ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 01, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 53

Death bells toll for the free media

  • The Gotabhaya doctrine: Journalists who criticise the military may be attacked

By a Special Correspondent

Since Keith Noyahr, Associate Editor and military affairs columnist of the weekly Nation, was abducted, brutally assaulted and dropped outside his house, pressure on the media to prevent any independent reporting of military matters is mounting.

The pressure is no more confined to using the website of the Ministry of Defence to direct personal attacks or a pro-Government radio station specializing in slander to malign one journalist. The newer threats, harassment and intimidation are to the journalistic fraternity. It has assumed life threatening proportions to many. So much so, some have sought the help of Western diplomatic missions for visas to go abroad. Others want to quit journalism and find jobs they deem are safer. Yet others have left their homes and found temporary shelter elsewhere including leading hotels.

Since independence in 1948, never before have threats reached such dangerous proportions. The development came as the Rivira Media Corporation, publishers of The Nation, is to change hands. Sena Yaddehige, who owns 51 per cent of the shares, declared yesterday he was selling them. Chrisantha Cooray, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the group also tendered his resignation from his post yesterday.

A Journalist taking part at the May 24 protest at Kollupitiya

Frederica Jansz, Editor of the monthly magazine Montage and a contributor to The Nation on topics including military matters, has complained to the Mirihana Police that a white van was following her. Once she stopped her car near her residence at Udahamulla and questioned one of the well built persons inside. He had first said he wanted to buy her car but later questioned her about her work as a journalist. She had refused to answer questions and proceeded home.

The next day when she walked into her office at Dutugemunu Street, someone had placed a dead cock bird on the road, just at the entrance. Its neck had been slashed and there was blood on the floor. She told the Police last Thursday that a jeep load of unidentified men were monitoring her house from the road. She had telephoned 119 (Police Emergency) at 4.40 a.m. and thereafter at 6.45 a.m. However, Police had arrived to interview her only at 8.45 a.m. She has said that she fears for her life and that of her family.

Yesterday, the Free Media Movement (FMM) said in a statement that Sirimevan Kasthuriarachchi, Defence Reporter of the Sinhala daily Divaina published by the Upali Group of Newspapers was “seriously warned” against reporting matters relating to “defence and the Sri Lanka Army by an unknown group that had stormed into his residence on Thursday around 4 a.m.”

The FMM said: “Mr. Sirimevan Kasturiarachchi , a former Officer of the Sri Lanka Air Force and with a brother who is missing in action whilst fighting in the North and East, has reported on defence related news for over two decades. When he had imparted this information to the group, he was told that irrespective of who he was and what he said that reporting of matters related to defence needed to stop forthwith.”

Last Tuesday, the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) said “armed persons dressed in uniform of the Sri Lanka Army arrived at the headquarters of the Institute and made inquiries pertaining to the individuals working for the Institute, including its directorate.”

After the armed persons were not permitted to enter, a lone corporal, had proceeded to the administration section of the office and began asking for the names of the individuals working for the Institute. When asked to produce his identification, he had stated that he was from the Military Intelligence and refused to produce it.

The SLPI in statement said: “The matter was promptly brought to the notice of the Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara and the issue gained serious proportion when the Institute was informed that the Sri Lanka Army had not authorized any member of its Force to make any such inquiries, and that, in any event, the Intelligence Unit will not seek information in such a manner. We were advised to make an entry at the nearest Police station, which was done.” See full text of the SLPI statement on this page.

Brigadier Nanayakkara also figured in another related event. Daily Mirror in its issue of Monday (May 26) quoted him on the Keith Noyahr incident as saying, “the Army did not have any intention to harm a senior journalist such as Mr. Noyahr.” However, Brigadier Nanayakkara later denied making the remarks though they were well meaning and harmless. Whether he was ordered to issue such a denial or not is unclear. But Daily Mirror insisted it had quoted the military spokesman accurately and that its account was correct.

To protest against the brutal assault on Mr. Noyahr, five major media organizations staged a demonstration at the Kollupitiya Junction on Friday May 23. They were: Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), the Federation of Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU), the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF), the Sri Lanka Tamil Journalists Alliance (SLTJA) and the Free Media Movement (FMM). The purpose of the protest was solely to demand the Government to bring the perpetrators of the attack on Mr. Noyahr to justice.

