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25th July 1999

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An effigy of SAP Nihal Karunaratne being carried
in procession during the demonstration by journalists.
Pic by J. Weerasekera.

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Journalist march: what now?

By M. Ismeth

Hundreds of journalists, including the editors of national newspapers, took part in an unprecedented demonstration of solidarity and strength last Wednesday to protest against the July 15 attack on journalists.

The demonstration organised by the Free Media Movement was supported by the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, the Photo Journalists Association, the Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka and other media organisations.

The journalists carried placards criticising the PA media policy, the Presidential Security Division which is alleged to have been involved in the attack, PSD chief Nihal Karunaratne, Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera and others. With banners in all languages, the demonstrators walked in rows of four from the Red Cross junction and in twos from the Flower Road junction. No slogan shouting was heard until the police stopped the march at the Flower Road traffic lights.

The hundreds of policemen on duty were not armed with batons or wicker shields at the Red Cross junction but were in a state of readiness. When the march was stopped at Flower Road junction, the journalists decided to stage a Satyagraha there.

Thus the demonstration has ended but little has been done to take action against those who attacked the journalists on July 15 or provide some relief to them. As one senior journalist asked, where do we go from here.

Media attack: an attack on democracy

Article xix sounds grim warning to President

A widely respected international press freedom group has warned President Kumaratunga that the July 15 attacks on journalists could pose a serious threat to the whole democratic fabric of Sri Lanka if the trend was not fully checked and corrected immediately.

In a letter to the President, the International Centre Against Censorship — better known as Article XIX — said it had been informed that the apparently premeditated attack on journalists was carried out by squads including members of the Presidential Security Division.

The group called on the president to take steps to ensure that journalists and photographers were allowed to report without restriction on public affairs, such as rallies and political demonstrations.

"The presence of journalists at the rally does not imply that they were complicit in, or even in agreement with the rally and its political objectives. We are concerned that they appear to have been deliberately targeted to prevent their reporting on the rally and the authorities response to it, and that the police action may have been intended to deter journalists from covering other protest rallies in future.

"From the information we have received, it does appear that the police used a high level of violence against protesters. We are not in a position to know whether such action was justified or, indeed, whether it conformed to the standards laid down in the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. This states, in Article 3, that, 'The use of firearms is considered an extreme measure... In general, firearms should not be used except when a suspected offender offers armed resistance or otherwise jeopardizes the lives of others and less extreme measures are not sufficient to restrain or apprehend the suspected offender.'

"If the protesters were peacefully expressing their opinions they should not have been attacked; the journalists were merely reporting on events and not offering 'armed resistance' so force should not have been used against them.

"For these reasons we are deeply concerned by reports that the violent response of the police was premeditated, not spontaneous. A premeditated attack could not be in accordance with the United Nations principle of proportionality in response; there could be no way of predicting exactly what violence, if any, the protesters would use.

"ln light of these considerations, we urge you to order an immediate, independent investigation into the incident on July 15 and the actions taken by the police, the report of which should be made public. Police officers or other officials responsible for unlawful actions in breach of human rights should be held to account and journalists and others who were injured or suffered damage to their property as a result of such actions should be compensated," Article XIX said.

The group said it condemned all violent attacks on the functioning of the media as an infringement of the fundamental human right of free speech.

"We believe that establishing the truth behind the July 15 incident is essential to the future of democracy in Sri Lanka. Such an incident does not just harm the ability of the media to function properly, it has harmful repercussions throughout Sri Lankan society.

"We trust that your government will strive to uncover the truth about the incidents on July 15 and let them be known," Executive Director Andrew Puddephatt said.

Picking up the pieces

In the aftermath of the July 15 assault on journalists, the Photo Journalists Association of Sri Lanka has launched a fund to provide relief to members who were injured and those who lost equipment worth more than a million rupees.

The photo-journalists have requested compensation from the government and also sought assistance from the public. Any assistance could be sent to a special account at the Hatton National Bank Cinnamon Gardens Branch. The account number is c/a 01-5888-01.

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