18th July 1999
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Their caption says — PSD; Attacked cameramen point finger at elite force
By Nilika de Silva, Faraza Farook and Chamila Jayaweera
Photojournalsits and other media personnel who were attacked in the 'gas' Thursday incidents are accusing members of the Presidential Security Division of being involved in what they saw as a well-orchestrated attack on journalists.
The attackers had seized their cameras and smashed them up, after beating them with iron rods and pvc pipes. In all, some 20 journalists suffered injuries. Some were warded at the National Hospital while others were given treatment and sent home.
We visited some of these journalists to find out exactly what happened and who could be behind it. Many of them said they believed their attackers had connections with the Presidential Security Division. They said they had seen them at several presidential functions and meetings.
The Sunday Times staff photographer, M.A. Pushpakumara, who had been struck by a tear gas canister suffered a fracture in his left elbow and was admitted to the National Hospital.
Mr. Pushpakumara described how he came to be assaulted. Having seen the chaos on the road from The Sunday Times building which is located close to the Town Hall, Mr. Pushpakumara picked up his camera and ran towards the scene. When he was near the Red Cross building the Police fired teargas and the crowd was forced to disperse. Mr. Pushpakumara returned to office to wash the tear gas off his face and get back to the scene. Then again the Police fired tear gas in all directions and most of the crowd stampeded down Hunupitiya Cross Road.
"I didn't see anyone attacking the police, but they were shouting at them as they ran unable to withstand the gas. The crowd having dispersed, only about four media men were standing near Lakmedura along Dharmapala Mawatha when the Police in civvies fired tear gas towards the Lakmedura building.
"We crossed the road but a canister was fired on to that side as well. I came running towards Hunupitiya Cross Road to get back to office. But a policeman who was running alongside me on the other side of the road, aimed at me and fired a canister which struck my elbow. I'm positive it was not an accidental shot. The canister was aimed at me," he said.
Sajeewa Chinthaka, another photographer attached to The Sunday Times, was also a victim.
"As we followed the crowds and took pictures, we saw several men in civvies. These men with typically short hair cuts were brandishing large clubs and coming our way accompanying the police.
"The men started attacking the crowd, especially the photographers who were right up front taking pictures. They also grabbed the cameras and other equipment from the journalists," he said.
As Mr. Chintaka tried to get out of harm's way he felt sharp blows to the back of his head and back, and minutes later, engulfed in the crowd, his camera and lenses were snatched from his hands.
His next move was to try and break away, and he made his way into the Red Cross building. However, three men chased him inside the building and attacked him with the large poles.
Mr. Chinthaka said the attack was witnessed by several people inside the Red Cross building, who later helped him. He said he suspected that members connected to the Presidential Security Division were involved in the attacks.
After going through tests at the hospital, Mr. Chinthaka said he was asked to rest for a week before going back to work, since his back and neck were swollen from the blows. His camera and equipment that were seized are valued at Rs 45,000.
Lankadeepa photographer Lakruwan Wanniarachchi was hit on the head by a tear gas canister. He fell, vomited and fainted.
Lakbima photographer Buddhika Weerasinghe was not badly assaulted, but the loss of his equipment is a different story.
Mr. Weerasinghe also said he believed the attackers were from the Presidential Security Division and he had made a police entry to this effect.
Asked how he could be sure of the identity of the attackers, Mr. Weerasinghe said he had been assigned to cover the President's meetings where he had seen those men.
Elmo Fernando, of the BBC Sinhala service Sandesaya told The Sunday Times he had two narrow escapes. He said he was with a UNP MP when they were pursued by a man with a club. Mr. Fernando said he stood his ground and yelled at the would-be assailant who then turned back.
Another man had flung an iron rod at him but he ducked.
The BBC correspondent said it was the tear gas that affected him the most, almost to the point of suffocation.
Another Sunday Times photographer was a victim of harassment by the police. Athula Devapriya had come to the scene only towards the end.
From where he stood in a corner by the roundabout at Hunupitiya Cross Roads he said he had a good view of the way police were advancing on the protesters and cameramen.
He said he did not try to take cover as he wasn't obstructing the police.
Much to his surprise though, two policemen advanced on him, took away his camera and though he showed his media accreditation card, the police dragged him to a nearby police bus, bearing No. 60 Sri 2416.
In the bus, his film roles were ejected from the camera and exposed. A policeman then tried to hit him with a baton. But when Mr. Devapriya ducked to avoid the blow, the policeman slapped him hard on the cheek.
He was detained for three hours, as the police went about their work. When his colleagues came there to rescue him, the officer in charge of the bus claimed he was not aware why the photographer was detained.
Later he was taken to the Kollupitiya police station where the traffic Inspector L. Suriyabandara recorded his statement and released him along with his equipment. But the Police wanted him to record in his statement that he was detained for his own security. Mr. Devapriya said he agreed to make such a statement because he was terribly tired after being detained and harassed for three hours and wanted to rush to the newspaper office.
The next day, he made another statement to the Kompanaveediya police, outlining what had really happened and asked why the police slapped and harassed him if their intention was to protect him. While Mr. Devapriya and the other journalists still wonder why they were specifically targeted, some stared at their empty camera bags with a cloud of uncertainty looming in their mind.
The Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka in a hard-hitting statement also warned of emerging trends towards a police dictatorship and called on all democratic forces to come forward in protecting freedom and human rights.
The statement said:
"This horrendous targeting of the working journalists of this country through the use of rubber bullets, tear-gas, baton charges and high pressure water canons by men identified as those belonging to the Presidential Security Division has resulted in medical attention, including hospitalisation being required for as many as ten journalists and extensive and costly damage caused to camera equipment. The Guild salutes the following media personnel who suffered at the hands of dictatorial elements in the police service.
Photo-journalists Saman Mendis (Dinamina), Janapriya Samaradiwakara (Yukthiya), Buddhika Weerasinghe (Lakbima - Best Photo Journalist 1998), Ashoka Fernando and Lakmal Spencer (both of The Sunday Leader), H.A.N. Fernando (Sithijaya), M.A. Pushpakumara and Sajeewa Chintaka (both of The Sunday Times), Subha Dissanayake (Rupavahini), Lakruwan Wanniaratchchi (Lankadeepa) and Ravaya reporter Ajith Seneviratne.
"To lynch accredited working journalists performing their legitimate professional duties is a crime against democracy, and an insult to civil society.
"Some of the photographers had their film rolls confiscated or exposed and destroyed by uniformed policemen.
"These dictatorial elements in the Police who have become a law unto themselves, and those persons however high they be who have unleashed these brutish men must know that they have not won the day.
"Whilst recording last Thursday's contemptuous incidents as yet another dark chapter in the contemporary history of independent Sri Lanka, The Guild calls upon all democratic forces to clamour for a liberal media policy if democratic freedoms are to continue in our country."
The FMM statement said:
"All information available shows that this was not a spontaneous act but a premeditated action. It is clear that the very same police personnel who moved to disperse the opposition protesters by teargassing and shooting, attacked the media personnel who were reporting these incidents. Journalists have identified several persons, among those who attacked them dressed in civil attire to be from the Presidential Security Division. This is the worst attack on the media in recent history.
"The Free Media Movement also considers the attack on the Opposition protest rally, an infringement on the fundamental right of the freedom of expression. We see this as a beginning of another era of oppression of journalists.
"The Free Media Movement vehemently condemns this, the worst attack on the media by a government that came into power, promising to safeguard democracy and media freedom."