Journalists in Sri Lanka still cannot report on wartime atrocities – Press Freedom Index for 2018 : SriLanka 131 out of 180 countries

INDEXES on press freedom indicate that Sri Lanka’s media has become freer since the National Unity Government took office in January 2015.

However, the reality on the ground with journalists threatened with counterterrorism laws, editors forced to practice self-censorship and near-continuous surveillance, paints another picture.

 Although the operating environment for journalists in 2018 is far safer than when Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in May 2009, the mere absence of death and disappearance of journalists is but the lowest denominator of a free media.

A more meaningful way to gauge progress of media freedom might then be to see how far (if at all) the atmosphere of violence and intimidation, which prevailed until mid-2009 – the height of the armed conflict – still remains.

In July 2009 a nine-member International Press Freedom Mission to Sri Lanka, made recommendations “to redress the perilous press freedom environment in Sri Lanka.” The representative nature of the Mission gives weight to its recommendations.

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callum-macrae-channel-4-390x235The most important of the Mission’s 11 recommendations can be summarised as follows:

  • Combat impunity by creating an autonomous Special Prosecutors Office for crimes against the media.
  • Provide journalists a safe environment and access “to make sure that … reconciliation efforts are genuine and have a real impact in bringing lasting peace.
  • Award financial compensation to journalists arbitrarily detained, beaten or harassed.
  • Withdraw emergency regulations and repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the Press Council Act and overhaul broadcast regulations to ensure an independent media culture.

Let us use these recommendations as a yardstick to examine Sri Lanka’s media environment today.

Combatting impunity

Despite calls by the Mission for an autonomous Special Prosecutor’s Office, none was set up, not even by the incumbent National Unity Government that promised to usher ‘good governance.’

Worse, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Sri Lankan courts have failed to convict even a single perpetrator for the killing of 10 journalists during the civil war.

After years of prevarication and false starts, a suspect was arrested recently over the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunga. Although certainly welcome, no substantive progress has been made in the cases of any Tamil journalists killed, from BBC correspondent Mylvaganam Nimalarajan to TamilNet editor Dharmeratnam Sivaram. The investigation into the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda has also stalled.

The failure of the judiciary to investigate and punish perpetrators has entrenched impunity. And it has clamped down not only on any meaningful discussion on law enforcement’s role in inflicting harm on journalists, but on other wartime mass atrocities too.

Safe environment

Although a safer environment for journalists might exist today than in 2009 (the aim of the Mission’s second recommendation), including for those reporting politics, it is not secure enough for an in-depth discourse on the country’s armed conflict.

A matter of vital national importance that remains off-limits is the mass atrocities committed by Sri Lanka’s military during the civil war. The deliberate exclusion of the subject from the national conversation has obscured the truth, perpetuated group rivalries and confined national reconciliation to rhetoric.

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To keep these uncomfortable truths out of the public discourse, the regimes of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and now the Government of National Unity have ghettoised the North and East of Sri Lanka with its Tamil-speaking majority.

Tamil journalists are under constant surveillance and those asking irksome questions are threatened with detention. Meanwhile, in Sinhala-majority southern Sri Lanka, governments have relied on self-censorship by journalists asking the questions.

channel-4The main reason for sanitising the national debate from reflecting these issues is Sinhala political leaders’ fear that, although the Sinhala electorate largely applauds the military vanquishing rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after a 30-year civil war, a free discussion on the political roots of the conflict and its toll on the Tamil civilians could incriminate and diminish the victors in the eyes of their constituents and support base.

In the ghettoised Tamil-majority North, the public continues to fight for land occupied by the military, demanding the release of political prisoners and information about the disappeared, among other issues. These protests contradict the government’s propaganda of national reconciliation and benign post-war pacification. Therefore, while coverage of protests is permitted, probing reasons for them and other controversial political developments could result in the detention of journalists or threatening to destroy their equipment.

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In Sinhala-majority southern Sri Lanka, Sinhala politicians control the message to the public by forcing journalists to self-censor. This is partly by adopting similar tactics as in the North and East – intimidating journalists who ask uncomfortable questions by portraying them as traitors.

The more effective way the Rajapaksa and National Unity governments have ensured self-censorship however, is by framing the country’s civil war as one in which the state’s military subdued a bunch of terrorists and their civilian supporters. Journalists are then viewed as unpatriotic if they dare question the military’s role in mass atrocities.

Finally, the government cocoons the Sinhala public from knowing the truth about the military’s wartime atrocities from the Tamil- and Sinhala-controlled diaspora media by blocking internet sites. A little-known fact is that as of December 2017, 13 websites were inaccessible in Sri Lanka.

Compensation and legal reform

As for financially compensating journalists, the third recommendation made by the Mission, no structured basis was offered to journalists by the incumbent or former governments.

Governments flouting the Mission’s final recommendation – legal reform – perhaps pose the gravest consequences, not only for media freedom but other liberties too.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act, with its overbroad definition of terrorism that convicts journalists for expressing legitimate dissent, remains in the statute books, nine years after fighting ended. Emergency regulations have been withdrawn although could be re-imposed if needed.

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The Press Council Act, hangs like a sword of Damocles preventing the media publishing what the state deems is classified information, while all broadcasters and news websites starting up in the country require government permission through registration.

How come, nine years after armed conflict ended, with no acts of terrorism since and a change of government, these restrictions remain to stifle a free national conversation in the media?

Why the restrictions remain

Of the reasons, two stand out.

First, although there was a regime change, the Sinhala national elite – politicians, professionals, military – are the drivers of the national conversation on the civil war. Because the central message to the Sinhala masses – their support base – is to interpret the civil war as a patriotic act of eradicating Tamil terrorism, these elite do not permit a free media where diverse narratives could emerge.

Additionally, members of this elite who occupied positions of importance under Rajapakse, remain leaders in the present government too – including President Maithripala Sirisena. For them, permitting a national conversation on wartime atrocities could be to incriminate themselves.

Second, the international community has refused to discipline Sri Lanka for not addressing wartime mass atrocities.

For instance, the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 demands that the PTA be repealed and attacks on journalists be investigated. But the country has not been penalised for the tardy implementation of the Resolution. Also, trade concessions by the European Union earlier, withdrawn partly for repression of the media, were restored.

Reporters without Borders crediting Sri Lanka with greater media freedom in 2017 than in 2009, is fair.

But it is not an accurate reflection of the change needed to achieve a truly free and vibrant press, without which a candid conversation on wartime atrocities, vital for post-war reconciliation, and a truly democratic, pluralistic country is not possible.

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