Press Freedom in South Asia

IFJThis 13th annual review of journalism in the region, The Freedom Frontier: Press Freedom in South Asia 2014-15, was released by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on behalf of the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN).

The digital realm is the newest frontier of conflict for press freedom but it also presents tremendous opportunities for informing, connecting with audiences and in harnessing regional solidarity and action.This report is part of the effort to build regional solidarity to meet the needs of South Asia’s media and is prepared by the IFJ-Asia Pacific with support and inputs from the many great voices and IFJ affiliates that comprise SAMSN.

PRESS FREEDOM IN SOUTH ASIA 2014-15

While Sri Lanka did not experience any journalist deaths in the past year, several had close shaves. Even six years after the end of the war, the media in the Northern and Eastern Province of the island continue to face attacks and harassment.

In September 2014, Sinnarasa Siventhiran, a journalist with Uthayan, was attacked by masked men introducing themselves as police officers who then threw him in front of a speeding bus, which swerved just in time.

The trend of targeting union leaders was seen in different countries of South Asia. In Sri Lanka, Sunil Jayasekara, convenor of the Free Media Movement (FMM), received a series of death threats from unidentified callers, outlining dire consequences if he went ahead with a scheduled press conference in July 2014. As in Pakistan, a pattern of violent mobs, seemingly working in collusion with the authorities, systematically disrupted seminars and training programs for journalists, especially those from the North and East of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s new regime, voted in after a hotly-contested election in January 2015, promises to wipe away decades of impunity, mistrust and suspicion and has ushered in new hope for media freedom on the island. The remarkable coalition of progressive forces managed to achieve what might have seemed impossible – toppling the authoritarian and militaristic regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Maithripala Sirisena, stood as the common opposition candidate and contested under the National Democratic Front (NDF), a broad coalition of oppositional forces. This keen electoral contest was seen as Sri Lanka’s most significant poll for decades.

It effectively ended a decade of rule that had become increasingly authoritarian and marked by nepotism, corruption and suppression of press freedom. As new president, Maithripala Sirisena, brings with him the promise of a new era of media reform, exiled journalists have been urged to come home, and cases of disappearance such as that of Prageeth Eknaligoda in 2010 are once more in the spotlight. The long-demanded Right to Information Act might yet see the light of day.

Sri Lanka: Impunity on the Island

Witnessing a three-decade long ethnic conflict and war, Sri Lankan journalists have experienced unrelenting threats, intimidation, attacks, disappearances and murders. Three case studies best illustrate the depth of impunity in Sri Lanka as well as the campaign against it. Where is Prageeth Eknaligoda?

January 24, 2010 was the last time Prageeth Ranjan Bandara Eknaligoda (Prageeth Eknaligoda) was seen by his family. At the time of his disappearance five years ago, he was not a popular public figure, known only in the field of alternative media and the human rights community.

Eknaligoda excelled in writing, graphic designing, cartooning and illustrating, donned the role of a social activist, and used his talent to inform the public and work towards creating a more humane society. It was only after his disappearance that his friends and colleagues publicised his writings and cartoons by establishing Prageeth Eknaligoda Foundation and publishing two collections of his writings and curating an exhibition of his cartoons.

His social and political vision then became known not only in Sri Lanka but also internationally. Eknaligoda not only wrote critical investigative articles but also used irony and humour to highlight contemporary events. His enormously creative graphics, drawings and cartoons responding to day to day socio-political events were mostly published in alternative magazines and websites which shared his vision. Among small sociopolitical forums he was a significant presence. His articles were published in magazines such as Wimasuma, Mawatha, Wihiduma, Siyapatha, and Yukthiya newspaper. He also worked as the designer of the Tamil newspaper Amudu and served on the editorial board of the Siyarata.

