The Political Column

5th January 1997

Are journalists terrorists?

By Our Political Correspondent

With the dawn of the New Year, the government it appears is trying to launch a tough new campaign against the media with intimidatory tactics.

We have unhappy recollections of how the media were trampled during the Premadasa regime, and the present leaders then in the opposition howled in protest. They issued statement after statement playing godfather to the independent media. In turn they received the unstinted co-operation of the Press on which they rode to the high seats of office.

Today in government, the PA leaders seem to have forgotten all that. Power apparently changes people before it corrupts.

The TNL issue is the latest case which shows government's intimidatory tactics towards the national media.

Such acts, on the other hand, serve also to expose the government's immaturity in handling the national media. The CID has apparently become the government's arm to coerce the media, and as was done in the past. The CID officers should know better before acting blindly on government advice. Officers should ask themselves whether they were doing the correct thing and acting within the ambit of the law.

When one examines the TNL issue it appears that the government and the CID are trying to take the law into their hands to hound media persons under the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act No 48 of 1978. Or is it that they see no other way or appropriate manner to deal with journalists who allegedly break the law? Has this government categorised as terrorists a section of the national media who are critical of the government? Having fought a long drawn battle with the lawyers over the Justice Shiranee Bandaranayake issue, the government has now turned its guns again on the media filing action against almost all major independent newspapers and victimising private television channels.

The crime that the TNL has committed is the reporting of the alleged attack on the Special Task Force Camp at Vellavali. TNL claims that this report had been broadcast over the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and by another private radio station.

On Saturday December 28 around 9 p.m. policemen in civvies turned up at the Bambalapitiya Tower Office of TNL asking for its Chairman Shan Wickremesinghe.

He was not present. After waiting for some time the Police party went to Bolgoda in Piliyandala.

They walked around the place and also extracted information from the guardroom and some addresses of the TNL staff. However the police team did not have a warrant as required under normal law.

By Sunday TNL Chairman Shan Wickremesinghe wrote to the Defence Secretary and the Inspector General of Police stating that if the Police wanted to interview him he would be available on January 2.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's lawyers, Samararatne Associates, in a letter to Police Chief W.B. Rajaguru said: Mr. Wickremesinghe had been legally advised that the allegation made against him, even if true, did not fall within the purview of the PTA.

The letter states:

We write on the instructions of TNL.

On December 28 around 9.30 p.m. about twelve persons claiming to be from the C.I.D. had visited the head office of our client at Star Tower, Bambalapitiya from where they had proceeded to our client's Studio at Piliyandala. They had then informed the TNL personnel that they had come in connection with a news item telecast on December 28 on the TNL News Bulletin at 6.55, 7.55 and 8.55 p.m.

Our client's staff were informed that the said visit was in connection with the report on the attack on the Vellaveli S.T.F. Camp which it was alleged was false. This attack had received wide and great publicity by all sections of the media. At no time had our client been officially informed that the said news item was in anyway incorrect.

They also stated that they had orders from higher authorities' to interrogate S.N. Wickremesinghe, the Chairman of our client who was unavailable. They had also entered without authority and removed without authority the names and addresses of TNL journalists. Your officers surrounded our client's premises and the adjoining road till the early hours of the morning.

On December 29, three officers of the C.I.D. had visited our client's station in search of Shan Wickremesinghe. On a second visit the same day they had informed our client's security officers that they were acting under the provisions of the PTA.

Our client has been legally advised that the allegation made against our client even if true did not fall within the purview of the PTA. Our client has also been advised that in view of the pending Fundamental Rights Application Nos. 744/96 and 745/96 in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka such pressures are unlawful and improper and should be brought to the notice of the Supreme Court.

The timing and manner of attempting to interrogate Mr. Wickremesinghe clearly indicates an intention to harass, intimidate and place improper pressure on S.N. Wickremesinghe, one of the Petitioners in these Applications.

If your department wishes to obtain a statement from Mr. Wickremesinghe it could be done after January 2, by prior appointment during office hours in our client's premises.

Further we would like to bring to your attention that your officers have obtained the names and addresses of our client's staff intimating that they wish to interrogate them. As you know if this is done without prior appointment at unusual times after visiting homes of our client's staff by surprise it would amount to harassment. Certain of these employees are involved in the Fundamental Rights Application now pending in the Supreme Court. If you wish to question any members of our client's staff please submit a list forthwith so that we can make arrangements to record their statements in our client's office.

If you wish to contradict the said news item please fax our client by December 31, by 4.00 p.m. your statement which will be given due publicity. Our client is also prepared to afford you an interview of about 45 minutes on Jana Handa' as well as Frontline' on the above news item and the above incident within two weeks hereof.

