14th November 1999

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Focus on Rights

Censorship: a problem with morale

By: Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

It is, to all intents and purposes, a baffling question. When mistakes are made by over-zealous protectors of the government, is their blundering deliberate or sweetly unintentional?

Take the latest Censorship regulations imposed by a Presidential order this week, for example. The regulations under emergency prohibit any statement pertaining to the official conduct, "moral" or the performance of the Head or of any member of the armed forces or the police forces etc. Now, the dilemma that confronts a Sri Lankan news hound is profound. Does this mean that one cannot report on the moral conduct of the Head of the armed forces and so on or is it that "moral" should, in fact, be read as morale, which latter explanation would make the whole only slightly better as far as explanations go.

It does not help either that the faithful reproductions of the official regulation carried in the state newspapers repeat the same wording. Possibly, the urbane Director of Information may have his own inscrutable reasons for all this. Until he clarifies otherwise however, one would continue to be puzzled as to the exact restrictions that the Sri Lankan media have been put under. Not an unusual predicament however, for Sri Lankan journalists in general, given the equally blundering nature of censorship regulations imposed on them in the past.

Even in the context of this unsavoury past, the new regulation, to be violently colloquial, undoubtedly "takes the cake" in imposing a media censorship that is totally arbitrary and irrational. As of now, Sri Lankan journalists cannot, except with the permission of the Competent Authority, print, publish, distribute or transmit any material, including documents, pictorial representations, photographs or cinematograph films, containing any matter referring to military operations in the North and East, including any operation carried out, or being carried out or proposed to be carried out by the forces.

The earlier regulation did not specify the categories of prohibited material. Nor did it prohibit news regarding any operation "being carried out".

But the new regulation continues, presumably at the whim and fancy of an advisor gone mad. Any statement relating to the official conduct, "moral" or the performance of the Head of the Armed forces, or the police force or, to complete the charade, of "any person authorised by the Commander in Chief of the armed forces for the purposes of rendering assistance in the preservation of national security is also prohibited.

Several questions arise here. What is meant by "official conduct"? What is meant by "rendering assistance' in the preservation of national security What is meant by the blanket prohibition of "any statement" without an express requirement that it be specifically connected to national security concerns? The illogicality of the regulation means that there can be extensive coverage of LTTE information for example (which is not specified as prohibited) but not of information relating to the Sri Lankan army. Despite this, already there have been complaints from broadcast media in particular that copies submitted by them on the LTTE have been deleted by the Competent Authority without further ado.

This arbitrary action on the part of the Competent Authority comes as no surprise. The last time that the censorship was actively imposed was in early June last year when a Military Censor was appointed to red pencil offending copies soon after renewed fighting in the Wanni led to heavy loss of lives in the forces. Within a short time, tension began building up, supplemented by caustic exchanges of letters of protest between the Military Censor and media editorials.

Specific instances were cited where the same news red pencilled in some newspapers had been allowed in other newspapers, where previously published statements made by the President herself at a public function had been deleted, where changes in the military high command had been successively deleted, even though these same changes were previously reported in the media.

It appeared at that time that the gentlemen operating under the direction of the Military Censor were proceeding on very fundamental misapprehensions. Their urge to red pencil all copies of the nature specified in the regulation ran contrary to a basic safeguard. It was very plain that thought was not being given by them as to whether prohibition of such copies was actually necessary in the interests of public order, national security or the other specified reasons on which the Constitution allows restriction of freedom of speech and expression. Protests to this effect were of no avail.

Now, with an enhanced censorship being imposed on us from this week, one can reasonably expect the same fun and games to start all over again. Assuredly, this is something that cannot be tolerated. Information that must legitimately be placed in the public domain has to be so placed. By not doing so, we are violating fundamental principles of international law by which we are bound, even though our policy makers and nation leaders seem to take them so very lightly. It is a first principle of Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ( ICCPR) to which we are a signatory, that restrictions on basic rights in times of emergency may be imposed only to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation. We have not complied with these conditions so far. Our non-compliance moreover has been unashamed, blatant and unapologetic. Is it any surprise therefore that Sri Lanka now stands to be named as a country liable to be expelled from the Commonwealth for not adhering to international standards regarding media freedom?


