- Threats and harassment: New World Order of Democratic governance?
- Two ‘male’ police officers of the Rakwana Police had gone to her residence and recorded a statement inquiring as to who had influenced her to express these views
19-year-old Bhagya Abeyratne made headlines last week over a statement made during the ‘Sirasa Lakshapathi Programme’ which is aired during weekends on Sirasa Television. While environmental groups applauded her words government authorities responded swiftly to not only cover up what she said, but also attempted to prove her wrong. A day later, two officers from the Rakwana Police station visited her residence to obtain a statement. Wildlife Minister C.B Ratnayake said that she should know her facts prior to making such statements. Several rights groups rallied to sign petitions, to hold protests and voice for the protection of her rights. Contradicting statements have also been made by Public Security Minister and the Central Environmental Authority Chairman raising doubts as to whether the land in question actually falls within the Sinharaja Forest Reserve.
Recommendations by Minister
The environmental destruction taking place at the Sinharaja Forest Reserve has been exposed in various instances. Political affiliates have considered putting up individual projects from time to time irrespective of the government in power.
After several requests from environmental groups, Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera has made the following recommendations during a meeting held on March 5, 2021;
- Land Reclamation Commission (LRC) should seek approval from Environment Ministry if private entities are looking at claiming ownership of LRC lands
- A 500 metre area around Sinharaja Forest Reserve to be declared as an environmentally sensitive area
- The Department of Wildlife Conservation informed to declare the area between Delwala – Walankanda and Beragala Mukalana – Handapan Ella as a sanctuary and confirm it in writing
- Forest Department instructed to speed up the process to acquire forest lands and declare the entire area as a sanctuary
No hotel is being built on this land - CEA Chairman
“The land in question is another private land lying in between two forest reserves,” opined Central Environmental Authority Chairman Siripala Amarasinghe. “The central area has been utilised for individual housing projects since these are private lands. If somebody wants to build a house then they should obtain approval from the Divisional Secretary. If they want to cut a tree they should seek approval from the Grama Niladhari. When we visited the site we only saw the foundation being laid. The owner said he is constructing a three-bedroom house.” said Amarasinghe.
“As per the National Environment Act an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has to be done when clearing over one hectare of land. But an EIA is not required if a house is being built on a private land. If a hotel is being built we will stop it immediately,” he added.
“Forest lands being taken under purview of Govt.”
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Deputy Forest Conservator General Nishantha Edirisinghe said that forest lands are now being taken under the purview of the government as per the Land Acquisitions Act. “This is being done to prevent forest lands from being taken for private usage. Likewise, around 400 hectares around the Sinharaja Forest is being considered and currently we are looking at speeding up this process.” said Edirisinghe.
FMM condemns actions of Govt. authorities
The Free Media Movement strongly condemns the response and comments made by government authorities and officials against the concerns expressed by Bhagya Abeyratne of Rakwane, regarding the destruction of forest near Sinharaja, and the conduct of the police. This action is deemed as a serious violation of the right to freedom of expression.
Young Abeyratne, who participated in the ‘Sirisa Lakshapathi Programme’ on Sirasa Television, had expressed her concern and dissatisfaction regarding the deforestation taking place in her village. The next day, the Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation stated that her statement was factually incorrect.
Two ‘male’ police officers of the Rakwana Police had gone to her residence and recorded a statement inquiring as to who had influenced her to express these views. The proper course of action that should have been followed would have been for the authorities to investigate and take appropriate action regarding the environmental destruction she revealed and not to take such disturbing action against the person who pointed it out.
Requests calling for the severe reprimanding of Bhagya Abeyratne as well as threatening statements against her circulating on social media are actions that discourage free speech and threaten the safety of the person expressing dissent.
It is a social responsibility to comment on an event that affects the people within a democratic society. Both local and foreign courts have emphasised in their judgments that such dissenting voices are not necessarily required to be one hundred percent correct. The boldness in using the right of the youth to criticise and question the policy and actions of the State should be appreciated. Civilised societies around the world encourage such means of expressions; especially from children and youth.
In a democratic society, it is a citizen’s right to exercise freedom of expression and dissent with social responsibility and to expand its frontiers and scope. The Free Media Movement strongly urges the government to take appropriate swift action to prevent such incidents that discourage the right to freedom of expression, whilst reminding that the authorities at all levels of government have a constitutional and moral obligation to respect, protect and nurture media freedom, including freedom of expression.
