like the one that disrupted the workshop have been mushrooming in recent years, they are getting public support but they have no history. Our position is that these are orchestrated protests supported by the defence industry. This is one way of intimidating citizens.”

Mr. Gunawardena added that the same workshop was held previously in the Sinhala medium and there were “no issues”. A Tamil medium workshop on the physical safety of journalists had also been held previously without encountering problems.

“The Digital Security workshop was going to instruct journalists on how to safeguard their data in the contemporary world because someone can hack in and steal files,” Mr. Gunawardena said. “Unfortunately in this context it’s seen as something subversive, or sinister.”

A. Nixon, media spokesperson for the Tamil Media Alliance, said the government had “misunderstood” their intentions for participating in the workshop.

“The government should understand our purpose is to train journalists, not to spread propaganda against the government,” he said.

The US Embassy, which funded the workshop, last week released a press statement expressing “deep” concern over the cancellation of the workshop and the threats and intimidation directed at the attending journalists and organisers.

The Embassy noted that the workshop was the third to be disrupted since May by “well-organised protestors,” where the police have failed to take any action to safeguard the threatened journalists.

The Embassy also expressed “grave” concern regarding “threats and intimidation by security forces against journalists covering the July 25 Jaffna court proceedings related to an 11-year-old victim of sexual abuse, allegedly at the hands of Sri Lankan Navy personnel from the Karainagar Naval Base.”

“These events continue a troubling pattern of impunity for those who interfere with both freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in Sri Lanka,” the Embassy statement read.

The Ministry of External Affairs last Monday released a statement in response to the U.S. Embassy’s statement, claiming that the “US Embassy appears to be selectively upholding these fundamental principles in Sri Lanka, depending on who is exercising the right…”

The Ministry also expressed its displeasure that the “Embassy statement chose to ignore the responses provided by the Government following queries raised over the weekend on this issue by US government officials in a spirit of reciprocal engagement, both in Colombo and in Washington D.C.”

“The Ministry had given responses to some queries by the U.S. Embassy in writing,” a Ministry communications official said. “Then following those responses, rather unfortunately the Embassy had issued a media statement, instead of coming back to us.”

Jaffna journalists held a protest over the two incidents of press intimidation last week.

“Even after the armed conflict in the North has ceased, as the intimidation of journalists has increased, many journalists are fleeing the country having received death threats,” the Jaffna Press Club said in a statement. “…Meanwhile, filing cases seeking compensation in order to cripple media organisations [in the North], and summoning editorial board representatives to Palali Army Camp and the 4th floor has become routine.”

“The government seems to be more interested in suppressing people who provide public information than ensuring free and fair debate, which reveals the government’s authoritarianism,” Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of Centre for Policy Alternatives, said. “I think this is a disgrace.”