ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka prides herself on being the oldest democracy in the South Asian region, yet her record on safeguarding those principles is hardly rosy, particularly around free expression.
Successive governments since Independence was gained in 1948 have been guilty of such misdemeanors, with the post 1977 era, particularly two periods standing out as the darkest; the late 80s when government unleashed its squads to brutally curtail the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’s terror tactics to disrupt everyday life, in a bid to topple the government, and the 2006 -2015 rule of the Rajapaksa family.
The nearly three-decades long separatist war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) gave governments further excuses to muzzle free expression, touting ‘national security.’
Despite many laws citing national security, there’s no definition of that in Sri Lankan Law. Between 1985 and 1990 was the worst when Indian Peacekeeping Forces were fighting the LTTE in the North and the East and Sri Lankan State forces were battling the JVP led insurrection in the South.
Though a sense of freedom dawned with the election of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in 2015, it was also the period when ill-informed members of the police distorted the provisions of the newly introduced International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to harass and arrest citizens and foreigners alike.
And now, under a Ranil Wickremesinghe Presidency it seems those darkest days are back.
Staggering under the burden of an unprecedented economic crisis, with loss of income and shortages of essentials, state repression against those daring to complain or call for change is rearing its ugly head once more.
Many children are going hungry, international, and local agencies have warned. Malnutrition is rampant and a doctor who spoke about it was suspended from service. Several medical professionals were taken to task during the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency for speaking out during the Covid 19 pandemic.
In its global appeal for assistance, the United Nations estimated that these hungry children were nearly 40 percent of population.
The Aragalaya (struggle) which began as a series of peaceful demonstrations by civilians owing to the lack of essentials, coalesced as GotaGoGama on the Galle Face Green in Colombo, forcing the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his brother Mahinda who was the Prime Minister in July and May respectively. Gotabaya fled the country but has since returned.
The resignations resulted in a short-lived euphoria. Rajapaksa was replaced by Ranil Wickremesinghe as President. A man who many thought was liberal leaning, has flexed his muscles against any form of protests.
Wickremesinghe of the United National Party, who was elected by the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna through the prescribed Constitutional process – a parliamentary vote, declared in November that he will prevent any agitation or protests aimed at toppling the government, and would not hesitate to declare a state of emergency and deploy the military.
It is an egregious attack on the freedom of expression, a Fundamental Right guaranteed in the Constitution. However, the Sri Lankan Statutes contain other laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which can severely limit the freedom of expression can be used.
President Wickremesinghe told Parliament that those organising protests may do so with a permit issued by the police. The question, however, is whether the highly politicized police force would grant such permits. As has been witnessed in the past months, the police have turned out in numbers, at times far more than the protestors to halt marches or any other demonstrations.
Wickremesinghe’s statement was met by stiff resistance by opposition political parties and civil society groups. They pointed out that his statement violates Fundamental Rights. As Ajith Perera, a Lawyer and former Member of Parliament pointed out, the “President can’t do that as he is shackled by the Constitution.” It is a truism.
On many an occasion the Supreme Court has upheld the freedom of expression including the right to protest as a constitutionally guaranteed right.
Despite President Wickremesinghe’s statement protests continue. Two women, walking from Panadura to Colombo demanding the release of two youth leaders of the aragalaya were arrested mid-way. On being released sometime later, they defiantly completed their walk to Galle Face Green.
The two individuals’ activists want released are University Student leaders Galwewa Siridhamma Thero and Wasantha Mudalige. Arrested under the draconian PTA under which the authorities have the right to hold anyone indefinitely without trial, the Act has been severely criticized by local and international Human Rights communities.
As internationally renowned expert on free expression, Dr Gehan Gunatilleke states, the PTA as a law, has not had any effect on the suppression of terrorism. Rather, in an interview with Kusum Wijetilleke on the Insight Program, he described the PTA as “an instrument of repression.” He pointed out that those arrested under the Act are “not major terrorist leaders or involved in plots, but people who are peripherally involved with a militant group or in the wrong identity group.”
This time that identity group is the youth activists who did the impossible – toppling a President feared by many as a ‘terminator.’
Aragalaya activists are not the only targets. Journalists and civil society activists are repeatedly hauled before the courts or the Criminal Investigation Department for questioning or daring to oppose government intimidation. The two main political parties, the United National Party, and the Sri Lanka Freedom party, most of which has now morphed into the Podujana Peramuna are guilty of this behaviour, where presses and media offices have been attacked and journalists arrested.
Independent media practitioners such as Tharindu Jayawardena and members of the Young Journalists Association, a group that has emerged as fearless and determined are constantly harassed and interrogated by the police, in attempts to intimidate them.
Journalists and independent commentators have for the longest time been easy targets. If during the ethnic conflict and insurgencies national security was the excuse, at other times it has been to silence those exposing irregularities and government corruption, particularly in military procurements.
The period when the country was battered fighting the LTTE on the one side and the JVP insurrection on the other was one of the most horrific; Journalists and high-profile media persons such as Premakirthi de Alwis and Richard de Zoysa were murdered. The police were involved in de Zoysa’s abduction and murder and the JVP was blamed for de Alwis’s execution by unknown gunmen.
There were many other media personalities, including the assassinations of then Chairman of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation Thevis Guruge and Consultant Editor, Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation Kulasiri Amaratunge.
During the decade-long Rajapaksa administration when Mahinda was President and Gotabaya Defense Secretary, Sri Lanka’s freedom of expression regressed at an alarming rate.