“Right to freedom of speech violated”
Several rights groups and civil society activists have condemned the actions taken by the Police and law enforcement authorities in questioning Abeyratne. “Everybody should express admiration towards this girl,” opined Prof. Camena Gunaratne, Head of the Department of Legal Studies at the Open University, Colombo. “It is good to see young people expressing their concerns over environmental destruction. The civil society should rally round her and speak for her rights. She has done nothing wrong and she hasn’t broken any law. This is a violation of her right to freedom of speech. She deserves admiration and support as she’s raising some pertinent questions.” said Gunaratne.
hat she said was false - Minister Weerasekara
When asked about the response from the Police with regard to the incident, Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara said that it’s alright for the Police or law enforcement authorities to question someone to get more details. “She’s around 19 years old and is not a child anymore. In the end it was proven that what she said was false. It may have been the environmental police that went to question her because they are responsible for the environmental issues happening in that area.” said Weerasekara.
Responding to a query on whether these actions violated her right to freedom of expression, Weerasekara responded negatively. “This is not a violation of freedom of expression. Anybody can criticise the Government or any politician. But what happened here was that her statement was false. As a result the public reacted and because of the actions of the Police the situation was brought under control,” said Weerasekara.
“Govt. intolerant of dissent”
“Freedom of Expression is being violated by intimidation, threats and when you scare somebody over what they said,” opined National People’s Power MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya. “This is what happened to Bhagya. She expressed her opinion and now she’s being taken to task by state officials. It was an unnecessary reaction as she hasn’t committed a crime or hasn’t done anything wrong. There’s no need for the government or the Police to intervene her opinion.” said Dr. Amarasuriya.
She further said that environmental destruction is at an all time high and that the government sees environmental activists as a threat. “This government is signaling to the country and the world that it will protect people of its own while they harass those who are critical about its policies and interventions. This has been the government’s pattern. They are extremely intolerant of dissent. They don’t need to be edgy if they are doing the right thing. This government got elected with a 2/3rds majority so why should they be edgy?” asked Amarasuriya.
I didn’t commit any crime – Bhagya
After several rounds of interviews, failed attempts and more calls, Bhagya Abeyratne made it to the hot seat at the Sirasa Lakshapathi programme. During the programme she exposed the environmental destruction taking place in the Sinharaja Forest. “The environment is for everyone. My house lies bordering the Sinharaja Forest. I see forests being cleared by day and by night and unfortunately I keep seeing these activities. There are three elephants in the Sinharaja Forest, but today there are only two. The elephant corridor has now become a barren land. The purple-faced langurs are subject to extinction. People and animals should ideally coexist. Relevant authorities too have turned a blind eye to these activities. Felling trees is like destroying my own house,” Abeyratne said during the programme.
In a brief interview with the Daily Mirror, Abeyratne expressed her concerns regarding the events that transpired after her statement went viral.
Q Tell us about yourself
I live in Kajugaswatta, Rakwana and my house lies bordering the Sinharaja Forest. I schooled at Rahula National School, Godagama, completed my A/Ls last year and am awaiting results. I live with my parents, elder brother and I also have a pet dog.
Q How do you observe the changes in the environment from then to now?
It is a change that I didn’t expect. Usually this area is covered in mist even during noon. But now there’s no mist and it’s like an area in the dry zone. When the temperature changes, it’s a threat to animals living in these ecosystems.
Q What sort of projects are being done?
I see the areas being cleared every day. Irrespective of the projects that are being done there’s a mass scale destruction to the environment. This is what I revealed on television. Even if you take other areas this is the same scenario.
Q But after you made your statement you were questioned by the police. What are your thoughts about the events that happened afterwards?
I didn’t commit a murder or any crime. I only spoke about the injustice happening to the environment and wildlife. Being questioned by the Police itself raises a doubt as to whether this country is really democratic?
Q What are your future aspirations?
I want to study about the environment and pursue a career in this field. Even though there aren’t many youngsters interested in protecting the environment in my area, I would like to see more youngsters getting involved in protecting our environment.
Rocky barriers put up on once greener meadows
800 metre strip between Handapan Ella and Walankanda that also serves as an elephant corridor for the two elephants now under threat
A dense forest patch now shaved for commercial purposes
Trees felled and burned
Muddy waters, a result of ongoing projects