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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Repression does not only flow from the barrel of a gun

Interview with Sunil Jayasekera of the Free Media Movement about assassinations and allegations of fraud
How do you analyse the differences between the repression of media during the years of the war and in the post-war environment?

As a country, for the past thirty years, we have confronted a tremendous civil war. During this time, the two main communities on the island were divided, on ideological grounds. The majority of media persons, too, were separated on the basis of language and ethnicity, and they also were divided into these same ideological camps. Sadly, this meant that they did not fulfill their professional obligations. On the other hand, the behavior of these media persons also contributed in some way to the cruelty and brutality of the war. According to the ideology they espoused, these media persons became the target of hostility from the LTE or from the military. Both the LTTE and the government very directly attacked media persons who stood for an ideology that opposed theirs.

In addition, those who have ruled this country for the past so many years have unleashed repression against those who opposed them politically and ideologically.

Media persons who opposed the government in power at a political level faced innumerable attacks. We have come through a very terrifying past. In the period from 1989 to 2009, 114 media persons and activists linked to the profession have been assassinated for stating their opinion. Beatings, arson attacks, destruction of property and threats and intimidation took place on a broad scale.

There has never been a credible process of investigating these killings and other attacks; nor have there been any judicial proceedings which led to any one perpetrator being punished. Because of this, an environment in which this horrible culture could prevail was created. It is the political authorities who should bear responsibility for this.

For a small country like Sri Lanka, covering 25,000 square miles and with 2.5 billion inhabitants, the number of assassinations and attacks on media persons is proportionately very high.

Here is the invisible repression

A sad consequence of this situation has been that many journalists have fled into exile; others have been silenced. Media persons cannot engage in their profession free of fear and mistrust. The media repression that prevails today, at an unprecedented level, is largely invisible.

On the one hand, media organizations and individual media professionals who reject the state ideology and who think in alternative ways are subjected to threats. On the one hand, a state monopoly of the media has emerged in a manner that has never before been seen in our country.

The main print media houses that publish newspapers in English and Sinhala (only some of them also publish in Tamil) in Sri Lanka are Lake House (Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. ANCL), Upali Newspapers Ltd., Wijeya Newspapers Ltd., Sumathi Newspapers Ltd., the Rivira Media Corporation, Standard Newspapers and the Leader Publications. Of them, the Lake House publications directly functions as a propaganda unit for the government. The Chairman of Upalii Newspapers is also the Chairman of the state-owned Sri Lanka Telecom Ltd. Sumathi newspapers is owned by the family of a Member of Parliament of the ruling coalition. The Rivira Media Corporation is run by someone who is very close to the President. The one with a little bit of autonomy is Wijeya Newspapers. But an Editor of one of its leading newspapers is someone who was appointed to the Press Council by the President. In Sri Lanka today, you have a network of print media institutions that all serve the interests of the government.

It is a more or less similar situation in the electronic media. Normally, the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of a country does not hand out broadcast licenses at will, to their friends, or for payment. This is because it is considered to be a limited public resource. A media institution is granted a license not only because they can pay for it but because there is consideration for the services they will provide. They invariably look at the standards.

In 1993, we had the state-controlled Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC – radio), Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC – TV), and the independent Television Network (ITN). TNL and Sirasa were the only two privately-owned radio and television stations.

If you look at Sri Lanka today, we have over 20 privately owned radio and television stations operating in the country.

Every single license has been issued on the basis of party loyalty, friendship and association as well as on the basis of money. Government ministers own television channels. Members of Parliament, businessmen and members of the President’s family all have broadcast licenses. These institutions maintain utterly fraudulent and corrupt contractual relationships with government agencies and institutions.

There are only a handful of media institutions that one can describe as independent, perhaps only one or two. Those who work in these media institutions do so while facing many threats and challenges.

You cannot erase a history of over twenty years

There are 9 media organizations in Sri Lanka. 7 of them came together in January 2012 to protest against the suppression of media freedom with the ‘Black January campaign. This too was subject to repression. We were accused of fulfilling the objectives of separatist terrorists and of foreign interests. There was even a judicial injunction that sought to prohibit the protest. How do you understand this situation?

We have worked for over 20 years as a media organization in Sri Lanka. 20 years ago we created the Free Media Movement after a broad consultation and consensus among media workers and with a common agenda.

Our primary goal was to stand firm on the issue of media freedom and the right of the freedom of expression in the country.

We can say, with all responsibility, that this agenda has not changed at all over the past 20 years.