Storm over crossover: the din that drowns dissent

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Our Lobby Correspondent

The ruling People's Alliance has opened the Pandora's Box pronto! And it has produced two special ministers who claim they are still in the UNP. With a legal dispute raging over this claim and the legitimacy to sit in Parliament as expelled UNP members exit, more comic relief in the form of more crossovers seems to be impending.

With party politics reigning supreme, our representatives appeared unaffected by Thursday's nurses' strike that crippled the health service in the bloody backdrop of a devastating war. Hundreds of casualties and the civilian exodus in Vavuniya almost had no effect. Here, it is still party politics or politics of opportunism as the cynics would call it that hold sway, grab headlines and keeps the nation entertained.

Of course, crossovers are an old practice gaining new momentum. In a war ravaged country, people learn to value their little diversions and perhaps appreciate these heady moments. And in a culture of crossover politics, not one or two can play the game, some with more impact.

If UNP frontliners decamping caused a dent in its pride at a time it is gearing to capture power after six years of languishing in the opposition, consolation came in the form of PA rebel Ravi Karunanayake, who crossed over to the UNP on Friday afternoon.

But the MP was star-crossed. From the beginning, he was heckled and disrupted by his erstwhile colleagues in the government benches as he made his farewell speech.

And the galleries were filled to capacity from morning, filled with Karunanayake supporters, students and teachers from far away places watching the unfolding with mixed feelings as the House had to be suspended twice by the Speaker who found it difficult to bring some order in the House.

As the day began, the focus was expected to be on the Vote on Account with Deputy Finance Minister G. L. Peiris trying to justify the government's expenditure until a full budget is presented in April. But it was somewhat anti- climactic and was eclipsed by the Karunanayake saga with the focus as usual being on trading charges.

Instead of discussing and debating matters financial, the war and the ensuing consequences, concentration predictably fell on Mr. Karunanayake's much anticipated, long overdue crossover. And the general behaviour defied comparisons.

Prof. Peiris burdened with the unenviable, claimed that mini budgets had a history the Votes on Account presented during the 1982 Referendum, 88's presidential race were just two examples from the UNP era. Even the PA, soon after assuming office, presented a mini budget. So what's the commotion, seemed the law professor's argument.

But UNP's Karunasena Kodituwakku was in disagreement. And what could be a more opportune time to attack the government's economic policy than during election time? Despite rhetoric, the economy had nose dived, and in comparison with neighbouring India there was no hope, he said.

"India had an unstable government but the growth rate and control of inflation were commendable. This account signified the end of your journey, hence the desperate presentation of more than 60 supplementary estimates to cover up economic bungling," Dr. Kodituwakku said.

The remarks obviously rankled PA veteran Lakshman Jayakody who spoke next. In a rage, he declared that everything the former vice chancellor uttered was mere rubbish, irrelevant and trashy comments. The UNP sold the family silver, bungled the economy, but credited everything to the PA account.

"The UNP was treacherous. It is unpatriotic to oppose the Accounts as funds were necessary for continuance of state affairs. Is this the motive? Should we all perish with a raging war and the economy denied life-support because the UNP is acting petty?", he charged.

Following suit, and with a vengeance, was Trade Minister Kingsley Wickremeratne.

With UNPers heckling him about 'kankun' imports, he lost his cool. Provoked, he thundered that the PA was happy about the 'puvak' economy. Puvak once sold at 50 cents was now sold at Rs. 2.50.

"We look after small entrepreneurs, you have nurtured a few mudalalis and privatized Buhari Hotel to keep stooges happy," he sniped.

Burly A.M.S Adhikari, a sidelined UNP senior wanted to know why the trade minister was acting against the interests of the local farmer and the ministerial tirade reached a new dimension.

The UNP, he lambasted, gave jobs on the 'chit system' and hundreds were thrown out for being SLFPers, while trade unionists, he noted gesturing towards Minister Alavi Moulana, were beaten to pulp and some were killed by UNP thugs.

