7th May 2000

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Focus on Rights

Authorities - be mindful of the reality

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardena

Skimming through an old issue of the Sunday Times, datelined Sunday 24th September1989 quite by chance this week, one's breath suddenly catches in one's throat. For the ironies are too many, the contradictions too grotesque and the reality too poignant. Witness thus an editorial focussing then on the two ceasefires announced in the North and in the South with the warning that "the two ceasefire announcements of the past two weeks are (therefore), Censored Censored Censored It comes at a time when a people who traditionally abhor even the killing of a mosquito have been brutalised to the extent of being silent observers to the gruesome execution of Buddhist monks and other men of peace. It has come when the closure of schools and universities has left stranded a whole generation of youth and when the terror of unknown killer-squads promises to destroy most of that stranded generation. sored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored , the President of this country has once again promulgated emergency regulations that are quite as every bit as far reaching and as draconian as in 1989. Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored , the country has been put on a war footing, which indeed, should have been done many moons ago. Whether resorting to the emergency regulations of 1989 in all its savagery is justified in this context, is of course, a different question altogether. And it is only but gloriously appropriate that this unfortunate reversal to the past should have taken place Censored Censored

Censored . For as far as the provisions relating to arrest and detention and related powers are concerned, it is correct that the regulations issued this week are an improvement on 1989 in that they specify a minimum period of preventive detention up to one year and also contain certain other safeguards relating to the issuance of receipts and so on, upon arrest.

Meanwhile, the practical effect of any of these Censored safeguards a proper monitoring system of arrests and detentions by the national Human Rights Commission is, of course,

But is in relation to the right to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and publication Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored . This week's regulations are identical with 1989 and impose a total "control (of the Government) over meetings, processions, publications and weapons and the right to enter any place." And indisputably, it is the media that has been affected the worst. The publication of any material that could "be prejudicial to the interests of national security, or the preservation of public order or the maintenance of supplies essential to the life of the community or of matters inciting or encouraging persons to mutiny, riot or civil commotion or to commit breach of the law" has been banned. Material has been defined to include photographs, films, teleprinter messages and television. It is prescribed that newspapers contravening these conditions can be punished and their printing, sale and distribution stopped forthwith. Government by law, has been empowered to take over offending printing presses and persons involved in such activities can be arrested. Publishers and proprietors dissatisfied with orders issued on them under these provisions can appeal to an Advisory Committee, the members of whom are appointed by the President. The regulations Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored, also ban publishing of information about the activities of any proscribed organisation, any matter relating to the investigations carried on by the Government into the terrorist movement and moreover, any information about the "disposition", condition, movement or operations of the police and the services as well as any information likely directly or indirectly to create communal tension. Individuals are prohibited by word of mouth or by other means to communicate any rumour or false statement which is likely to cause public alarm or disorder.

It is also interesting that Wednesday's regulations again follow 1989 to the dot in specifying, in appropriately Bibilical terms, that all those who bring the President, the Government, the Constitution or the administration of justice into hatred or contempt are liable to be punished by rigorous imprisonment between three months and twenty years. And in what is but a slightly irrelevant thought at this point of time, one cannot help but recall that going by these conditions, Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored , strikes have been prohibited and organisations that force persons to strike could be banned and their bank accounts closed down. Display of banners, posters, distributing leaflets or possessing photographs and maps that could threaten national security have also been banned. The Competent Authority appointed by the President, for an essential service has been given the powers of acquiring properties considered to be important for maintaining national security or essential services. Thus, vessels, aircraft or vehicles of any person may be acquired. Buildings and other property considered to be involved in committing an offence under the prevention of Terrorism Act may also be taken over. And in a fitting climax, the Government has been vested with the powers of obtaining the services of any person for national security or maintaining an essential service. As has been announced in no uncertain terms, the Government has decided to "strictly implement" these regulations and the severe punishments contained in the 1989 regulations, mandating death and life imprisonment in certain cases have all been retained.

And so, we return to 1989. Indeed, a detailed reading of Wednesday's Regulations indicates interesting additions to the 1989 regulations as where the regulations empower Advisory Committees to be set up in every Divisional Secretary's Division. These Committees are supposed to consist of public servants, office bearers of trade unions and other recognised persons in the community. It is mandated that it shall be the duty of every such committee to advise the relevant authoritities on the preservation of public order and the maintenance of essential supplies and services in that area.

Censored . This, in a sense, brings us to the core of the problem. For how long are these Regulations intended to continue? As long as they do continue, there is no doubt that Sri Lankans will be living in an environment that both precariously and dangerously uninformed.

In the less than wholesome past, one remembers instances where similar regulations banning legitimate trade union activity provoked a storm of protests and at least one editor was taken before court under the terms of a prohibition against "causing hostility, ill will and contempt of the government." Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored prompting journalists to question the government as to how the media can draw the line between incurring the wrath of such provisions and commenting on matters that the people need to know. Now, Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored. The gravity and severity of the language in Wednesday's regulations make this very clear, specially with regard to the media. Does this then mean that the rights of freedom of speech and expression and of publication in Sri Lanka have been taken away Censored ? Could the situation in the country at this point of time justify the imposing of Censored severe curbs as differentiated from 1989, where the nature of the threat facing the Censored Censored.

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