That agenda was not created because of foreign funds, or by foreign forces.

What happens is this. The political powers that cannot commit to the accountability we demand vilifies us and tries to obstruct our activities.

We have been active under four different Presidents: R. Premadasa, D.B. Wijetunge, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapakse. Also, we functioned under a government led by Ranil Wickremasinghe.

All of these governments, these power blocs, some more and others less, have vilified human rights activists, lawyers’ organizations, civil society organizations and mass media organizations.

There is a strange similarity between all these vilifications. They all raised the same accusations without ever being able to prove any of them. The accusations were mostly about our working according to foreign agendas, working for dollars and working to support the LTTE.

These allegations and accusations as well as assassinations and attacks against media persons were used by all governments to lower the morale of our organizations and to undermine our work. The same thing is happening today. We work in these organizations knowing this reality full well.

We have the strength, the courage and the determination to carry on with our work in the face of these repressive acts.

What are the projects we have undertaken?

Recently the Sunday Leader newspaper published an article critical of the Free Media movement. A lead article was also published in the Sinhala Sunday paper published by Lake House, the Siliumina. How can you clarify what has been said?

These articles are focusing on activities undertaken by the Free Media movement during the years 2007/2008/2009. The years 2007 and 2008 were ones in which we expanded the activities of the Free Media Movement.

In 2007 we implemented four separate projects.

One was relating to an Award that we offered to a journalist who worked on human rights issues; second was an Award we offered to a journalist working on issues related to public services; third was a Safety Fund for media persons; fourth was the maintenance of the office of the Free Media Movement.

There is no doubt that these projects offered invaluable support and services to media persons in this country. This is why we are still held in high regard by the media freedom community, in Sri Lanka and abroad.

During the years 2007 and 2008, the number of transactions taking place within the Free Media Movement increased because of the increased number of projects.

Subsequently, two members present at the meeting asked for further details regarding some aspects of the accounts. Following this, the AGM decided not to adopt the accounts at this meeting but to postpone it until the clarifications sought had been provided. The newly elected Committee was asked to do this within the next 6 months. Unfortunately, they were not been able to fulfill this task. An interim Committee was then appointed, to function under the new Executive Committee, to complete this task. There were differences of opinion between the Convenor and the members of the Interim Committee.

The Convenor of the Free Media Movement for the period 2007-2008 was Sunanda Deshapriya. Uvindu Kurukulasuriya was elected Convenor at the AGM of 2008.

The loss of files and vouchers

The former treasurer M. Rushangan and the Treasurer elected in 2008, Kasun Yapa, as well as some other office bearers, had complained that somewhere towards the end of 2008, the Convenor Uvindu Kurukulasuriya has removed a number of files and vouchers relating to internal matters of the FMM, saying that he had to submit them for purposes of an internal audit to the accountant of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). Although the office of the CPA was a mere 3 minute walk away, the files had not been handed for 3 days. By then the box of vouchers that had been sealed had been broken open. Rushangan and Yapa both felt that some vouchers had either been misplaced or destroyed. Their primary accusation was leveled at the Convenor, Uvindu Kurukulasuriya. Treasurer Yapa informed the FMM Committee that Mr. Ramesh of the Accounts Section of the CPA had given him a signed letter stating that the box of vouchers had been open and the seals broken when it was handed over to him.

This situation resulted in a dispute within the organization. Following a request from members that the criticisms regarding the accounts should be investigated so that an appropriate response could be formulated, a Special General Meeting of the FMM was convened in 2009. Here it was decided to appoint a new interim Committee, after dissolving the first one. The mandate of the new Interim Committee was: to commence investigations into the status of the accounts which had not been adopted by the AGM of the FMM over the past 3 years; to inform the FMM membership of what progress had been made in this respect; to develop protocols relating to financial management to ensure the correct maintenance of accounts and fiscal discipline within the FMM; and to enable the FMM to continue functioning according to its goals and objectives. In the meanwhile, given the deteriorating political conditions and especially following the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, a number of journalists who had played a key role in the Free Media Movement fled the country due to security concerns. Among them were former Convenors Sunanda Deshapriya and Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, and Treasurer Kasun Yapa.

What did the interim Committee say?

