ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 23, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 43
Columns - Lobby  

The guilty, and the innocent until proven guilty, a la the SL Govt.

By Chandani Kirinde, Our Lobby Correspondent

This Government has a simple yardstick by which it measures media freedom in the country. "Read the Sunday papers and look at all the articles criticizing the President and the Government. It shows how free the media is in Sri Lanka," is how those in the establishment from the President downwards like to put it while ignoring the killings, threats and intimidation that media personnel both in the private and state run institutions have had to cope with as an occupational hazard in recent times.

Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa has his own barometer to illustrate media freedom. The ratio of state-run media institutions to those privately owned is 1: 10 an indication he says of how free the media in Sri Lanka is.

So, it is little wonder that when a discussion came up in Parliament on Tuesday regarding the recent attacks on employees of the state run Rupavahini Corporation, Government members chose to stick their necks out to defend the Government's track record on media freedom and shield one of their colleagues Minister Mervyn Silva who a few months ago had no qualms about walking into the SLRC and threatening its News Director for not airing one of his speeches in a news bulletin.

In fact, Minister Yapa's argument in Parliament was that while the whole country saw Minister Silva being manhandled by the employees of SLRC, they had not seen the minister manhandling the employees and going by the most salient feature in our criminal law, "innocent until proven guilty", Minister Silva cannot be called a suspect.

These noble laws only seem to apply to Government ministers because a number of journalists who have been detained, intimidated, harassed, labelled terrorists suspects and then released without any charges did not have the benefit of being presumed innocent.

Hence it is not hard to understand why Minister Silva who has become a prime suspect where attacks on journalists are concerned, gets away scot free and on top of it has the audacity to stand up in Parliament and profess his innocence. "There isn't a single police complaint against me for attacking the employees of the SLRC or other journalists. The day there is one I will resign from my seat in Parliament," Minister Silva said.

The adjournment motion to discuss the Rupavahini issue was moved by UNP Kandy district MP Lakshman Kiriella who said the country was fast moving towards the category of a "lawless country" in the eyes of the international community. He said a proper investigation and charges against the offenders in the SLRC case could help convince the IC that laws are being implemented in the country.

The UNP from time-to-time has been bringing up the issue of the increasing number of threats against journalists with Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe mentioning the detention of The Sunday Times columnist J.S.Tissainayagam as a case in point of a journalist being held in detention without any charges. "A journalist has the same rights as any other citizen. What is happening now is that journalists are being hunted down because of their work," he charged.

The JVP which has been silent on the subject of media suppression for a while, seems to have woken up from its slumber after one of its trade union activists in the Rupavanini Corporation was attacked two weeks ago. "Don't the attacks on the SLRC employees and others show that the democratic process in the country is facing a serious decline? When the employees of state institutions have to live in fear of their lives, doesn't it show the collapse of democratic process?" JVP Parliamentary group Leader Wimal Weerawansa questioned while making a special statement on the issue.

As with the JVP's oft repeated stance on the issue of human rights, its stand on the SLRC too is that it would be used by "foreign enemy forces along with the assistance of their local agents" to tarnish the image of the country .

However, JVP MP Piyasiri Wijenaike went a step further than Mr.Weerawansa and accused the Government of perpetrating "terrorism" against the employees of the SLRC as well as other journalists." When the government uses laws they have enacted to fight terrorism to suppress the rights of the people , to stop journalists from exposing waste and corruption by the state , then it is time for the people to decide if they want to continue with a Government like this or not," he said.

He also scoffed at the Government inaction against Minister Silva. "When a dog bites you, there is no point confronting the dog because it could be a mad dog. Instead, you have to confront the master of the dog. If the master is not doing anything, then the people have to decide what to do with both the master and the dog," he said.

Media Minister Yapa and Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage who spoke during the adjournment debate said the Government does not condone what happened at the SLRC and the subsequent attacks on its employees. "The Government does not want to suppress the media. It is out duty to safeguard employees, particularly of state institutions," Minister Aluthgamage said.

Minister Yapa repeated another government canard which has been heard ad nauseum by the people of the country, "The government will not shield any wrongdoer irrespective of the status he/she may hold. Action will be taken against those who break the law."

No one is holding their breath till the minister's words come true because the people of this country are yet to see a single Government minister or MP who has been on the wrong side of the law being punished. Instead, people are used to seeing such people even becoming the mainstay of this government.

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