While the buzz in Parliament last week was about the JVP’s decision not to support the extension of the emergency after supporting it since its inception four years ago, a lone JVP MP managed to cause a stir by smuggling in a life jacket and some fishing gear into the Chamber much to the anger of government members.
Matara district MP Premasiri Manage displayed a life jacket, a roll of nylon thread and a fishing hook much to the amusement of Opposition MPs and to the anger of those on the government side, to highlight the injustices caused to fishermen by a government regulation to make life jackets compulsory for fishermen. The JVP MP said the life jackets specified by the regulation were too costly.
How such items were brought into the Chamber when all MPs are body-searched when they enter parliament complex was the question raised by government members with Minister Jayatisssa Ranaweera alleging that instead of a life jacket, the JVP members could bring in a suicide jacket next time. “They are used to bringing dangerous items to Parliament. These items can be used to harm a person,” the Minister charged.
Apparently, the minister had brought in the jacket by telling the policeman on duty he had to wear it for a problem in his back, while he had managed to conceal the other items in his bag.
The commotion caused by MP Manage’s demonstrative speech led to sittings being suspended on two occasions and ended after the Serjeant-at-Arms was asked to ensure the items were removed. However, the JVP MP left soon afterwards taking the fishing gear with him.
The emergency debate on the other hand was a tame affair with the debate not generating much excitement although the JVP decision not to support the extension of the emergency did create a buzz. But such acts of defiance seem to have little impact on a bolstered and confident government side still riding high on a wave of the military defeat of the LTTE.
While all sides rejoice at the defeat of terrorism, the growing concern among opposition parties in parliament is that the victory was being used not only to cover up corruption and waste in the government but also the special laws put in place to deal with terrorists were now being subverted to clamp down on the democratic rights of the people and stifle the media.
The subject of media freedom always stirs up strong sentiments among MPs whichever side of the House they may be seated in, but one doesn’t have to go too far back in time to see their shifting stances regarding the safeguarding of the rights of the media as they shift from one side of the House to the other.
But given the worsening situation for journalist in the country today, one can only welcome the fact that many opposition members are taking a keen interest in brining up the issue of media freedom and championing the cause of journalists.
Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who spoke during the emergency debate was among those who sounded the warning about the dangerous trend being practised by the government of charging media personnel under laws meant to deal with terrorists.
“They (the government) is attempting to use the temporary provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act to bring in criminal defamation through the backdoor (against media personnel). Journalists are arrested under laws pertaining to terrorism even if they are not,” he said.
The recent detention of three journalists attached to the JVP newspaper “Lanka” and the sentencing of journalist J.S.Tissainayagam were two of the incidents that were cited by the Opposition Leader who compared the present situation to that which prevailed during the time of Adolf Hitler.
JVP front liner Anuradhapura district MP K.D.Lal Kantha too slammed the government over the use of emergency regulations to clamp down on the media. “Today journalists are being prosecuted for politically motivated reasons and the emergency too is being used in the same manner,” he charged.
Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama defended the government’s position with regard to the Tissainayagam verdict saying the sentence followed the due process of law. “No one in this country is above the law be it a journalist or a member of the security forces,” the Minister said.
The Minister added that it was regrettable that the verdict of the court was being portrayed as a threat to freedom of expression in Sri Lanka when an indictment had been filed against Mr. Tissainayagam through the normal judicial procedure of this country.
“Howls from the international community have overlooked that Mr. Tissainayagam has been found guilty of inciting terrorism and related issues.
“He is not the only one to have been convicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) but just one of them,” the Minister said.