- The example set by a very senior Police officer insinuating a ‘Prabhakaran-like’ natural justice to a young journalist wielding only his pen and going scot-free says a lot about where it is all leading to.
- The fact that Tharindu Jayawardhana was a thorn in the eye of some public officials who were in dereliction of duty and that he was bravely carrying out his duty as a journalist on behalf of the public was all but clear.
Tharindu Jayawardhana is the latest victim of threats, intimidation and hatred directed towards journalists and all those who express their voices freely and fearlessly. Once a journalist working for Lankadeepa, Tharindu has been running the very popular media website MediaLK from the year 2019 with substantial public following. He has exposed many cases of religious and racial bigotry, discrimination, human rights abuses, corruption, environmental issues, police brutality etc. Needless to say that these exposes have led to many high officials including those in the government being revealed as either the perpetrators by active involvement or indirect encouragers by negligence of these foul deeds. In particular, he has been vociferous about the harassment of journalists including abduction and torture of Poddala Jayantha, Keith Noyahr and Upali Tennakoon, who still await justice despite the cases pending for years now.
The latest threat has come to none other than Tharindu himself. It has been in the form of comments made online by a very Senior DIG of the Police, Deshabandu Tennakoon. Certain exposes made by Tharindu on his website, seems to have been not palatable to the DIG and the latter has embarked on a tirade of comments that could be seen as intimidation and even a threat to the young journalist’s life. In a context where persons have died in police custody without any conviction or judicial judgment and cases of abduction, torture and murder of individuals who invite the ire of police officers are a very common occurrence, we fear the worst for Tharindu.
A fiery brand of journalism
Tharindu Jayawardhana has written some articles which seem to have irked DIG Tennakoon, going by the response of the latter. There was a news article published on June 29 by Tharindu Jayawardena’s website, on the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry in to the Easter Sunday bombings, against some officials failing or neglecting to do their duty to avert and/or during the disaster. DIG Tennakoon was one among them and in fact, the Commission had recommended disciplinary action against the Senior Police officer. Now, Tharindu who has been following the inquiry proceedings while they were ongoing has reported on this on his social media website MediaLK. He further published the fact that a special police team appointed to look in to the negligence had recommended that the DIG be charge-sheeted and consequently, the Public Services Commission, had issued the same against Deshabandu Tennakoon. MediaLK further revealed that the Cabinet had taken a decision to give a special salary increase to him, despite the fact that disciplinary proceedings had been initiated against Tennakoon.
Earlier on June 9, Tharindu had also published photos of a funeral of a family member of a well-known Buddhist monk where the Prime Minister was present and in a gathering when COVID-19 travel restrictions and preventive guidelines were in full force. As the funeral was in the Western Province and Deshabandu Tennakoon was the SDIG in charge of the province, Tharindu had tagged him to the post and posed some incisive questions at the SDIG on equal treatment of all persons with regard to COVID-19 restrictions. Although no response was forthcoming from the SDIG, Tharindu states that he was given the phone number of the SDIG, and despite many calls by the young journalist, that the senior officer could not be contacted. The fact that Tharindu Jayawardhana was a thorn in the eye of some public officials who were in dereliction of duty and that he was bravely carrying out his duty as a journalist on behalf of the public was all but clear.
Inimical to criticism
Yet again MediaLK had published a news item on July 4 on the occasion of the former Director of CID and SSP Shani Abeysekera going on retirement. The article referred to SSP Abeysekera’s illustrious career, mentioning that Abyesekera had been handling some very high profile cases such as conspiracies to assassinate former Presidents and some well known criminal cases. Tharindu had also published articles where the safety of the former Senior Police officer was concerned and expressed concern about his life in remand custody. It was the Colombo Crimes Division under SDIG Tennakoon, former Director of CID Shani Abeysekera was arrested and spent extensive time in remand custody. After this article was published by MediaLK, the news website run by Tharidu, the SDIG Tennakoon went on a tirade of comments on Facebook that Tharindu was socializing fabricated falsehoods and that ‘natural justice’ would come his way. He also referred to ‘Prabhakaran’s fate’ as an example of natural justice happening to wrongdoers. Despite very specific and detailed questions that Tharindu had directed to the SDIG with regard to the veracity of his article and the challenge to cite the ‘ falsehoods’ as claimed by Tennakoon, the latter had opted not to respond. Yet many media organizations as well as the opposition parties have expressed concern with regard to the threatening and intimidating manner in which the second most powerful officer by designation in the Police Department has insinuated grave repercussions for a journalist who was expressing his view and disseminating information among the public through his work.
Narrowing space for dissent
The narrowing scope for freedom of expression, criticism of officials and the government as well as the right to dissent has created an atmosphere of fear among journalists and other activists who bring to light many misdeeds of the officialdom and politicians. While some who use social media are arrested and remanded for spreading ‘fake news’, others are forced to go in to a shelf of self-censorship out of fear of reprisals. Even mainstream media which hitherto regarded independent are apprehensive of publishing news and opinion, without an iota of evidence to suggest falsehood in the content and veracity is clear, out of fear of inviting the ire of power that be.
Tharindu Jayawardhana is a young and renowned journalist who has won many an accolade for his fearless investigative journalism. He has extensively used the Right to Information (RTI) to unravel many information important to the citizenry and won a special award for utilizing the RTI Act for public objectives and the wellbeing of society awarded by the Ministry of Mass Media as well as an award for best feature using RTI and Scoop of the Year at the Editors’ Guild awards. Noteworthy is his journalistic work documenting the community struggle for water in Rathupaswela including the killing of three people during a protest in 2013. Tharindu was a founding member, former secretary and at present, an executive committee member of the Young Journalists Association.
Taking a cue from the very Top
Despite many media organizations, rights groups and opposition parties complaining to the IGP to ensure the safety of the journalist and to inquire in to the conduct of SDIG Tennakoon, he seems to be immune to accountability and question. The example set by a very senior Police officer insinuating a ‘Prabhakaran-like’ natural justice to a young journalist wielding only his pen and going scot-free says a lot about where it is all leading to.
When the President himself refers to ‘Prabhakaran’s fate at Nandikkadal’, when referring to a political critic on the democratic political stage, not at all armed like Prabhakaran, the pawns are quick to catch the strain.