But by Monday, Police again insisted that the TNL divulge its source of information, a demand which is totally contrary to journalistic ethics.

At this stage Ishinie Wickremesinghe Perera offered to see the Police at the Commercial office of Telshan Network Ltd., but the Police insisted that she should come to the CID office on the notorious 4th floor.

Accompanied by well known lawyer Desmond Fernando, she went to the 4th floor. Though she was suffering from a kidney ailment, the CID officers wanted her to walk up the stairs to the fourth floor where she was questioned for hours.

The same day she was produced before Colombo Acting Magistrate V. Selvarajah after taking her to the Piliyandala studio of the TNL to take charge of some tapes used by the TNL for their news telecast.

According to the B report Ms. Wickremesinghe Perera who is married to PA Member of Parliament, Asitha Perera, is accused of having committed an offence under the PTA by broadcasting over television and radio on December 28, that an STF camp at Vellavali had been attacked by the LTTE.

Desmond Fernando PC, who appeared for her said the alleged offence did not fall within the ambit of the PTA.

Mr. Fernando then learnt that Ishinie was to be charged for inciting communal hatred under the PTA. He asked Police Superintendent Bandula Wickremesinghe, whether he felt like killing Tamils or causing disturbance when he heard the story in question on TNL radio and TV. There was no reply.

Later, at the Magisterial inquiry Mr. Fernando asked that Ishinie be released on bail as she was not well. He produced a medical certificate. The Magistrate released her on bail directing that she appear in Courts the following day.

As this was taking place SLMC Parliamentarian Asitha Perera telephoned his Leader Minister M.H.M. Ashraff to brief him on the developments.

He told the Minister that Ishinie was in CID custody over a news item telecast over the TNL which the government claimed could incite communal hatred.

Minister Ashraff made several attempts on December 31, to get through to the President on behalf of Asitha Perera but the President apparently avoided the situation and told secretary Balapatabendi to handle it.

A disappointed Mr. Ashraff then got through to Asitha Perera to tell him there was something wrong somewhere. He did not want to go beyond informing his Leader Minister M.H.M. Ashraff.

On Thursday, when the case was taken up for hearing before the Fort Magistrate both Desmond Fernando and Daya Perera appeared for Ms. Perera. The court after hearing the case directed Ishinie to appear again on March 12.

Placard carrying journalists who gathered in the Court on Thursday staged a protest against the harassment caused to them by the government.

After the case, UNP MP Jayalath Jayawardena telephoned the Cambridge Terrace office of the Leader of the Opposition to tell him what had happened. At that time Ranil Wickremesinghe was talking to friends who had come there for the new year and to discuss the present political trends in the country.

After listening to Jayalath Jayawardena Mr. Wickremesinghe came back smiling. It was Jayalath, he said, he had got through to me even before the members of my family could do so, he said.

Now some are trying to say that Mrs. Perera is not a journalist and did not have much of a professional background. But the point that the journalists are trying to emphasize is that the government should not harass media people whether it is Ishinie or anyone else. It is not the person that matters. It is the principle.

The question whether Ms. Perera had undergone media training or not is irrelevant, since she automatically falls to the category of journalists by virtue of her position at the TNL as the Director (News). According to present standards in our country there is no specific yardstick to define who a journalist is. Until that is defined properly it could be futile to argue on the matter.

The objective of the struggle of the journalists is to protect every member of the profession from harassment perpetrated by any government and whether it be a journalist attached to state or independent group. At the same time we also should remind the UNP of the past and ask how D.B.S. Jeyaraj, a well known Tamil columnist was picked up by the Police and produced before court under PTA during the Jayawardene days.

But when independent media institutions and journalists are attacked by the government in the most unreasonable and unjust manner we have a duty by them as an independent newspaper to raise our voice against such unwarranted acts, whether it be a People's Alliance or a UNP government.

At the Cabinet press briefing on Thursday, Media Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake flared up when journalists kept pressing him for a statement.

The Minister made a relentless effort to avoid the situation by saying he couldn't make a statement since the matter was before courts. But the journalists went on questioning the minister and virtually harassed him, creating a rather unpleasant situation.

Following this the leaders of the Free Media Movement walked out in protest, while some foreign journalists remained there to ask other questions.

They asked some pertinent questions from the Defence spokesman Brigadier Jayatunge who confirmed the story and said there was nothing wrong in that, but the government has apparently made a mountain out of a mole hill.

Go to the Situation Report
Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to the Political Column Archive