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The 4th estate in the chambers of democracy

10 months ago

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Media freedom is a promise that has been common among every government that comes to power, although each of their tenures has, equally commonly, been marked by incidents that have violated or undermined media freedom. The latest of such incidents was reported on Tuesday (17), sadly from the venue that is meant to set an example for the rest of the country – Parliament. According to reports, two Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna MPs had allegedly snatched the mobile phones of two journalists – Prageeth Perera and Kasun Samaraweera – for allegedly filming the two MPs when they were exiting a Parliament hall. This incident was subsequently discussed in Parliament, where MP Indika Anuruddha Herath made statements to the effect that mobile phones could be used to track people’s movements, and thus posed a threat to the security of MPs’ in this context. However, the reasons cited by MP Herath in justifying the snatching of journalists’ mobile phones beg the question of whether such speculation warrants such unlawful and unethical seizure of journalists’ properties. Further, had the MPs felt there was such an immediate threat to their safety, why had they not reported the two journalists to the Police teams attached to Parliament, instead of taking the law into their own hands? As has been requested from Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena following the incident, a thorough probe should be carried out into this incident, firstly to find out whether the two journalists had indeed violated any of the regulations they were expected to adhere to as journalists covering the parliamentary proceedings, especially to determine whether the use of mobile phones to capture video is against the permission they had been granted; and secondly, to look into whether the two MPs had adequate reason to believe that the behaviour of the two journalists could pose a threat to any person, including the two MPs in question, in the manner MP Herath alleged; and thirdly, to determine what action, including legal action, can and should be taken against the party that is in the wrong. However, this investigation should not be a mere Parliament-led process, and should be conducted with the involvement of law enforcement authorities, due to two reasons. First and foremost, the allegations MP Herath levelled against the two journalists imply that there was a potential threat to the MPs’ lives due to the journalists’ filming them on their mobile phones, allowing the movements of the former to be tracked. This is a serious allegation, considering the recent unrest, which shows that there is indeed a threat to MPs’ lives and properties from unruly mobs. This warrants a thorough probe beyond Parliament. Secondly, previous Parliament-led investigations into incidents where MPs violated the rights of non-MPs have proven to be ineffective in terms of results, making it difficult to believe that another such probe in this instance will prove effective. One only has to recall the situation during the constitutional coup of November 2018, when a group of MPs assaulted, with chillie powder and chairs, police officers tasked with safely escorting then-Speaker Karu Jayasuriya out of Parliament – a similar probe was launched into this matter but provided little to no tangible result, despite a plethora of witnesses and video evidence proving beyond doubt who had broken the law. This is the first time journalists were prevented from performing their job in the parliamentary complex in recent memory. However, in addition to taking necessary steps to address what happened on Tuesday, preventing the recurrence of similar incidents is also crucial, especially because Parliament is a place that is, among its other duties, meant to take decisions pertaining to ensuring media freedom and journalists’ well-being. The message this incident sends to journalists is that politicians’ violation of media freedom is now an accepted practice even within the halls of Parliament, where they are allowed to act even on the basis of mere speculation. An unbiased probe and definitive action to rectify what happened is the only and best step left to be taken, even though it will not reverse the damage that the incident has caused.

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