However, the demonstration was to be the cause for the reprimand of two senior journalists who count more than 15 years of service. Sanath Balasuriya, President and Poddala Jayantha, Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) were summoned by Lt. Col. (retd.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary, for a meeting at his office. Also present were one time senior journalist and now Lake House Chairman Bandula Padmakumara and Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) Director General Lakshman Hulugalle.

Here are excerpts of how the three-hour discussion. Defence Secretary: I have summoned you to inquire about a serious mistake you have committed. How can you stay at Lake House and criticize the Government? How can people employed in a Government institution criticize the military and its Commanders?Journalists: The Chairman of the Lake House is here. There is a management in the organization. There are two Ministers (for media). If we are violating discipline, they can look into it. This is not something that should be a subject of your concern.Defence Secretary: Don’t I have the right to ask you? You are criticizing the military and its Commanders. You are attacking (Lieutenant General) Sarath Fonseka who has committed his life for the past 18 years to waging a war. He had a narrow escape (following a suicide bomb attack). When we have committed our entire lives, you are attacking us. This is no laughing matter. Tell me one thing you have done for this country compared to Lt Gen. Fonseka. He is loved by the soldiers. They can cause harm.

Journalists: Sir, we came to see you because you wanted to have a discussion with us. What is happening here is an attack on us. We are just not two individuals but leaders of the main media organization in the country.

Defence Secretary: What discussion? What discussion with you people. I told you to come to tell you what I have to say. This is not a discussion. Just listen. You attack anybody. Don’t attack the Army. Can you do even a minute bit of service like what the Army has done?

Journalists: We are not related to the allegations you are making, Sir. During the protest demonstration and thereafter, we only demanded that proper investigations be carried out into the attacks on journalists. We said the culprits should be brought to justice. This Government cannot escape responsibility.

Defence Secretary: These theories are of no use to me. I live with my feet firmly on the ground. Isn’t the Army of special concern to these so called big media organizations? Isn’t their service special?

Journalists: Just because a war is being waged, if some wrongs are being committed by the military under that guise, it has to be exposed. There is no need to hide behind the guise of war.

Defence Secretary: Don’t you understand what I am trying to say? If you don’t agree and continue with what you are doing, what has to happen to you will happen. There is no necessity to have defence columns to discuss military matters. Laws will be introduced to restrict reporting on the conduct of military or on Commanders of the Armed Forces. The military will campaign for such laws. We can see whether the voice of the military is stronger than the campaign of the journalists.

Journalists: You are making a serious threat on our lives.

Defence Secretary: No, No. I am not doing it. I am definitely not threatening your lives. I am not. It will happen from where it happens. Our services are appreciated by 99 per cent of the people. They love the Army Commander (Lt. Gen. Fonseka) and the Army. Those who love us do what is required. We cannot help that. Journalists: If newspapers and media are publishing falsehood, you can correct them. Those mechanisms are still in place. If you cannot correct them through the media, then file action in courts. Otherwise, if some wrong information is printed, doing such things is not the answer.

Defence Secretary: File cases? I was slandered over the MiG-27 procurement deal. I filed a case. We have to wait for ten to fifteen years.

Angered by this meeting the four media organizations that jointly sponsored the protest demonstration at Kollupitiya junction sent Lt. Col. (retd.) Rajapaksa a letter of protest. “We understand that your position as articulated to the President (Sanath Balasuriya) and General Secretary (Poddala Jayantha)” was as follows:

* That it is unacceptable to criticize the armed forces whilst working in State newspapers.
* That anyone other than the leaders of the armed forces can be criticized.

That the aim of our protest was to criticize the armed forces and that was wrong. If both journalists continue criticizing the military, neither the Secretary of Defence nor the regime is in a position to prevent actions taken against them by groups/persons who revere the Army Commander.

Disturbed by these developments, journalists raised questions at the weekly media briefing on defence matters last Thursday. They asked whether journalists working at Lake House had no right to get involved in protest campaigns?

Lakshman Hulugalle, Director of the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) replied that Lake House journalists had no right to get involved in protests and they have to follow the Establishment Code. Defence Spokesman and Minister Keheliya Rambukwella presided over the news conference.

Following are some of the questions posed by the journalists and the responses:

Question: Hon. Minister, on May 26 the Defence Secretary summoned the president and the secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists' Association and reprimanded them for participating in the protest held over the attack on Mr. Noyahr. Is it not a threat to press freedom and the media persons’ right to peaceful protest? Lake House Chairman Bandula Padmakumara accompanied the two journalists to the meeting and MCNS Director General Lakshman Hulugalla also participated in the meeting. Can you comment on this?

