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Black January and free expression violations in Sri Lanka – Ruki Fernando

For many years, Sri Lankan media freedom organisations have commemorated “Black January”, recalling the numerous violations of free expression and crimes against free expression committed during the month of January. This year, an online Black January event has been planned for today (29) evening.

Earlier in the month, Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, killed in January 2009, was remembered by family and colleagues. After 12 years of waiting for justice, his daughter was reported to have lodged a complaint with the Switzerland-based United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC). The Committee usually accepts complaints after the exhaustion of domestic remedies, but it is likely that it may consider this, as for 12 years domestic processes had not even led to a prosecution, let alone convictions.

Another remembrance was organised last week in Colombo, 11 years after the enforced disappearance of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda in 2010. His wife, friends, colleagues, and supporters gathered to launch a new initiative named the “Ekneligoda Forum” with a website about Ekneligoda and those subjected to enforced disappearances. The Batticaloa Press Club had organised at least two events in January, one to remember Wickrematunge and the other to remember journalist S. Sugirtharajan who was killed in Trincomalee in January 2006.

On 23 January 2012, a newspaper had said that the Alliance of Media Organisations organising Black January had listed 37 incidents against the media that had happened in the month of January during the period from 2006 to 2012. These incidents included assassinations, a plot to assassinate, an enforced disappearance, arrests, interrogations, assaults, incidents of torture, threats, discrediting through public statements, raids on journalists’ houses and media institutions, withdrawing the license to a broadcaster, the closure of newspapers, arson attacks, etc. To the best of the author’s knowledge, 15 years later, under three different governments, no one has been convicted for any of these crimes.

As far as I know, there is only one prosecution. That is in the case of Ekneligoda. The prosecution started in late 2019 at the special three-bench trial at Bar in Colombo, but not much progress has been made, with multiple hearings being postponed due to Covid-19-related lockdowns last year. Dates for the next hearings are unknown, after the last scheduled hearings in November 2020 were not held.

Separately, on 25 November, a court hearing at the Homagama High Court in relation to the trial of the abduction of Ekneligoda was postponed to March 2021, as details of some phone records were not presented. The progress of the case is in serious doubt, with the Chief of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) that led the probe being jailed and a Lead Investigator having fled the country. A Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) appointed to look into incidents of political victimisation had ignored a court order and heard from a key eyewitness in Ekneligoda’s case, a day after the judges at the trial at Bar had ordered the witness not to appear before the Commission. The witness is recanting his previous testimony and this may seriously affect the prosecution.

Black January has traditionally also been used to highlight impunity for these crimes. But it is also important to look at continuing violations, and thus this article will also focus on challenges to free expression in the last two months (November and December 2020), following a bleak month for free expression in October 2020.

A major crackdown was launched in the Northern and Eastern Provinces against the annual commemoration of Tamil militants killed during the war. Last year, the Army and the Police were reported to have interrupted and interrogated Tamil civilians and politicians across the North and East as soon as preparations got underway and enforced roadblocks on private land where Thuyilum Illams (cemeteries and graves of dead Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE] cadres) are placed, and even vandalised them. Court orders have also been issued across the North, banning public commemorations, at the request of the Police.

In addition to the large number of incidents reported in relation to the above, around 24 other incidents related to free expression had been reported across the country in the last two months. These have included the killing of an outspoken government official, physical attacks on journalists, arrests, questioning, and other legal actions against journalists, social media commentators and Opposition politicians, restrictions, obstructions against journalists, and negative pronouncements from government politicians.

Killing outspoken govt. official, physical attacks on journalists

The most serious incident was the reported killing of a government official, S. Vijayanthiran, after being attacked on 6 November 2020 in Athimottai in the Mannar District. The media described Vijayanthiran as an advocate against illegal sand mining and that police investigations are taking into account that he may have been targeted for speaking out on these issues.

