The disruption of two media training programmes for Tamil journalists from the former war zones of the North in quick order makes it appear that they have become a target for suppression. In the space of less than six weeks there have been at least two attempts to prevent Tamil journalists from interacting with the larger civil society, to share their experiences and to benefit from the latest advances in methods of news investigation and dissemination. In this context the spokesman for the Free Media Movement has said, “A journalist needs to be trained so that they can do more for society. The government is stopping that from happening. What they want are journalists who will be their puppets.” He added that he had been threatened not to speak at the press conference convened to publicise the issue.
Six weeks ago, a workshop held in a hotel in Negombo on investigative reporting on the enforcement of the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which had been organized for the Northern Tamil journalists by Transparency International’s Sri Lanka Branch was disrupted by a mob who threatened the safety of the participants in violation of their rights to freedom of assembly and expression. The police had only been prepared to offer safe passage to the participants to leave the hotel when the workshop was prematurely stopped. But they were not prepared to ensure that the workshop continued with their protection. The right to free assembly and speech are protected in the Constitution and the police are obliged to protect these rights of the people, but this did not happen.
What happened thereafter was equally if not more appalling. The journalists who were from the North, had to stay someplace that night as they had to move out of their Negombo hotel. Accordingly they were transferred to a prestigious five star hotel in Colombo for the night as the organizers deemed this to be the safest place for the journalists to stay after their ordeal in Negombo. However, there was no peace for them there either, as they were forced to leave that hotel at midnight. After the participants were booked into their rooms the security and management came around about an hour later and informed them that they had to vacate their rooms alleging orders from above. In effect this meant that Tamil-speaking citizens of Sri Lanka, from the North were forced out of the capital city of Colombo, and sent back to their places of residence in the North.
In the latest incident that took place over this past weekend another group of Tamil journalists from the North were stopped at the Omanthai checkpoint that was established during the war on the main road from Jaffna to Colombo. The checkpoint continues to be in existence, even though the war had ended for over five years, presumably for reasons of national security but also as a symbolic reminder of the role of the military in post-war governance in the former war zones of the North and East. The journalists allege that when their vehicle was stopped for checking, packets of cannabis were introduced into the vehicle, and they were all detained. The army version is that they received information that the vehicle was carrying cannabis and had searched it, to discover the banned item in it.
Subsequently the journalists were released but their driver and the vehicle in which they were travelling were detained. But when they came to Colombo they found that their woes had not ended. The venue at which their training workshop was going to be held, which was the premises of the Sri Lanka Press Institute, had been mobbed by a group who had threatened violence against both the venue and the participants if the workshop took place. This was a practical demonstration of the need for the workshop organized by the Rights Now Collective for Democracy and the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance on ensuring the safety of journalists, albeit unexpected. It was decided that safety was the better part of valour in this case.
What occurred was in violation of the spirit of unity of the country for which the thirty year long war was fought. It was to enable people to move freely and to treat every part of the country as their own. The prevention of the workshop on improving on investigative reporting, and on ensuring the safety of journalists, is called for by very specific recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which the government has pledged to implement. The violation and non-protection of the rights to free movement, assembly and speech, which are the fundamental requirements of a free society, as against a police state, casts yet another doubt on the willingness and commitment of the government to treat the recommendations with the seriousness they deserve. It also serves to strengthen the sense of separation between the North and South which is counterproductive to the government’s commitment to the unity of the country.
The targeting of Tamil journalists from the North gains an added significance from the circular issued by the government’s NGO Secretariat less than a month ago. According to this circular all NGOs are directed to act within their mandate and are prohibited, in particular, from engaging with the media. The circular states “It has been revealed that certain Non Governmental Organisations conduct press conferences, workshops, trainings for journalists and press releases which is beyond their mandate. We reiterate that Non Governmental Organisations should desist from such unauthorized activities with immediate effect.” It is significant that the NGO Secretariat was brought under the umbrella of the Defence Ministry after the end of the war. This suggests a thinking that emphasizes national security and sees civil society, NGOs and the media as threatening hard won gains of the war.
The attempt to muzzle civil society and isolate those who are adopting a critical approach towards the government is unlikely to be a viable or constructive prospect. With methods of communication easily accessible on mobile phones it is impossible to prevent videos and testimonies from being sent from one part of the world to another. This can be seen in the case of ongoing military actions in Palestine. What is happening in Palestine is taken to the mainstream media via the social media. People throughout the world are therefore able to see the different sides of the problem. Suppression of the truth is counterproductive. It is only healing of wounds of wrongs done, mutual accommodation and ensuring they will never happen again that is the way forward.
In this case there is medical evidence that the children have been raped. The failure to investigate the matter thoroughly will give rise to more allegations that such incidents are more widespread than reported. The tension between military and civilian interests are not uncommon in all parts of the world. Crises have periodically erupted in Japan over rapes by US service personnel stationed in bases there. But in those cases there is an investigation, the truth is ascertained and disciplinary action is taken. In the Sri Lankan situation the large presence of military personnel in areas where there are scores of utterly poor and women-headed households recovering from three decades of war is a recipe for abuse unless strict systems of monitoring and accountability are in place. Instead of treating Tamil journalists from the North as a security threat and preventing them for improving their skills in reporting and interacting with colleagues in the South , the government needs to correct the prevailing situation at the ground level. This is the way forward to national unity, not trying to suppress the truth.