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Sunday, December 05, 2021

The other Lankan war

The LTTE is beaten. But will Colombo stop attacking its journalists?

Written by Lal Wickrematunge |
May 12, 2009 9:57:15 pm

The war in Sri Lanka has reached a decisive stage,as far as the fate of the trapped civilians is concerned. The hold that the LTTE had geographically has eroded so much and so extensively that it now appears that it would be impossible for them to make a comeback. The issues that remain can be whittled down to two in number: first,how the trapped civilian population can be evacuated with the least possible casualties; and second,the fate of Velupillai Prabhakaran. Both issues,while of great moment,are confined to,and will play out in,a small swathe of land in the north-east of the country. Yet there is another war being fought within Sri Lanka,one that continues to be kept on the boil: the war on dissent and freedom of expression.

Even as the Sri Lankan Tri-forces took the battle into the heartland of the LTTE,the political administration under President Rajapakse moved swiftly to clinically excise alternative ideas emanating from within the free press and the electronic media. In any case,the state already controls most of the print and electronic media through a judicious mixture of ownership and patronage. The remnants of the private media have felt the heat of an ever-present possibility and threat — control through coercion and direct attacks. The organised manner in which these have been carried out,the impunity with which they have been conducted,have led the population to make an educated guess from which corner they emanate.

It started with abductions,

with physical assaults,arrests on trumped-up charges and hate-mongering by high officials through the media,the labelling of media personnel as terrorists and traitors. It soon escalated to murders and assassinations. None of these have been investigated by the police to a conclusion; not a single case of the crimes listed above has been taken to court,has associated suspects that have been charged. It is a matter of record that 11 media personnel have been murdered during the last two years in Sri Lanka. Over 26 have been abducted or assaulted. Yet another 25-plus have fled the country. Sri Lanka has been ranked 165th,out of 175 countries,for journalistic safety; it is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. These figures are not meant to evoke shock and awe. They are the facts. Now,consider the state of mind of the journalist.

Most have lapsed into self-censorship. Others don’t even want to put pen on paper,or face a camera. None of the country’s defence correspondents have had access to the war zones,to carry out an independent assessment of the war effort. No,truly,there are no longer any independent defence correspondents writing within this country. Only news carefully filtered through the government’s Media Centre for Defence is disseminated. This was the status quo for much of the war; although some organised junkets have been arranged for selected journalists,both foreign and local, in recent times. These are but some of the facts,a telling that but scratches the surface of what goes on within Sri Lanka.

Lasantha Wickrematunge,the founder and editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader was shot and killed on the main streets of Colombo. It happened at 10.15 am. The killers rode away nonchalantly. Nobody has been arrested yet. It is four months since the assassination; and the investigations have gone silent. Keith Noyahr of The Nation newspaper was abducted and assaulted; he refused to even make a complaint to the police about this incident,such was his fear. Others simply packed an overnight bag and fled the country,leaving families behind.

It would not be fair to claim that the assault on media freedom commenced with this government. History records that attacks on the media’s freedom have increased since the constitution was changed from a parliamentary system to one that incorporated an all-powerful executive presidency. The members of parliament are elected on a district basis; none of them is thus held directly accountable to an electorate. Those who garner the largest budgets to spend at election time are certain to win. The effect this has on MP behaviour combined with the effect of an omnipotent chief executive — immune,incidentally,to prosecution — is clear. It is a recipe,in short,for disaster.

The suppression of the media is now complete. No dissent can be expressed,indeed,no discussion can take place of military affairs connected to the prosecution of the war; nor can any reference be made to the leaders of the military in any probing manner. The major opposition party is splintered,with half of them defecting to the ruling party ranks,and accepting ministerial portfolios from the government. The minority parties have also splintered,in similar manner. The media has been coerced into replicating this trend — and at this point has partially succumbed,if unwillingly. Unwilling,in that the assaults,abductions and assassinations of media personnel,the lack of a single attempt at prosecution or even a properly conducted investigation,and the silence of the opposition in parliament have left them with little option. Naturally,the media in Sri Lanka lives in hope that this trend will end once the war comes to an end. Those hopes might well be dashed; history shows that those who get comfortable ruling with a gun in hand are markedly unwilling to holster it. Is it not easier that way,than to work hard to stay in power?

It is said that hope springs eternal in the human breast; and so the entire industry,the whole community connected with Sri Lanka’s media, expects the freedoms enshrined in the constitution to be restored without any fetters once the war ends. Perhaps then,they hope,alternate views will once again be welcome. Or will the independent journalist continue to be an endangered species? The truth is that we don’t know… as of now.


The writer is managing editor of ‘The Sunday Leader’. The paper was founded by his brother Lasantha,who was shot and killed in Colombo last January

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