Mr. Hulugalle: These two journalists are in the staff of Lake House, a state media. We discussed whether they could express such ideas while being state sector employees. Lake House Chairman joined the discussion.

Question: We have learnt that they were questioned on participating in the demonstration against the intimidation of Mr. Noyahr. The Defence Secretary has threatened them.

Hulugalle: The Noyahr issue has no link with this. We discussed the question of Lake House workers expressing ideas against the state policies. It was not a threat. Only a clarification was sought. Three hours were not necessary to threaten. The discussion lengthened as the Chairman of the Lake House was also present.

Question: Do they have no trade union rights because they are state employees?

Hulugalle: There is the Establishment Code for State sector employees. They have no trade union rights.

Question: You mean that the Defence Secretary summoned them only as Lake House workers and not as the officials of the Professional Journalists’ Association.

Hulugalle: Yes.

Question: Don't the Lake House workers enjoy fundamental rights?

Hulugalle: Mr. Balasooriya has publicly stated that the war is a false one and he, as a state worker, has no right to make such a statement.

Question: Does he have no right to express his views? He did say that as a state employee but as a person speaking for the rights of journalists?

Hulugalle: He is a state employee. They cannot go against the policies of the Government. He cannot state that the war is false.

Question: Do media persons have no right to say that war is a false one?

Hulugalle: You can because you work in private media. But a worker of a state media cannot state so.

Question: Lake House is not a government institution. Its shares belong to the Public Trustee. In one fundamental rights case, the Supreme Court held that Lake House was not a state institution.

Minister Rambukwella: Lake House is a state company. The workers of a state institution cannot express ideas against the state policies and they cannot engage in politics.

Question: Both Sanath Balasooriya and Poddala Jayantha publicly campaigned for Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Presidential election. Was the law not valid then?

Minister Rambukwella: It shows that the two journalists may have been summoned to be thanked. (He laughs and goes on) It shows that the gratitude for the duo has not been forgotten even after two years.

At the post-Cabinet news briefing, however, a different official position emerged. Media and Information Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa (who is also the Cabinet Spokesman) said that employees at the Lake House could take part in protests. The Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) branch at Lake House, the trade union arm of the United National Party, staged a demonstration near the Fort Railway Station over Mr. Hulugalle’s assertion that Lake House employees could not take part in protests. Those taking part in the demonstration found that their names had been taken note of by security authorities.

The United States which has expressed concern in the past over threats to media freedom expressed its solidarity with both Mr. Balasuriya and Mr. Jayantha. Deputy Mission Chief James R. Moore met them for a discussion.

The Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka expressed outrage against the recent violence committed against Mr. Noyahr. A statement said: “We note that the President himself has taken an interest in the matter of Mr. Noyahr’s assault and has demanded an investigation into the crime. However, the President’s personal involvement should not be necessary if the rule of law prevailed. After all, the salaries of police and army are paid for by tax payers. Officers of the law, therefore, should prevent such incidences and make full investigations in the normal course of their duties.”

The Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), the Free Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU), the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Federation (SLMMF), the Sri Lanka Tamil Journalists Association (SLTJA) and the Free Media Movement (FMM) in a letter to the Defence Secretary states:

“We are extremely disappointed and very concerned to discover that you summoned and reprimanded Sanath Balasooriya and Poddala Jayantha, President and General Secretary of Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association ( SLWJA), over the protest campaign organized by our five media organizations against the abduction and inhuman assault on The Nation journalist Keith Noyahr.

“Your action has no precedent.

“We held this protest campaign peacefully and under the freedom of expression enshrined in our Constitution. The aim of our protest was to demand that the government initiates an open and impartial investigation into the abduction and assault of Keith Noyahr and bring the culprits to book. We openly stated that if the government does not apprehend the culprits and attempts to impair and impede the investigation, we hold it responsible for this heinous crime.

“We understand that your position as articulated to the two journalists in your office was as follows.

* That it is unacceptable to criticize the armed forces whilst working in State newspapers.
* That anyone other than the leaders of the armed forces can be criticized.
* That the aim of our protest was to criticize the armed forces and that cannot be permitted.
* If both journalists continue criticizing the military, neither the Secretary of Defence nor the regime is in a position to prevent actions taken against them by groups, persons who revere the Army Commander.

“We wish to address these points.

