“All must be free to express their concerns, their needs, their aspirations and their fears” Pope Francis, at the Katunayake International airport, on arrival to Sri Lanka on 13th January 2015.
Amidst killings, disappearances, assaults, threats, intimidations, harassments and restrictions on journalists, widespread self-censorship and exile of journalists critical of the government, surveillance and blocking of websites, and absolute impunity, there was very little to celebrate World Press Freedom day in Sri Lanka last few years. Perhaps the only thing to celebrate was the resilience of few who dared to express their views at grave risk to themselves, colleagues, families and institutions.
But this year, things are different. The last 4 months has given something to celebrate for free expression in Sri Lanka. Websites that were blocked were unblocked. State media has stopped discrediting those critical of the government in power. Some of us were invited for talk shows and asked for interviews by the very same state media that had previously branded as traitors and terrorist supporters. Though not perfect, a Right to Information Act is expected to be enacted in the coming weeks, after the drafts have been circulated in all three languages and several consultations. A stream of foreign journalists have visited Sri Lanka and many who met me have told it was much easier for them to obtain journalistic visas. Traveling around the highly militarized North appears to be slightly easier, and unlike before, I have encountered less obstructions and intimidations and others have expressed similar sentiments. Foreign nationals are no longer required to obtain special permission from the Ministry of Defense to visit the North.
I have not come across new guidelines, instructions restricting freedom of expression by the new government. But the formal circular issued by the NGO secretariat restricting the issuing of press releases, conducting of press conferences and issuing of training for journalists has not been for formally withdrawn. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) continues to pose grave threats to freedom of expression and even freedom after expression. The investigation against me under the PTA for charges of supporting terrorism, including “sending information abroad” continues to date, and the court order restricting my freedom of expression is still in place, despite efforts of my lawyers to have these concluded. For more than two months, there has been no inquiry by the National Human Rights Commission on a complaint lodged by me against an incident related to the restriction of freedom of expression by the Police within court premises.
Like last years, and probably for foreseeable future, World Press Freedom day in Sri Lanka will be commemorated in the dark shadows of killing of well known Tamil journalist Sivaram (Taraki) on 29th April 2005 and the deadly attack on Tamil daily Uthayan press in Jaffna on 2nd May 2006. The only way this dark shadow will be removed is by holding perpetrators accountable. The new government has announced investigations into few high profile cases such as murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramathunga and disappearance of Cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda. But progress made in last 4 months even on these cases is not clear. According to Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of Prageeth, there has not been any marked difference about the slow and lethargic court proceedings. Most importantly, there are hundreds of incidents against free expression, for which we await justice.
Continuing attacks and threats to free expression under the new government
April was probably the worst month for free expression under this new government. On 2nd May, a journalist was reported as having being attacked by a local politician due to his efforts to report problems in a local health clinic. A prominent political commentator and university academic was hospitalized after being attacked on 1st May, as he was observing a May Day rally in Colombo by political forces loyal to the former President. Earlier in March, several persons dubbing a film related to the militarization were arrested by the Police in Colombo, and equipment of the studio confiscated. In the Eastern province, it was reported that harassment and intimidation of family of a Muslim women activist continued to date, after she had expressed her opinions about legalization of sex work, back in 2012.
From the North, an alarming number of threats to free expression has been reported against Tamil journalists. One was prevented from covering a discussion related to pollution of water. Another Tamil was reported as detained in Jaffna on 23rd April. Four Tamil journalists based in the northern cities of Mannar and Vavuniya were summoned for questioning by the Police in Colombo on 28th April. Another journalist had received a similar summons that resulted in him being charged with publishing false information on 26th April. Police in the northern city of Jaffna had arrested N. Logathayalan, a freelance journalist working for the newspaper Uthayan, on 8 th April because of an article about police violence on a school girl. On 7th April, three Tamil journalists were harassed and threatened by Police officers in Jaffna, after they went to report about a protest against oil pollution. Also in April, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna had refused permission for a discussion about a book written by a University academic, about the end of the war. Few weeks after the election of the new President, it was reported that the Sri Lankan military had threatened displaced residents from Valikamam North in Jaffna, not to share their experiences and views with the Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister, Hugo Swire, during his visit to Jaffna.