Jaffna-based Journalist S. Mukunthan was reported to have been attacked by an unidentified group which had broken into his home on 11 November 2020. Mukunthan is reported to have alleged that the organisation Tamil Kodi (translated as “Tamil flag”) hosted relief activities that did not follow social distancing measures, despite the growing threat of a second wave of coronavirus across the island. Members of Tamil Kodi had allegedly mounted pressure on Mukunthan to delete his Facebook post and he had been attacked by persons alleged to be affiliated with the said organisation.

In another incident, a provincial media organisation reported that journalist Saman Wijaya Bandara had been attacked and that his camera had been damaged when he had gone to report on illegal constructions in Devanagala.

Legal actions against free expression

Sinhala language social media commentator Chirantha Amerasinghe was arrested on 17 November 2020 by the CID, and a social media commentator indicated that Amerasinghe had been arrested in relation to Facebook posts he had made. Tamil journalist in the Batticaloa District, Kokulathasan was reported to have been arrested after making a Facebook post about remembering the dead, ahead of the LTTE’s annual remembrance day of its dead cadres.

Also in November, another Batticaloa journalist Selvakumar Nilanthan was reported to have been questioned for several hours by policemen who visited him at his home. The questioning had come after Nilanthan reported on tensions between Sinhala and Tamil farmers over the reallocation of land in Mailaththamadu, Mathavanai. Again in November 2020, another Batticaloa-based journalist and Batticaloa Press Club President Balasingham Krishnakumar was reported to have received a phone call from the Superintendent of the Batticaloa Police, asking him to come to the Police to make a statement without making the reasons clear.

In December 2020, the Police is reported to have filed a case against the Jaffna-based Uthayan newspaper after it published photos of LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on his birthday on 26 November.

A local politician in the Thunukkai Divisional Council, S. Sujansan is reported to have said that the Police threatened him against commemorating the victims of a claymore attack on 27 November 2007 in Iyankulam in the Mullaitivu District. On 16 November 2020, Opposition parliamentarian Eran Wickramaratne was reported to have been questioned by the CID for nearly four hours over statements made at a media conference in which he questioned the safety of high-profile witnesses in remand custody.

On 7 November 2020, the PCoI probing incidents of political victimisation was reported to have decided to pursue legal action against five Opposition MPs for allegedly making derogatory comments and challenging the Commission’s authority, after the MPs had filed a complaint with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), claiming the PCoI probing incidents of political victimisation had misused State funds to bypass the rule of law.

Also, some Hindu priests supported by inter-faith committees had made police complaints across the country and called for the arrest of female activist and lawyer Jeevanee Kariyawasam, after she had re-posted an image an artist had created of a goddess on her Facebook account with a thought-provoking caption.

Restrictions and obstructions

Journalists were banned from covering parliamentary sessions in November 2020, when two regulations in the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance submitted by the Minister of Health were approved. Later in the month, media personnel were banned from covering a debate in Parliament on the Budget. Both of these were reported to be unprecedented measures, especially as diplomats and other officials were reported to have been allowed to be in Parliament during the reading of the Budget. A State Minister is also reported to have advocated banning journalists from covering the Batticaloa District Development Council sessions.

Amerasinghe, who had been arrested over a Facebook post, had earlier complained to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) that his Twitter handle (@chirantha7777) had been blocked from accessing the official Twitter account of the President of Sri Lanka. He claimed the President’s Twitter account distributes valuable information for all citizens and by blocking access, the authorities had violated his right to free expression and freedom from discrimination, and that the blocking occurred after a response he made to a Tweet by the President’s official Twitter handle. Despite having been granted official permission to shoot and produce teledramas, production crews around Sri Lanka are reported to have faced restrictions from health authorities.

On 21 November 2020, the Batticaloa-based journalist had visited the Mailaththamadu, Mathavanai area to cover tensions related to land rights and taken video footage of the situation. When he had returned home, the Police and local government officials had asked him to stay at home in self-quarantine for two weeks, claiming that a person in the area he had visited had been confirmed as a Covid-19 patient. He had later discovered that no one in the area had tested positive for Covid-19 and that no one else who had been there had been asked to self-quarantine.