“The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Lake House) is not State property or your own fiefdom. Successive governments since 1972 have used Lake House and other state media as instruments of propaganda. Sadly, instead of addressing this deplorable trend, the incumbent regime appears to be taking Lake House into a new low of servility.

“Your assertion that journalists who work in State media cannot engage in the criticism of those in government and the armed forces is particularly disturbing. It is regrettable that you consider the primary and overarching function of the State media to be one that is unquestioningly supportive of the regime and whatever it does, says and thinks. We consider this position to be blatantly opposed to the principles of media freedom and the freedom of expression.

“We believe it is the responsibility of the media to report in the public interest. We believe that Keith Noyahr exercised, both as a citizen and journalist, his fundamental rights to report critically on issues vital to war, peace and governance in Sri Lanka. That he was subject to grievous physical injury and trauma and that he is only the latest in a growing line of journalists subject to verbal and physical assaults are cause for deep concern.

“We are outraged by your thinly veiled repeatedly expressed threat that the lives of Sanath Balasooriya and Poddala Jayantha would be in grave danger should they continue to defend the right to independent reportage critical of the military and the regime. Clearly, it is a problem that you see no problem in such odious expression. At a time when the President and his government seek to assure us that all is well with the protection and fullest enjoyment of fundamental rights in Sri Lanka, your behavior -- and not for the first time -- is a significant marker of the ground reality and the challenges facing free media and human rights.

“As Sri Lanka’s five major media collectives we hope that you will act within the democratic frame work of the country. Otherwise at the end it is the government that has to be accountable for your actions and statements. We earnestly hope that your office or the regime does not harm, in any way, courageous journalists who stand up for their rights and those of the larger public. We demand that you recognize the freedom of expression and support media freedom in Sri Lanka.

“We assure you that we remain undeterred in our struggle for media freedom in Sri Lanka and in the light of your comments are emboldened to continue independent and critical coverage of the regime’s actions to undermine the rule of law, human rights, media freedom and democracy.

“Finally, we note that Lakshman Hulugalla, the Director of the MCNS has in a news conference noted that Sanath Balasooriya and Poddala Jayantha had no right to criticize government policy and were summoned by the Secretary of Defence to inform them of this.

“We jointly and unequivocally condemn this statement. The actions and statements of these individuals strengthen the case that the regime shows scant regard for and little interest in protecting and strengthening media freedom in Sri Lanka.”

Grave concern over abduction and assault on Keith and other media personnel

The newspaper Society of Sri Lanka has expressed outrage over the abduction and torture of the Nation newspaper’s Associate Editor Keith Noyahr, a well-known independent journalist and Defence columnist.

The society in a statement said:“Mr. Noyahr has written analytical columns discussing the Northern theatre of the Sri Lankan conflict and may have been critical of the military.

“This is not an isolated case of violence targeting the media. At least ten media workers have been killed or gone missing over the past two years. Late last year, unidentified gunmen broke into the offices of the Sunday Leader, terrorized its workers, and set fire to its printing press. In other cases, newspapers both in the South and the North have been attacked, journalists threatened, and their offices shut down or voluntarily closed due to intimidation. Delivery of newspapers have been disrupted.

Recently, a member of parliament brazenly attacked a television station in broad daylight. A few days ago, on Vesak day, photojournalists of a popular TV station were assaulted and their cameras smashed. About ten weeks ago, the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) of the Police arrested and continues to detain, J. S. Tissanayagam, a columnist of the Sunday Times, without formal charges.

It is disturbing that such violent and illegal activities are possible while the city of Colombo is under such heavy security. It would be logical to expect that an increased number of military personnel, road closures, and checkpoints would deter and decrease these brazen violations of human rights and civil laws.

It compounds our alarm to note that on many occasions, despite ample evidence available to continue investigations and allow for the indictment of perpetrators, there has been no action taken by the authorities. As a result of the increasing attack on media personnel, some have left the country and many have even abandoned the profession, seriously eroding the role of a free media, a vital need for any society that could call itself free and democratic.

We note that the President himself has taken an interest in the matter of Mr. Noyahr’s assault and has ordered an investigation into the crime. However, the President’s personal involvement should not be necessary if the rule of law prevailed. After all, the salaries of police and army are paid for by taxpayers. Officers of the law, therefore, should prevent such incidents and make full investigations in the normal course of their duties.

As the President himself has indicated Sri Lanka is yet a vibrant democracy. We earnestly hope that His Excellency will take whatever steps necessary to preserve that proud record.

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