Return of exiled journalists
Few days before World Press Freedom days his year, 3 exiled journalists / human rights defenders (HRDs) returned to Sri Lanka. The struggle to come home was a long and frustrating struggle with very little action from the Sri Lankan government and the Embassy. Several other journalists / HRDs are considering returning. At least two in Europe have told me they have renounced their refugee status and were going to return to Sri Lanka in the coming months. Others have told me they may come later if the situation is conducive and safe for their return. Amongst those planning to return temporarily in coming months is Poddala Jayantha, a well known journalist and press freedom activist who had fled to India in the face of death threats, returned to Sri Lanka, and then again was compelled to leave for US after a brutal assault and death threats as he was recovering. Poddala’s wife told me she is still very scared for his safety if he returns. Recent incidents I have mentioned above will not encourage exiled journalists to return. So many do not want to return as yet, as they fear persecution and are not assured of safety, including pending investigations or arrest warrants against them. Some do not want to return due ill-health, situation of children who have learnt languages and settled down in new countries and some want to return when they get permanent residency or citizenship in countries they have got refugee status. Some may have left even when they didn’t face serious risks, and they are unlikely to return from what they may considered to be greener pastures.
Immediately after the 8th January elections, the new government invited exiled HRDs and journalists to return. Despite some belated efforts to get down the three journalists I mentioned above, 100 days down the line, this appears to be hollow, rhetorical statement. If the new President and his government are serious and genuine, they should establish a concrete program of action to assist exiled HRDs and journalists to return, without further delay. Such actions could include the appointment of focal point with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or any other relevant Ministry, instructions to all Sri Lankan embassies to extend full cooperation for exiled journalists to return, clarifying about any pending arrest warrants or investigations against any journalist in exile, facilitating “come and see visits”, updating them on status of investigations related to attacks and threats against them, opportunities to reclaim jobs lost due to exile and setting up a voluntary trust fund to assist those who need financial assistance. Most of HRDs and journalists who had gone into exile have suffered terribly – before they went and after being exiled. Their families have suffered. They had to give up a lot. They deserve respect and understanding for their decisions to stay away or return. If and when they want to return, they should be supported morally, politically and financially, considering specific needs and whether the return is permanent or temporary. The Sri Lankan government must take the lead role in this. Media institutions, media freedom and human rights organizations (local and international), foreign governments, donors and all others who value human rights and media freedom, especially Sri Lankan people, should support and contribute to such efforts.
Recent concerns by local and international groups
Immediately after the election of the new President in January, Pope Francis visited the country, and in his opening remarks on arrival at the airport, he stressed the importance of everyone being free to express themselves freely. In March, the International Media Mission to Sri Lanka reported about continuing self-censorship due to uncertainty about the political future of the country, restrictions on access to information and continuing surveillance and monitoring of journalists. Reporters without Borders, the International Federation of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists have expressed concern about some of the recent incidents against freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. In April, a Tamil news editor in Jaffna was reported to have told that his journalists “do not feel terribly free”, and that Police and other security institutions are still not willing to give them the space they need to do their job as reporters. The Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka continued to express concern about continuing attacks on free expression and impunity in the last few months, including in a statement issued about recent incidents on eve of World Press Freedom day, on 2nd May.
Prospects and challenges
Converting state media from being propaganda organs of the government in power to Public Services, building effective self regulation and strong legal and institutional frameworks that could act as a buffer against authoritarian governments will be key challenges in this relatively more positive atmosphere for freedom of expression. A major challenge now will be for journalists, media institutions and media freedom organizations to engage in self reflections, about our own political, ethnic and other biases, self-censorships, particularly about subjects considered taboo such as accountability for allegations of war crimes during last phase of the war, charges of genocide, political solution to the ethnic conflict, caste, sexuality and gender etc. Throughout the dark and dangerous years under the Rajapakses, the courage, commitment and creativity of few committed to free expression, kept alive hopes for democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka and the struggle must continue without too much complacency.