Pro-government protesters, some armed with clubs, seized the promenade outside Fort Railway Station on Wednesday, to prevent media activists from observing "Black January," a month when many of Sri Lanka’s journalists were attacked over the years.
This was despite the Colombo Fort Magistrate Kanishka Wijeyratna making an order that media activists be allowed to stage their protest at the venue, without disturbing road traffic.
Police had sought a Court order to impose restrictions on the protest, stating that it would cause inconvenience to the public. The Magistrate said the protest could go ahead, but imposed three conditions -- that the protest must not block the road, there should be no procession and that, it should be restricted to the promenade in front of Fort Railway Station.
|Media rights activists hold protest at Lipton Circus
Due to the impending obstructions by pro-government groups, the media groups were forced to make a last minute switch to Lipton Circus. While they protested there, behind a church, a large number of policemen with wicker shields and batons were on alert.
The "Black January" protest was organised by the Alliance of Media Organisations which comprise five media groups, the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), Federation of Media Employers Trade Union (FMETU), Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF), Sri Lanka Tamil Journalists Alliance (SLTJA) and the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA – Sri Lanka).
The name “Black January" was chosen by the organisers to put the spotlight on attacks on the media that have occurred in particular, in January. These include the killing of The Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in 2009, and the disappearance of political columnist Prageeth Ekneligoda in 2010.
At the pro-government protest which was also attended by heads of several State run media organisations, participants carried placards labelling the organisers of the “Black January” protest, as traitors and supporters of the LTTE.
UPFA Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) member Mahinda Kahandagama, who is also the President of the Federation of Self-Employed (Trishaws) who took part in the pro-government protest, said that, some of his supporters had joined it to extend their support.
“We cannot allow LTTE sympathisers to bring disrepute to the country. They are free to protest against the government, but they must not harm the image of the country by spreading falsehoods. The media is free to write as they like, after so many years of suppression,” he said.The protestors displayed printed placards and chanted slogans against media rights groups, claiming they were funded by pro-LTTE groups.
“Free Media Movement portrays Tiger’s in sheep’s clothing”, “Media men together with the LTTE”, “Dollar Komis Pilli, Kotipadeta Natan Salli (Commission in Dollars, Dancing to the tune of Tigers) were some of the messages on the placards.
The Police also defended their action to allow pro-government groups to stage a procession, despite its court order to restrict media rights groups to the promenade of the Fort Railway Station.
Police spokesman SP Ajitha Rohana said that the court order was taken to prevent the protests from inconveniencing the public, and that, the protesters in Fort conducted themselves in an acceptable manner.
“The other media group was free to stage the protest in front of the Railway Station, as long as they obeyed the court order. They were not asked by anyone to change the venue,” he said.
At Lipton Circus, the seven media organisations went ahead with their demonstration, chanting slogans and carrying placards, mostly demanding that the government complete investigations into previous attacks on media personnel and media institutions.
‘Three years after Lasantha’s killing - Killers still free’, ‘Sugeedarajan killed four years ago, killers not arrested’, “Three years since setting fire to Sirasa – Government silent”, were some of the messages on the placards of the demonstrators.
“We were forced to shift the protest to Lipton Circus, as we found pro-government demonstrators outside Fort Railway Station,” Sunil Jayasekara – told the Sunday Times.
He said the Court had been misled by the Police, to obtain the order restricting the proposed protest by media personnel. “They did not even inform court that the protest was being organised by media personnel,” he added.
Despite the Court order not to block the main road in Fort, pro-government demonstrators marched freely on the road, obstructing traffic, while the police passively looked on.
Convener- Free Media Movement (FMM), Gnanasiri Kottigoda told the Sunday Times that, there was a drop in the number of persons attending the meeting, due to the last minute change in venue. “The Government feels threatened by a mere protest campaign, but we are determined to continue to focus attention on State violation of the rights of media personnel,” he said.
Some 100 policemen were deployed in the rear compound of a nearby church, close to the demonstration, with hardly any police presence elsewhere, except for two police jeeps parked close by with a handful of men.
Among those who expressed solidarity with the media rights groups was the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) which, in a statement, urged the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) to conduct proper investigations into these serious attacks on the media.
The IFJ said it wishes to remind the GoSL of its deeply disturbing record of default in bringing to account individuals, State agencies and non-State actors who increasingly make journalism and the dissemination of information for the wider public good, a deeply hazardous pursuit.
“The violence against journalists in Sri Lanka and the continuing disregard by the GoSL in addressing these crimes is unacceptable”, IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said.
Meanwhile, several senior government ministers went on State-run television stations to slam the media activists’ protest, saying it was being done to damage the image of the government, at a time when the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions are nearing.