"Remember the 'Who is he? What is he doing? slogan" Recall the fate of 16 people missing todate and the killing of Richard de Zoysa? That's your definition of freedom. Now you talk of kankun and egg imports," he thundered as an amused Speaker called for restraint with a curt "Eggs don't come into a Vote on Account".

And the moment arrived with gallery comments being rich when PA defector Ravi Karunanayake rose to speak. By then it was no secret of late, it has never been a secret that Mr. Karunanayake was to cross over. UNP posters that sprang up on city walls on Thursday announcing his appointment as UNP's Kotte organiser.

What Minister Wickremeratne underwent at the hands of the UNP, Karunanayake too got in full measure with PA rankers attempting to drown his voice with a big din.

As he stood his ground, many PA members took sudden flight from reason, some like Budhasasana deputy minister Ediriweera Premaratne while using vitriolic language menacingly advanced towards him, threatening him to leave the PA ranks.

"How dare you side with Athulathmudali killers?" he shouted at Mr. Karunanayake who entered parliament through the PA national list on the DUNF ticket. His outburst suggested that democratic dissent has little place in politics of today.

As protests mounted, thumping on the desks, with variations like drumming and humming all combined - Deputy Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa started a new chorus of-"go, go, go!!"

As pandemonium continued, Mr. Karunanayake rubbed chillies on PA wounds with an acid comment that "Indiscipline was at the helm, even here".

"A party unable to run this House cannot handle the ethnic conflict. Look at us, we are a confused nation lacking direction compounded by the sin of having members with astoundingly low behaviour," he said.

And then despite increasing protests, he thundered that 32 pledges (28 flouted) were made to the nation by the PA, starting from the abolition of Executive Presidency - and now they are making 21 more promises. They should have refrained if the chances were bleak, for "promises were like babies - fun to make yet hell to deliver," he quipped amidst shouts.

The recently appointed Buddhasasana Deputy minister Ediriweera Premaratne was not so discreet in his choice of Sinhala words which were regarded as an insult to the feline and bovine kinds.

The drama of course took a new turn as Mr. Premaratne became aggressive. Angry UNPers adapted a similar stance and wrathfully shouted: "We'll see if you assault him!"

PA backbenchers roared in protest - a protest against Mr. Karunanayake's continuing stay in the government benches as the dissident MPs moment to cross over drew near.

"I am a concerned, committed citizen," Mr. Karunanayake said, and high pitched hoots followed, prompting a desperate Chair to suspend sittings.

As the quorum bell rang after the suspension and members trooped in, in walked DUNLF's new national organizer Kesaralal Gunasekera amidst a rousing welcome from the PA members who were determined to attack Mr. Karunanayake. Another suspension followed.

And the two suspensions did little to improve the behaviour, and Deputy Chairman of Committees Rauf Hakeem, a veteran in crisis management inside the House appealed for adherence to the agreement reached when dealing with cross-overs.

Mr. Karunanayake amidst PA heckling said: "There's no future here" and crossed over to the opposite ranks to sit sandwiched between Ariyaratne Walgampitiya and Dr. Rajitha Senaratne in the back row. And there was applause - handshakes - and friendly pats while he addressed the House from his new place.

"Sir, you could see the difference in discipline," he said and the PA members hooted with laughter. Undaunted, he said that he failed to comprehend how the President could seek a mandate to perpetuate a thing she once wanted to abolish like the executive presidency.

Heaping scorn, now from opposition ranks, Mr. Karunanayake sniped that the "PA was an unholy alliance of a few, for the benefit of some, at the expense of all. There was no future with the PA. A dress designer for media and an actor for economy would be a recipe for disaster," he said. And he ended with a warning: "The writing was on the wall - The truth some see in time, some take longer and some never! "

And the drama, enacted by our representatives did little to do justice to the money paid by the tax payer. Little did they realize that while the nation bore heavy costs and a country wept for the loss of peace, the least they could do is to set an example in their behaviour.

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