At the time of his disappearance, he was mainly connected to Lanka-e-News as an independent political critic. Born on April 9, 1959 in Ruwanwalla in Sabaragamuwa Province, Eknaligoda had developed his political acumen through his association with a leftist political party while a student. He began his professional life in the advertising industry as an artist and copywriter. At the time of his disappearance, he was married with two children. The disappearance At the time of his disappearance in 2010, Eknaligoda was a significant contributor to the political campaign aimed at freeing the country of the corrupt and autocratic family-led regime of Mahinda Rajapakse.

The presidential election in which Mahinda Rajapakse stood for a second term was in January 2010. Rajapakse’s election campaign made full use of state property and resources. Though Eknaligoda did not accept opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka as the ideal person to lead the country towards change, he used his talents to the fullest, to support General Fonseka’s campaign so as not to pass up an “opportunity for a new direction”. Eknaligoda, skilled in copywriting, designing graphics and cartoons as well as posters and banners, dedicated his support to the much-awaited political change. A thinker with a vision for a new world, he maximised his influenced even in small spaces and did so without any expectation of benefit or even livelihood. His close associates were aware of his financial difficulties, and his wife Sandhya’s attempts to support their two sons through her job.

Eknaligoda was made to disappear without a trace on January 24, 2010 when he left the Lanka-eNews office in the evening. He had been once been abducted in August 2009 – five months prior to the disappearance – when he was returning from Dambulla. As he was walking from the bus stop at Makumbura Junction on High Level Road in Kottawa, he was abducted and his eyes immediately bound shut. His wife Sandhya, worried since he was not home even by midnight and his phone was not working, called his friends to ask if they knew anything. These were the days when the culture of abducting people in white vans thrived and many persons, including the opposition leader, inquired about Eknaligoda. By 11.00 am the next day, he was released by his abductors around the same place where he was picked up.

Some suspected that this abduction was a warning; others suspected that it was a case of mistaken identity. Five months later, on January 24, 2010, only two days before the presidential election, Eknaligoda was abducted again, and this time, there were no mistakes.

Five years later, on January 9, 2015, the social change Eknaligoda expected has come about. But he is not with us to express his feelings with his pen. Now, his elder son, Sanjaya Eknaligoda, who was 15 years old at the time of his enforced disappearance, has passed G.C.E. Advanced Level examination. His younger son, Harith, who was 12 at the time, is currently studying for G.C.E. Advanced Level examination, struggling with psychiatric problems induced by the trauma of his father’s disappearance. Sandhya Eknaligoda continues to be engaged in an unending search for her husband.

Investigation dead end

On the day following Eknaligoda’s disappearance, his wife, Sandhya lodged a complaint at the Homagama Police Station which had jurisdiction over the area. In the beginning, the police resisted accepting her complaint but upon her insistence, proceeded to do so. Since Eknaligoda disappeared after he left the Lanka-e-News office, a complaint was also lodged at Thalangama Police Station which had jurisdiction over that area. There is no information available on the progress of investigations conducted based on these complaints.

The only investigation carried out with regard to the complaint made at the Homagama Police Station, when he was abducted in 2009, was taking into custody the piece of cloth used to bind his eyes shut. On February 19, 2010, Sandhya Eknaligoda filed a habeas corpus writ at the Appellate Court in Colombo pleading to present her husband in court.. This case (HRC 1/2010) is currently being examined at the Magistrate’s Court, Homagama. Though the court has given around 50 dates the case has been heard only on a few occasions, invariably being adjourned.

Evidence from eight persons has been recorded: Sandhya Eknaligoda, the complainant; Gamini Perera, Eknaligoda’s friend; Wasantha Kulathunga, owner of the mobile telephone connection used to make the last call Eknaligoda made before leaving the Lanka-e-News office; the Officer-in-Charge of Homagama Police Station who recorded the complaint of disappearance; Officer Wijesinghe of the Colombo Crime Division in charge of investigations related to disappearances; Sub-Inspector of Police, Janaka, of Nugegoda-Mirihana Crime Division; Arundika Fernando, Member of the Parliament, and Mohan Peiris, the Attorney General who later became the Chief Justice.

