26th August 2001
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Focus on RightsWhere journalists fear their duty

For the reporter who alleges that he got brutally kicked on the stomach and the back by a senior Air Force Officer whilst engaging in his official duties reporting the MIG 27aircraft crash at Kurana, high and lofty pronouncements on the right that a journalist has to impart information to the public, are of little use. It was purely by chance that the assault on Udaya Wijetunge by Wing Commander Krishan Yahampath (during which the officer had reportedly screamed 'Palayau') had been filmed by an ITN cameraman, thus placing the incident beyond doubt, probably the reason why the Air Force Commander has himself ''deeply regretted the unfortunate incident.'

Apologies however would not suffice for the traumatised Hiru reporter who was treated for his injuries at a private hospital subsequently. The incident, which reflects in a highly shameful manner on the Air Force, is moreover aggravated by conflicting positions within the Air Force itself. While the head of the Air Force has tendered unreserved apologies, the officer responsible, on the contrary, continues to maintain that he never assaulted Wijetunge but only 'pushed' the reporter at the site of the plane crash as Wijetunge had not been wearing his media identity badge. He has also declared his full willingness to submit himself to an inquiry. 

Journalists held a protest on Tuesday calling on the government to take action against the Air Force officer who assaulted a fellow journalist at the MiG 27 crash site. Pic by Iresha Waduge
Journalists held a protest on Tuesday calling on the government to take action against the Air Force officer who assaulted a fellow journalist at the MiG 27 crash site. Pic by Iresha Waduge

Given the startling discrepancy of this with the physical evidence of injuries on Wijetunge, not to mention the video recording, it is necessary that an immediate inquiry be held and accountability be imposed for whatever the nature of the incident that took place. What is not needed are bland releases from the police that they are in the process of getting statements from the suspect or for an inquiry to be dragged on indefinitely as has happened on so many occasions in the past where journalists have been physically attacked or intimidated in the course of their work by politicians or security officials.

But the nature of this discourse is interesting in itself. We have come to a point where impunity has pervaded to such an extent that makes these kind of wholly surreal and quite absurd contradictions possible. Where, if nothing happens hereafter regarding this incident, nobody will be much surprised, including the unfortunate victim himself. Where accountability, even in terms of the law and the highest court would be negated by settlements and conciliation instead of strong judicial pronouncements and deterrent compensation. In the past, this country had definitive judgements coming from the Supreme Court at least, on these matters, many of which however were disregarded by the heads of the forces whose officers committed such errant acts. 

In some cases, these officers were even promoted. Despite this, the strong wave of judgements at that time compelled awareness on the part of officers of the forces as to why they cannot step outside the bounds of their authority and correspondingly brought about some accountability on their part. In recent years however, such authoritative orders by the Supreme Court have been rare, except by the merest off-chance. We are having therefore a situation where impunity reigns to an extent that is unprecedented even when contrasted with a far from perfect past.

Two incidents that occurred during this imperfect but infinitely preferable past, both of which were brought before the then Supreme Court, are directly relevant to the Hiru reporter contemplating his painful fate and other journalists likely to fall into the same plight in this country, increasingly terrorised not only by the Tigers. The first incident occurred in 1997, in a manner that is perhaps even more preposterous than the present case. Here, an ITN journalist, upon seeing a lorry on fire on the middle of the road while proceeding elsewhere, had started to film it as a newsworthy spectacle. He was then put on the ground and assaulted by supporters of Reggie Ranatunga, then Deputy Minister of Transport, Environment and Women's Affairs, including a Pradeshiya Sabha member and a police officer who had arrived on the scene in an unregistered vehicle and demanded that he hand over the film. 

The assault had taken place while the Deputy Minister was looking on. The objection advanced by the Deputy Minister to the filming was that he had thought that the reporter belonged to TNL and had feared that the Petitioner would link him up with the incident of the burning lorry. In holding that the rights of the journalist to impart information, among others, had been infringed, the Supreme Court in the judgement of Asoka de Z. Gunawardana, J. (SC No. 98/97) pointed out that the assault had interfered with the journalist's legitimate activity of gathering information for his news programme. The court went on to award compensation and costs of Rs. 150,000/=, with the State being directed to pay Rs. 75,000/= and the Deputy Minister (who was taken to have instigated the assault) and his supporters (who committed the assault), ordered personally to pay Rs. 50,000/=, Rs. 12,500/= and Rs. 12,500/= respectively.

In the second incident which is as well known, a provincial correspondent for the Dinamina newspaper had been critical of police inaction in apprehending and preventing offenders carrying on an unlawful distilled liquor industry in the Aranayake police area. He alleged that shortly after the publication of one such article, he was taken into custody by police officers attached to the Aranayake police station and assaulted. He was then taken before the OIC, Police Station, Aranayake who had allegedly assaulted him on the face and abdomen saying, "Paraya I will break your hand. I will not allow you to write again." In ruling that the assault violated the journalist's right to freedom of torture (though inexplicably preferring not to link this up with his freedom of speech and expression) the Supreme Court directed the OIC to pay Rs. 50,000/= as compensation and a further sum of Rs. 10,000/= as costs. (SC No 163/98)

The allegations that the Hiru reporter levels against a senior officer of the Air Force has therefore, fairly long and dishonourable precedents in this country. The freedom that a journalist has to impart information has always been precariously balanced in Sri Lanka against an easily justifiable excuse of maintaining law and order and national security (none of which is maintained very well, in any case.) We see this balance even more dangerously tilted now with the increasing impunity that prevails. At what point this balance will be wholly overthrown is, of course, anybody's guess.

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