On 14 December 2020, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) tweeted that the uncle of baby Shaikh, who was forcibly cremated by the authorities, was removed from Colombo for allegedly being Covid-19-positive. JDS wrote that “activists suspect an attempt to silence him as he has been the most vocal person in the family”. A peaceful white cloth campaign was started against the forcible cremation of the Covid-19 dead at the Borella Cemetery in Colombo, where the 20-day-old Muslim child was forcibly cremated. The Police and Intelligence units are reported to have removed the material from the gates and fence surrounding the Borella crematorium, and questioned and intimidated those who had gone to tie white cloths.

On the night of 6 November 2020, the laptop used for professional work by the Batticaloa-based journalist Gunalingam was stolen by unknown persons from a residence that he sometimes uses. No one had been there that night, and the locked door was broken. The laptop had contained some information related to journalism. A complaint was made at a local police station.

Negative pronouncements from Govt. politicians

On 21 November 2020, Mass Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella announced that a “proper mechanism” for the regulation of local websites was needed and will be implemented within the next two weeks. In the same government announcement, Education Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris was quoted as saying that the formulation of a new mechanism should be made after studying a new law that had been passed in Singapore.

However, a former editor of a government newspaper said that the proposed “regulatory mechanism” for websites, which emulates a draconian Singaporean law (the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act [POFMA]), would be extremely dangerous and that it was a flagrant attempt to silence dissenting voices in the online space through punitive action and surveillance. The founding editor of a civic website has raised concerns that this may serve “censorious ends” and warned that “a POFMA-esque legislative framework in Sri Lanka, which is completely militarised, with no data protection or privacy laws, will lead to unsurprising consequences for independent, investigative, and critical media”. Rambukwella had subsequently said there were no plans to regulate social media.

A circular issued by the Presidential Secretariat has directed officials of state institutions to prioritise the state media when allocating government expenditure on advertising and marketing. This is likely to negatively affect private media’s financial stability at a time when some private media are already facing financial difficulties due to Covid-19.

Trade Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardana is reported to have expressed displeasure over a cartoon published in a government newspaper. He had alleged that newspapers operating with public money are following orders of some “almighty” state officials who are acting in a manner challenging the powers of the President, the Prime Minister, and the Parliament, and requested the newspaper be summoned before Parliament to answer questions on its reporting.

The future of free expression

Impunity for past crimes and violations, along with continuing violations, such as those highlighted above, paints bleak prospects for free expression in Sri Lanka. Reading one of my recent articles in a daily newspaper, my elderly parents expressed fears for my safety, citing incidents reported in the media about those who had been killed, forcibly disappeared, assaulted, and/or detained, as reprisals for free expression. Well-meaning friends and colleagues have also advised me to be restrained.

Since then, I have subjected myself to a degree of self-censorship. I have come across many other persons and institutions who have subjected themselves to self-censorship in various forms since last year. At least one journalist had fled the country and another prolific social media commentator is considering fleeing.

Some of the incidents above had led to condemnation from local and international media freedom organisations and the UN. Several Opposition MPs have raised concerns related to the freedom of expression, at the end of last year and since then, concerns have been raised about even MPs facing reprisals for free expression, compelling one Opposition MP to write to the Chief of Police. On 17 November 2020, Freedom House (FH) issued an appraisal of Sri Lanka’s Freedom on the Net for 2020, giving Sri Lanka a rating of 52/100 for Internet Freedom, or “partly free” status. FH also noted evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in increased data sharing between service providers and military intelligence, as well as a greater number of arrests for online activity.

As we commemorate Black January this year, a young poet is in detention for more than eight months, an outspoken rights lawyer is in detention for more than nine months, a journalist raising critical questions online is in detention for two months, and some others have left their homes fearing reprisals. But it is such circumstances that have made Black January a rallying cry for the freedom of expression and it must continue to be so, demanding a stop to ongoing crimes and violations of free expression and ensuring accountability for past crimes. Black January should encourage and nurture peaceful and democratic dissent, resistance, and defiance that are still there in some traditional and new media, offline and online, amongst journalists and beyond.

(The writer is a human rights activist and an Executive Committee Member of the Free Media Movement)

(First published in The Morning/29.01.2021)


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