Enjoying impunity for crimes committed against journalists constitutes one of the main factors fuelling the cycle of violence against scribes, thus limiting them exercising their freedom to express and also weakens all other fundamental rights, UNESCO says. Statistics maintained by UNESCO reveal that worldwide, only 10% of the 930 cases of crimes committed against journalists have been resolved during the period 2006-2016. It is also of the view that combatting impunity for crimes against journalists is an important step in addressing the high levels of journalists killed, as it perpetuates the cycle of violence against them.
It is a known fact that Sri Lanka was considered to be an unsafe country for journalists in the past. Several journalists were killed and printing presses and studios were burnt down allegedly for not toeing the Government line.
During the conference to End Impunity of Crimes against Journalists, Sri Lanka Police Spokesman ASP Ruwan Gunasekara informed the gathering regarding the current status of the investigations into harassment and killings of Sri Lankan journalists and attacks on media stations
The UNESCO Regional Conference to End Impunity of Crimes against Journalists was held in Colombo recently with the purpose of reinforcing regional cooperation to promote freedom of expression and the rule of law in Asia through ending impunity for crimes against journalists.
The event was organised by UNESCO and the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media.
During the conference to End Impunity of Crimes against Journalists, Sri Lanka Police Spokesman ASP Ruwan Gunasekara informed the gathering regarding the current status of the investigations into harassment and killings of Sri Lankan journalists and attacks on media stations.
Remarks of panelists
National level and regional level conferences and meetings to mark International Days are common in the world. Governments spend millions to host such events on a large scale with the presence of all heads of the Governments and other respective officials. At this UNESCO event, Sanjana Hattotuwa, Senior Researcher, Center for Policy Alternatives pointed out whether such events actually make any change in the society.
Will such events make a change? -Hattotuwa
Hattotuwa said, “It is very nice that UNESCO conducts this kind of events in five star hotels where people can come nicely, have a good meal, talk in English and return to our respective countries and offices. But, the reality is that there is huge suspicion in my mind as to whether this kind of event causes any reversal or change in policy”.
“Independence of Commissions was very much in question in the past”-Udagama
Deepika Udagama, Chairperson, National Human Rights Commission Sri Lanka, speaking on the role of HRC in the impunity of crimes against journalists said, “As far as the role played by Human Rights Commission in Sri Lanka is concerned, there are achievements and failures while impunity still continues. It is only where there are good checks and balances that democracy will function. Independent commissions like HRCSL, National Police Commission and etc. do have a major role to play by constantly monitoring the ground situation and working on the preventive side. When a violation occurs, the HRCSL does not have to wait till there is a complaint. Through motions, action can be taken by the commission.
“However, the allegation is that the independence of Commissions was very much in question in the past. An alarming factor that we see in Sri Lanka today is that the old habits of human beings and persons working in institutions die very slowly.
“We have to keep pushing the establishments in order to change this culture. What the commission does is investigate, inquiring into it and then make recommendations. Actually, our challenge is to coordinate matters with the criminal justice system. As far as the current legal situation is concerned, our findings aren’t sufficient enough for the Attorney General’s Department to take actions regarding the cases.
“However, what is encouraging is that National Human Rights Action Plan made a suggestion to amend the Human Rights Commission Act in order to officially recognize the commission so that it can refer the matters to the Attorney General’s Department. This allows the commencement of further action”.
“What kind of assurance are we given about our safety?”- Premanath
Uthayan Editor Thevanayagam Premanath speaking on the present level of freedom of expression in the North said, “My colleagues and I have never felt full freedom of expression in doing our job as journalists. There is intimidation going on. I think the situation in North is unlike in Colombo.
Pix by Pradeep Dilrukshana
In the North, we are isolated and such things are not being reported in the mainstream media in Colombo. Even after January 08, 2015 after the establishment of the current Government, we have been facing harassment and intimidation by state authorities, Navy, Intelligence Officers, Police and etc.
“Just couples of days ago, there was a birthday party in our office. Within half an hour, Police team came up and questioned what was happening in the office. It is obvious how the officials are closely watching over us. Following the brutal attack on our office in 2006, we had requested police protection through the IGP and they gave a permanent policeman to do duty in front of our office. But, in 2013 despite there being police protection, our main press was burnt down by the then Government. When we asked that policeman as to what he was doing until attackers burnt the entire press down, he said he was sleeping. What kind of assurance are we given about our safety? We really don’t know how to protect ourselves.
Meanwhile, the moderator asked Minister of Law and Order Sagala Rathnayake for a reply for Premanath’s claims.
“Govt. contemplating on setting up new legislation”-Sagala
Law and Order Minister Sagala Rathnayake said that the Police will prioritize the cases related to freedom of expression.
“We started most of the cases despite many years having lapsed. Evidence of some cases had been destroyed. It was very difficult to recreate the evidence related to some cases. Even in some police stations, some evidence had been taken out. However, I must commend the Police, specially the CID for moving forward with the investigations despite the lack of technology. I would like to assure everybody that the Government is committed. We have even asked the police to prioritize the cases related to freedom of expression.
“When it comes to the attack on Keith Noyahr, he doesn’t want to come forward and testify. The Government is contemplating on setting up a new legislation to be able to gather evidence despite that kind of obstacle. If that comes into effect, there will be a good progress in Keith Noyahr’s case.
“With regard to Pradeep Ekneligoda’s case, there is a debate. The Attorney General’s Department says it is better to move forward with whatever evidence collected and file an indictment over Pradeep’s abduction. The CID is of the view that they might be able to go for a murder charge. The CID has asked for more time and that is where that case currently stands.
“In Lasantha Wickramatunge’s case, we have come to a stage where we have to identify the users of six telephone numbers. We have identified the institutions where the telephones are used. But, there are a few technicalities which we need to sort out,” said Minister Rathnayake.
Moderator Nalaka Gunawardene asked the minister whether there is anything preventing investigations into the attacks and cases that took place in the North. The Minister strongly denied the claim and said he was not sure about the cases said to have happened in the North. He added that if anybody could provide him with a detailed document regarding such incidents, he would refer it to the relevant authorities for investigations.
We started most of the cases despite many years having lapsed. Evidence of some cases had been destroyed. It was very difficult to recreate the evidence related to some cases. Even in some police stations, some evidence had been taken out. However, I must commend the Police, specially the CID for moving forward
Then, Uthayan Editor said there have been thirty five incidents related to attacks, intimidation and harassment between 2005 and 2013 by military and unidentified groups. He meanwhile handed over a record of all the attacks Uthayan faced, to Minister Rathnayake hoping there would be investigations in the future.
“None of the cases have been investigated properly while some have never been investigated. I have never heard of any arrests being made in connection with these 35 cases. I am very curious about what ASP Ruwan Gunasekara said regarding the murder cases of Uthayan journalists Bastian George Sagayathas and Rajarathnam Ranjith. He said six arrests have been made. If there were arrests, a case must be proceeding in the court. But, I have never heard of such arrests.”
“There was this culture of white vans and fear”-Sonali
Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge, Minister, Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, New York, spoke about Polarization in the media.
“There was a culture where authorities tried to show that the victims deserved death or any sort of harassment they faced. Nobody deserves such treatment. We were working during a time where there were no checks and balances. We did not feel any support from some sections of the society. There was a culture of impunity which was later turned into a martial art.
“We remember there was this culture of white vans and fear was really present in the country by that time. In the Sunday Leader, we had to face a pattern of intimidation. We were sealed. The media was taking sides by that time. It happens when there is a culture of impunity. It is disturbing to see the level of polarization prevailing in the media which was not seen when we were in the media”.