As an Interim Committee we fulfilled our obligations. The initial investigation was handed over to a Committee headed by Attorney at Law S.G. Punchihewa. The other members of the Committee were K.W. Janaranjana and Nimalka Fernando. Their recommendation was to hand over the inquiry into the accounts to Mr. Abeywardena, who is well known as an expert in handling matters of financial dispute. Accordingly, Mr. Abeywardena was requested to report back to the FMM Committee in this regard. After an initial investigation, he recommended a full audit and fresh investigation into the accounts of the FMM in the years 2007 and 2008. This task was handed over to Mr. Seneviratne, a certified Chartered Accountant, who is a former Secretary to the Prime Minister and has served as a Chief Accountant. He carried out the investigation as requested and submitted a report to the FMM. In this report he has focused on appropriate procedures that should be followed in maintaining the accounts of the FMM; he has drawn our attention to either incomplete or unclear areas in the existing accounts and called for further and more detailed investigations into the transactions itemised under Items 8 – 10 in his report. Nowhere has he used the term ‘ fraud’.

Further investigation has been ordered into expenses which total to Rs. 1.3 million. His order is that the accounting for these expenses should be further investigated and clarified. If anyone says that there has been a fraud worth billions of rupees in the FMM, this is completely false. Nobody who can count from 1 to 10 would make a statement like that.

The expenses referred to here, relate to activities that were being undertaken by the FMM at the time. We accept that there are shortcomings in the way that the accounts have been maintained. But it is wrong to say that the total amount is close to 4 million rupees.

We faced many obstacles in moving forward with this investigation and fulfilling our obligations in a proper manner. All of us work with the FMM voluntarily; nobody works as a full-time paid staff member. If we had undertaken to pay for the work that needed to be done, it would have cost us a large amount of money. We were not able to do this. In addition, several key persons whose assistance we need in order to make some of the clarifications called for are not in the country at present.

But since 2009, we have continued to function and maintain our accounts according to the guidance received from the various Committee reports. We are following the procedures set out there.

The allegation of a 4 million rupee fraud is completely false

The state media and the private media are both engaging in publishing falsehoods about us in a very organized manner. This relates to a so-called fraud of 4 million rupees.

For the past year, we have issued only 7 cheques. We have spent less than 200,000 rupees on various projects and activities. We have not taken on any financial obligations without consensus within the Committee. Under these circumstances, we reject all these allegations in their entirety.

The article published in the Silumina is devoid of any sources of information. Their interpretation is also truly frightening. They say that our organization is one that opposed and acted against the ‘humanitarian operation’. We do have our own critique of the use of the term ‘humanitarian operation’. But at no point in time did we take a side on this issue. We stood for media freedom and for respect for human rights at all times. They say that we are threat to the security of the state. This statement in itself smacks of cruelty and hatred.

The government has created divisions within every political party. They used gifts and grants and money-making opportunities to do this. Or they suppressed and obstructed their activities by labeling them as traitors.

There is no basis to the allegations made by Fredrica Jansz

The basis on which Ms Fredrica Jansz makes her criticism of the FMM is false. It is an utterly unrealistic allegation. As an organization, we carry out everything that we do in consultation with the Executive Committee.

But in her article, Fredrica Jansz says that the present Committee of the FMM is acting without any respect for fiscal discipline; she says that I spend money without approval from the Committee; she also says that I act without consideration for the internal opinions of the organization. These are all completely inaccurate statements. I have not responded to these allegations; the organization has. We have sent this response to the newspaper of which she is the Editor. According to media ethics, the paper should have carried our response. But this has not been done. In the future we will also respond to the Silumina. I don’t believe that they will respect media ethics enough to publish our response either.

Let us unite, unafraid, to take the struggle forward

In the face of such a range of pressure and suppression, how does the Free Media Movement hope to move forward?

The government continues to suppress media freedom and indulge in censorship in a completely illegal manner. We can take the prohibitions on websites as an example. The objection to the websites was that they were putting out information that was insulting to the government and its friends. They did not use the normal law of the land to deal with this. They simply issued a prohibition. If you are going to penalize any media institution for broadcasting falsehoods, then the first in line for prosecution would be the state-owned media. The entire media community knows very well how freely the state owned media broadcasts lies and insults.

Secondly, we can take the restrictions on SMS as another example. This is something that could be done in a democratic way, using the Telecommunications Regulatory Act. It should not have been done in this way, through imposing direct censorship.

Even as repression is confronting us from various sides, we continue our work to defend our right to demand the freedom of the media and freedom of expression and opinion. I think the government is creating a desert, by silencing all our voices. This is a very dangerous trend. Sri Lanka also may join the ranks of countries in which the most brutal incidents take place under the most authoritarian of dictatorships. The time has come for all of us to unite, with courage and fearlessly, in order to overcome this situation.



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