On World Human Rights Day last Saturday, the incident at the crisis-hit Hambantota Port premises where a freelance journalist was attacked, has created a national and international controversy over media security.
The Brussels based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the world’s largest federation of media trade unions comprising about 600,000 members in some 100 countries, has issued a tough statement over this incident involving Navy Commander Ravindra Wijegunaratne who was at that time dressed in a jogging short and T-shirt. The IFJ said it condemned the attack and asked the government to take immediate action against the Navy Chief.
The Defence Ministry has said the virtual takeover of two cargo ships by the Hambantota Port strikers was an act of piracy and the Navy intervened to avoid a crisis where Sri Lanka might have been internationally condemned. It also said Vice Admiral Wijegunaratne was in civvies because he had worn the jogging kit to pilot the ship out of the port. The explanation may be valid but the verbal abuse and physical attack on a provincial journalist cannot in anyway be justified.
The IFJ said it agreed with the Free Media Movement (FMM) that President Maithripala Sirisena should order a special investigation, so that those who attack journalists, however high their positions, could not get away with impunity. According to the FMM, journalist Roshan Gunasekera, has said while he was reporting navy action to open the port blocked by protesting port workers, a naval officer in civvies came to him and asked what he was doing there. “I told him I was from the media and showed him my media accreditation card. Then he grabbed me by my neck and dragged me. Then the Navy Commander came there and I told him that I was from the media. He abused me in filthy language and assaulted me,” the journalist said.
The FMM also charged that the Navy Commander had chased away the journalists, beating and scolding them using obscene language. “This is a serious incident. The FMM deplores the attack which comes at a time when the right to information is guaranteed by an Act. Even though the government has pledged to establish a better media culture, such media suppression is a blemish to the whole country,” it said.
Creating a conflict within a conflict, the government Information Department’s Director General Ranga Kalansuriya has issued a controversial statement. Between the lines he appears to be defending the conduct of the Navy Commander when he says that the journalist had broken through a perimeter defence line set up by the Navy.
Dr. Kalansuriya, himself a one-time journalist, said the journalist had breached basic ethical conduct. “A journalist who is covering a conflict situation involving the security forces should keep in mind the location. It is not only for the maintenance of ethics but also for the security of the journalist. A person cannot report matters connected to the security forces just because he possesses a media accreditation card and a camera. The journalists should take necessary precautions and measures needed for their security, otherwise they would face repercussions ranging from being assaulted or getting killed,” he said.
Dr Kalansuriya however added that the navy commander assaulting a journalist could not be condoned and he condemned the high-handed action. “None has an authority to assault others and everyone has a right not to be subjected to such harassment,” he added.
Today, journalists will conduct a demonstration outside the railway station protesting against the assault and appealing for tough action by the government which was elected to office last year on a mandate to restore good governance and democracy including media freedom. Whatever the pontifications of the Information Department’s Director General, the world has seen how courageous journalists took grave risks to report on crisis situations specially in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Syria. Ruthless terrorist movements like ISIS are dealing brutally with some journalists, but that in no way gives justification for a democratic government or its leading civil or military officials to assault or abuse journalists. The national government often boasts that the era of white van abductions, killing or torture of journalists and attack on media offices has ended. Proof of the government sincerity to this commitment will be seen in how it responds to the Hambantota attack.