The evidence of Arundika Fernando, a member of parliament belonging to the United People’s Freedom Alliance which was in power at the time, was recorded because he had made a statement that Eknaligoda was living in France. Mohan Peiris who was the Attorney General at the time, representing the government, in March 2012 stated at the United Nations Committee against Torture in Geneva, that Prageeth Eknaligoda was living overseas.

These statements received an immense publicity in media. The case, which was to be examined for the first time this year on February 5, 2015 was adjourned to March 28, 2015, and again to May. The police have either been unable to find any information regarding crimes against media, including information on Eknaligoda’s enforced disappearance, or, one is forced to conclude, unable to disclose information regarding the perpetrators.

This non-disclosure has been in the face of a vigorous public campaign. Eknaligoda’s friends, media organisations including Free Media Movement, civil society organisations, Sandhya Eknaligoda and citizens of the country have been engaged in many activities such as protests, demonstrations, public meetings, Sathyagrahas (non violent protests) and creating awareness among the international community including the United Nations.

Five years on, despite the political change in January that Eknaligoda hoped to see, the journey towards genuine transformation will be difficult without disclosing what happened to Prageeth Eknaligoda. Uthayan: Red Dawn in Jaffna The Tamil daily Uthayan (which means ‘Dawn’) was launched in Jaffna on November 27, 1985. Jaffna District in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka has a strong culture of provincial newspapers. Even at the time that Uthayan was launched, there were already magazines and newspapers with a long history, such as Eelanadu, Saturday Review, Murasoli and Thinamurusu. However it was difficult for these papers to function amidst the danger of conflict in the North and some of them closed down.

Uthayan also faced war-related problems and armed attacks specifically aimed at suppressing the newspaper. Yet the newspaper continues to be published, even though printing had to be halted several times due to reasons such as damage caused to the office premises by aerial bombs and shell attacks and eviction of people from the Jaffna peninsula in 1995 due to intense battle between the LTTE and Sri Lankan army.

Uthayan’s founding editor, M. V. Kaanamylnathan, who was at the forefront of all these challenges, continues to work as the editor-in-chief of the paper, taking only a short leave of absence during medical treatment for a life-threatening ailment. In the long history of media suppression in Sri Lanka, Uthayan has been the subject of the greatest number of attacks. Attacks against the paper stand out even in the past 10 years, during which media suppression increased in the name of war and fighting terrorism.

During this period serious attacks were launched to suppress media and intimidate journalists in the North. Due to measures taken to murder ideas with the intention of preventing the revelation of the plight of people living in a war zone, as well as the problems of the post-war period, journalists in the North were forced to live in secrecy, hounded as though they were terrorists. Uthayan is known as a paper which never failed to report on the issues during the war as well as in the post-war period, firmly taking the side of the people. Knowing the risks, they functioned as strategically as possible. Since Uthayan was the most purchased paper in the North, attention of officials towards the content of the paper increased.

Towards the end of 2008, the Sri Lankan military pressured the newspaper to publish a statement criticising the LTTE, knowing that it could influence the public. However being a credible media institution, they refused to issue such a statement. Subsequently, to justify the attacks directed against Uthayan, the government branded the paper as an ‘LTTE newspaper’. Since Uthayan always stood for the aspirations and needs of Tamil people, it was a headache for the government which sought to suppress the Tamil people. Both Uthayan daily and the weekend edition have a circulation figure of approximately 18,000- 20,000.

Stagnant investigation
Serious attacks directed at Uthayan during the long period of war were considered to be results of hostilities. During the war, media institutions and individuals in the North could not raise their voices in favour of justice or equity.

Though they were aware of the perpetrators, they were unable to pursue the legal route. Indeed, calling for justice was punishable by death. During the last phase of the war and the post-war period, though civilian rule was supposed to have been restored, there was a de facto military rule. During this period, until the new government came to power in 2015, Tamil journalists in the North and East did not get the opportunity even to attend training programs.

