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International justice amid national impunity 

8 months ago

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  • Foreign press freedom activists highlight Govt. involvement in attacks and censorship, abuse of justice-related processes, and impunity 
  • People’s Tribunal emphasises need for regional, transnational and international mechanisms of redress
By Sumudu Chamara  With domestic mechanisms and institutions tasked with investigating into and delivering justice for crimes against journalists falling short and failing to deliver what is expected of them, it is crucial for journalists to have access to regional and international mechanisms.  This is particularly important in the case of a country like Sri Lanka, where many crimes have been committed against journalists due to their work. Allegations are rife – and not without reason and hard evidence – that these crimes have been committed or planned by high-ranking officials, politicians, or figures connected to successive governments. Arrows aside, oftentimes the archers are in positions of power where they are able to strongly influence or impede investigations.  This was noted during the hearings of the People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists held in The Hague, the Netherlands, which focused on Sri Lanka’s situation on 12 and 13 May, with the attendance of a number of media activists and human rights defenders.  High-profile attacks against journalists  One of the disturbing realities that is prevalent in Sri Lanka and in many countries is the lack of legal action against perpetrators of crimes against journalists and media freedom, which often happens despite investigations having found credible information relating to the perpetrators. At the same time, government or State interference in and influence on investigations, especially when the perpetrators are politically connected to those in power, is concerning.  Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Asian Programme Co-ordinator Steve Butler addressing the hearings highlighted these matters, while also expressing concern about how investigations or other forms of legal action came to a halt when governments changed, which he said had been observed in high-profile crimes against journalists in Sri Lanka.  Butler noted that so far this year, the CPJ had documented 30 deaths of journalists and that it has been confirmed that 17 of these deaths were related to the journalists’ work. He added that the CPJ had monitored and documented violations of press freedom in Sri Lanka for several decades and that reliably documenting facts was the foundation of such work. J.S. Tissainayagam He spoke of several incidents which he said were emblematic cases documented in Sri Lanka: “J.S. Tissainayagam was arrested after reporting on, among other things, the recruitment and training of child soldiers in 2008. He wrote a regular column for The Sunday Times reflecting a moderate Tamil point of view, which was often highly critical of the Government. He was arrested in March 2008, and months later he was charged with ‘terrorism,’ for which he was convicted and was sentenced to 20 years in prison in September, 2009. Under intense international pressure including from the CPJ, after the civil war ended, he was granted a full pardon and was allowed to migrate to the United States in 2009. He had committed no crime other than reporting embarrassing news and publishing critical opinions.” Keith Noyahr  Butler continued: “Another very important case from that era is the case of Keith Noyahr, who was the Deputy Editor of The Nation newspaper. On the night of 22 May 2008, he was abducted in a white van when he returned home. His wife discovered the car outside with the engine still running. His abduction happened less than two weeks after a highly-critical article, titled ‘An Army is not its Commander’s private fiefdom’ was published in the newspaper.  “He was beaten in the van and later reportedly stripped and suspended and beaten again. The beating stopped when his abductors received a phone call from a higher authority apparently ordering them to stop. He was freed the next day, barely able to walk, body covered with contusions, and bleeding from the ear. “He soon left for Australia but did not return, although he has cooperated with the investigators of the case. While arrests were made some 10 years after the incident, all suspects were freed on bail. The case, like others, ground to a halt following the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the presidency.”  Namal Perera Butler also spoke about what happened to Namal Perera: “In 2008, Perera was a freelance journalist and a Deputy Head of the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), and he had written critically of the Government’s war efforts. He told me in 2017 that he had been identified because his visiting card had been in Noyahr’s wallet. “Prior to the attack, Perera had noticed surveillance of his office, and on the day of the attack, his car was followed when he left the office. Perera’s driver took evasive action. When the attackers forced the car to stop, it was in a relatively public location. The attackers smashed the car’s windscreen, dragged out Perera and another passenger, and beat them severely. But, the attackers stopped and left as the crowd gathered.” Butler said that under President Maithripala Sirisena’s rule, investigations led to an arrest after Perera identified the attackers in a line-up, adding however that after the change in the Government in 2019, nothing had happened concerning the investigations. Iqbal Athas “Iqbal Athas was a veteran defence correspondent for The Sunday Times in 1997. He wrote articles about the disappearance of 70,000 motor shells purchased by the Government, which resulted in verbal and physical abuse by Government officials and thugs. In 1998, after he wrote about the irregularities in the purchases of aircrafts by the Air Force, two bodyguards of an Air Force officer entered his home and threatened his family at gunpoint. They were later convicted, and the Government provided guards for his home.  “Formal censorship came into force in 2000, and Athas found many parts of his columns blanked out, including criticism of the Government’s war efforts against Tamil separatists. In 2005, the Sri Lankan President threatened to use the Official Secrets Act against Athas, after the latter described the purchase of a British aircraft landing craft as a waste of money. “In 2007, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Defence Secretary, Athas reported corruption in a deal to purchase MIG fighter crafts from Ukraine, after which the Government withdrew protection and orchestrated demonstrations outside his home. Doing the next several years, Athas was forced several times to go into temporary exile outside of Sri Lanka to seek safety.” Misusing the law In his testimony, Butler quoted the following statement made by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during a television interview to a local media in 2008, when the latter was serving as the Defence Secretary: ‘I think that there is no need to report anything on the military and the people do not want to know how many or what kind of arms we acquire. That is not media freedom. I tell without fear that I have the power and that I will not allow any of these things to be written. I told the then President to bring press censorship in at the beginning.’ He said that he saw two patterns in crimes against journalists in Sri Lanka: “I say this with great certainty. Journalists were attacked by Government-linked forces outside of any plausible law enforcement regime. Journalists who are not accused of breaking any law were attacked and punished for fact-based reporting and opinions. “Secondly, laws were indeed used against some journalists questionably. Nonetheless, the Government used the law enforcement and made use of law enforcement mechanisms to curb press freedom. We saw in the case of Athas, where his work was legally censored, and where threats were made to use the Official Secrets Act against him.” The PTA sword  Butler also expressed concern about the use of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA) against journalists who were critical of the Government.  “The use of the PTA has continued to hang over journalists as a threat and has been employed recently. Lankaenews journalist Keerthi Rathnayake was held in remand for eight months since last October under this law, ostensibly because of an obvious non-criminal act of warning an Indian diplomat about a possible attack on the Indian Embassy. We are convinced that he was, in reality, held in relation for critical reporting on Lankaenews.” Stressing that the PTA was being used as a threat, Butler said that the PTA had been used against Tamil journalists.  “The CPJ documented the harassment of prominent Tamil journalists by anti-terror Police including forcing journalists to submit to hours of intrusive questioning. The PTA has become a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of all Sri Lankan journalists,” he stressed, adding that Human Rights Watch had recently very appropriately described this law as a legal black hole.  “This kind of behaviour by the Government has not stopped. Following the 2015 Election and the installation of the Sirisena Government, we saw important steps being taken to investigate some cases at a December, 2017, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation conference on impunity for crimes against journalists. Government officials complained of steep obstacles for investigating these cases caused by the destruction of evidence by the previous Government of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Nonetheless, the investigations continued for several years, suspects were identified, and arrests were made. But, bail was granted to those arrested during these investigations and the process came to a halt with the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.” Primary obstacle political Butler noted that even though there were severe evidentiary difficulties in sustaining convictions in these cases, the primary obstacle was political, or whether or not there was will power on the part of the Government to seek justice.  Noting that on 6 May the Government had issued regulations threatening criminal action under the Public Security Ordinance – “no person shall, by word of mouth or by any other means whatsoever, spread any information likely to cause public alarm, public disorder or racial violence which is likely to incite the committing of an offence” – Butler emphasised: “Our experience in Sri Lanka and elsewhere is that governments cannot be trusted when given such broad authority to use legal means against critics whose truthful statements threaten to undermine their rule.”  International support mechanisms During the hearing, member of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom – the independent advisory body of the Media Freedom Coalition, a coalition of 52 countries that have pledged collectively and individually to fight against restrictive laws, punitive legal measures, physical violence and other challenges faced by journalists – Catherine Amirfar spoke on the importance of journalists having access to international mechanisms in the event domestic mechanisms did not deliver justice.  Pointing out that one of the steps identified by the Panel as necessary in this process was ensuring accountability, she said that it was important to be clear-eyed about the challenges in achieving accountability when it came to the targeting and abuse of journalists. She further raised the importance of ensuring access for journalists, who are currently under siege by governments, to international or transnational efforts, especially when domestic accountability was not realistic. She said that it would allow them to access international mechanisms for accountability. “Where domestic accountability through court actions or through domestic investigations is too unrealistic and would not give justice, accessing regional and international means more easily is important,” Amirfar stressed. Culture of impunity Speaking of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder, she explained: “As we heard, Wickrematunge was assassinated in retaliation for his reporting on allegations of corruptions made against Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was then Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary. I can think of no higher goal of journalism than to investigate public leaders for violations of public trust. His murder I think exemplifies the need to hold governments to account for their role in perpetrating violence against journalists. It is what we call a culture of impunity that protects killers. That is unacceptable, not just for individuals and their families, but for the safety of journalists in Sri Lanka and around the world.” She said that the culture of impunity, in this case, referred to the political context in which Wickrematunge operated and other journalists were operating.   “As we have heard, Sri Lanka has a long and well-documented history of failing to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable for crimes, especially when those allegations involve government officials. Recently, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that expressly stated serious concerns about ongoing impunity and political obstructions for the accountability of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, urging the Government thereby to live up to its obligations under international and domestic laws.” Amirfar further noted that there were limits to what could be achieved through legal mechanisms, because it required political will. Sri Lanka has seen a large number of attacks, abductions, disappearances, and murders of journalists and the majority of these crimes have been committed due to the journalists’ professional work. At the same time, there is a dire need to pay more attention to matters such as censorship, threats, and discrimination due to political ideologies, which also affect journalists’ ability to work freely. However, as with almost all crucial matters in the country, media freedom too has a lot to do with the political culture and, as highlighted during the hearings on Sri Lanka, there is a distinct lack of political will to bring about much-needed change.