Newspaper offices in the North, particularly the Uthayan newspaper were attacked by unknown gunmen. In 2009 the studio complex of Newsfirst at the time situated in Depanama was attacked by paramilitaries armed with assault rifles and claymore bombs.
Two days later the world was shaken by the brutal daytime murder of outspoken Editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper Lasantha Wickrematunge. His assassination was preceded by multiple attacks beginning in 1995 on him, his family and staff and the burning down of the press.
The attacks on journalists working for that newspaper continued even after his killing. To this day no-one has been punished for his death.
Many Tamil language journalists threatened by both the LTTE and government forces were forced to flee the country or face assaults and even death.
Even as members of the Defense establishment and politicians hurled verbal attacks against journalists and media houses aligned with government joined in the false naming of their colleagues as being terrorists, a senior columnist J S Tissainayagam was arrested by the Terrorist Investigation Department, resulting in a verdict of hard labour. Tissainayagam was released due to international pressure.
Assaults and abductions followed, most notable being those of Deputy Editor of the Nation, Keith Noyahr, Acting Manager, Advocacy of the Press Institute, Namal Perera and Poddala Jayantha of the Working Journalists Association. Just prior to that, Poddala and colleague Sanath Balasooriya were hauled up before Gotabaya Rajapaksa and threatened.
To date, not a single attacker has been charged although the Army’s clandestine “Tripoli Platoon” has been investigated and that case is yet to go to trial. The United States officially sanctioned Prabhath Bulathwatte, head of that feared outfit in December 2022. The US sanctions were centered on the attack on Noyahr.
State media often plays the part of a neutral provider of news and opinions in many democratic countries, the UK’s BBC, Canada’s CBC and PBS and NPR in the United States for instance. Not so in Sri Lanka, where, ever since the takeover of Lake House during the Sirimavo Bandaranaike rule, state media institutions, SLRC, ITN and the SLBC have become government mouthpieces.
Public Law expert Dr Asanga Welikala wrote on the Groundsviews that the “reform of the state-owned or controlled media institutions had been on the agenda for years, before the Rajapaksa regime not merely stalled reform, but recreated these institutions in ways that would put Stalin’s agitprop commissars to shame.”
The issuing of licenses to private media both radio and TV has remains opaque with spectrum offered to politically powerful business groups, despite calls by media rights group to make the process transparent. That most of these media houses too are in lockstep with administrations touting conspiracy theories and falsehoods means, independent journalism in Sri Lanka is hard to come by.
Indeed, media houses that have left professionalism at the door must be held responsible for the bankrupt state the country is now in. Throwing caution to the winds, bent on achieving the agendas of their political masters, they repeatedly mislead their audiences.
In recent years it has been the deliberate falsehoods concerning the Muslim population; allegations the minority is attempting to render the Sinhala race infertile, and accusing an Obstetrician in the Kurunegala Hospital, Dr Mohamed Shafi of sterilizing Sinhala Buddhist women patients is a case in point. Dr Shafi has since been exonerated.
During the Covid 19 pandemic, with no regard for privacy issues, these media stations attempted to portray the Muslim community as the cause for the spread of the virus, and supported the governments forced cremation of the Covid dead. It is these same agencies that also promoted untested herbal remedies and occult practices as a cure for the virus.
In the run up to both the Presidential election in 2019 and Parliamentary elections of 2020 the Chairman of the Elections Commission came up with various excuses as to why the Commission could not hold these errant private media houses accountable.
The antidote to these narratives has been the relatively recent proliferation of media entities operating entirely on social media platforms particularly Facebook (meta), YouTube and Twitter.
The aragalaya also opened opportunities for dramatists and artists to highlight social issues. For decades, those such as Professor Chandragupta Thenuwara have been depicting through their art, violence perpetrated against citizens and the militarization of society.
The aragalaya undoubtedly resulted in a flowering of these talents where peaceful and creative methods became expressions of dissent. Christian Clergy, Buddhist Monks and civil society joined Muslims as they broke fast during Ramadan.
Protestors created murals and paintings depicting women in various ethnic attire that united the disparate communities kept apart by the noxious propaganda of nationalist politicians. Street theatre and open-ended discussions on reform took center stage.
Dr Sanjana Hattotuwa a Research Fellow at the Disinfo Project in New Zealand observes that the protest allowed artistes from around the country to “articulate a critique of the (Rajapaksa) family through artistic production.”
The World Bank in its October development report on Sri Lanka said the poverty rate in Sri Lanka has doubled in the past year, going from 13.1 to 25.6 percent, increasing the number of poor by 2.7 million.
“While 80 percent of the poor still live in rural areas, the poverty rate in urban areas has tripled from 5 to 15 percent between 2021 and 2022, and half the population in estate (Plantations) areas is now living below the poverty line,” it said.
Field Marshal (Retd) Sarath Fonseka, a former Army Commander and current Opposition Member of Parliament told his fellow legislators in November that the aragalaya aims to remove the corrupt political class in Sri Lanka.
“In fact, that is the true aim of the struggle,” he said. “If the President falls into that class, then he should go too.” He warned Parliament that although the protests are not visible right now “the desire of the people to eradicate corruption is like glowing embers under the ashes.”
Those are the voices at the bottom of the barrel, ones that must be heard. Freedom of expression has come under attack continuously by the State and affiliated parties, and the Wickremesinghe Presidency seems determined to take it to a new level.
But the Aragalaya has reignited the lamp, that many activists have been carrying for years, while facing vicious assaults and censure.