It was impossible conduct such programs in the North and journalists could not attend programs in the South as the armed forces launched organised protests to disrupt such events. Under these circumstances, Uthayan had to endure all the serious damages caused. There was no investigation into murders of journalists and media workers and no legal action was taken. Sri Lanka has become infamous for being unable to investigate murders and attacks against journalist and media institutions across the island, not only in the North.

Though complaints against bomb attacks and shootings against Uthayan, and attacks against and murders of journalists and media workers have been registered at police stations, no report of investigation has ever been disclosed and no one has been arrested. They have not attempted to spend time on pushing for investigations as it is well known that no action will be taken. Editor in- chief, Kaanmylnathan and news editor, Kuganathan had to leave the country to seek medical care. They were forced to overlook whether or not investigations had been conducted. Officials have failed to bring before the law individuals attached to the army and armed groups which receive protection of the army, who are suspected for the murders and abductions. No one has been convicted of murders, abductions, attacks and destruction of news papers which took place after the end of the war.

A complaint regarding the recent (2013) assault of photographer Chandrakumar Darshan, and deletion of the images he captured had been lodged at the Human Rights Commission which is considered to be an independent body. With regard to this complaint (Number HRC/JA214/2013), it took one year before the accused were even summoned. That too, they were summoned to the Human Rights Commission in the capital though they had lodged the complaint at the Human Rights Office in Jaffna. Though the situation was so, only a postponement of the investigation has occurred since the responsible party representing the army failed to appear.

Sirasa untamed

MTV/MBC media network, famous as Sirasa Media Network, which belongs to Maharaja business conglomerate started broadcasting in September 1992.
Today the group owns three television channels and four radio channels. The network’s Sinhala language television channel and radio channel are named Sirasa. They have studio complexes in three locations: Broadcasting and operations are carried out from their studio complex in Braybrooke Place which is considered to be their main office, studio complex in Depanama, Pannipitiya, and the one in Ratmalana.

Attempts to control the MTV/MBC media network, or ‘Sirasa Media Network’ as it is known, starting with verbal attacks, began after 2005. The network’s television broadcast had great public impact. While most media catered to the needs of the governing party, under the governing party’s direct or indirect influence, news and current affairs programs on Sirasa were seen to give moderate opportunities to the needs of the opposition and the public.

Their interventions with regard to the issues of common people, and in disclosing corruption and misconduct were commendable. The serious attack aimed at destroying Sirasa Media Network was launched at a time when the war was being glorified in the midst of immense human suffering.

During the last phase of the war, from 2008 to May 2009, news related to war had to be reported within the limits imposed by officials. All media refrained from the humanitarian reporting of numerous forms of suffering experienced by people caught in the middle of the war. At the time, the minuscule humanitarian news reports which were strategically reported came from a few Tamil newspapers.

During such a period, Sirasa media network gave opportunities to opposition politicians and attempted to report issues unrelated to war in a country obsessed with war. It was thanks to the opportunities provided by this media network that dissenting voices were given space.

These alternative voices revealed the manner in which those in power ignored the needs of the people, hiding behind the slogan that everyone should contribute to the “war against terrorism”. This was exactly the reason why the government wanted to make Sirasa a carrier of the voice of the government alone. When Sirasa did not comply, government spokespersons and pro-government extremist groups verbally attacked Sirasa, branding it as a media network which supports terrorism.

Since such verbal attacks could not compel Journalists in Colombo held a candle-light vigil against impunity. Sirasa to bow down, the largest attack against a television media institute in the island’s history was directed at Sirasa on January 6, 2009. A suitable environment replete with jingoism had also been created: celebrations had been organised all over the country as Kilinochchi had been freed from LTTE control on January 2. Amidst the din of war cries and victory salutes, the mission to destroy a media institution which was branded “a supporter of terrorism” could be carried out with impunity.

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