There has been a new development in the fundamental rights application against the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and others, which concerns the stoppage of a live political chat program in 2008. In November 2008, Uvindu Kurukulasuriya was participating in a state media chat show where he made critical remarks concerning the government’s media policy. In a fundamental rights application, Kurukulasuriya alleges that the program was suddenly terminated because of his critical views and in a bid to censor and silence him, in violation of his right to freedom of expression by a public-funded broadcaster.
Case 557 of 2008 came up yesterday, 17 December, before Justice Ekanayaka, Justice Dep and Justice Marasinghe. The new Chairman of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation filed a fresh affidavit annexing a series of publications from The Colombo Telegraph and Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, who is the petitioner in case 557. Court granted one month for the petitioners to file a fresh set of counter objections.
It seems clear that the new documents are intended to prejudice the court rather than offer a defence to the alleged violation of fundamental rights of the petitioner. Just because journalists are litigants in an on-going case, it does not mean that they are prevented from carrying out their professional activities. It is the duty of the journalists to stand up for editorial freedom and free speech.
SLRC fresh affidavit annexes;
In an earlier statement with regard to this case, RSF said:
Reporters Without Borders condemns the government pressure that led to the debate programme “Ira Anduru Pata” being cut short as it was being broadcast live on the evening of 4 November 2008 on state TV station Rupavahini. It ended a discussion of a new broadcasting law by three guests, including Free Media Movement convener Uvindu Kurukulasuriya.
The presenter announced a break for advertisements after 45 minutes, but the rest of the programme, which normally lasts two hours, was suppressed. Kurukulasuriya had been criticising the government’s media policies before he was censored. It was the first time in nine years that this press freedom activist was invited to speak on Rupavahini.
This censorship came as widespread criticism forced the government to retreat on its newly-introduced Private Television Broadcasting Station Regulations. After receiving representatives of journalists’ organisations and media owners, media and information minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa announced that implementation of the new regulations would be suspended for a month, and he gave the media two weeks to submit their proposals for amendments.
Four people, including Kurukulasuriya as FMM representative, filed a petition before the supreme court challenging the regulations, which were published in the official gazette on 10 October without any form of prior consultation. The new rules would restrict development of privately-owned TV by increasing the government’s control over the issuing and withdrawal of broadcasting licences, which would have to be renewed annually.
Noting the government’s decision to suspend the regulations, Reporters Without Borders said: “This law is extremely dangerous for media freedom. Delaying its implementation is not enough. Its content needs to be changed radically.
The government in a bid to further suppress the media has gazetted regulations to control the electronic media. The regulations are aimed at controlling private television channels and to impose restrictions on the people’s right to information.
Five media organisations led by the Free Media Movement (FMM) brought information about these new regulations to the public domain.
It is in this backdrop that the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) telecast a programme called Ira Anduru Pata. The programme, although not of a political nature, deals with various topical social issues. Discussions are held with people popular in the respective fields.
However, this time around, Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa’s Media Advisor Charitha Herath and Senior Lecturer, Colombo University, Dhammika Dissanayake and FMM Convener, Uvindu Kurukulasuriya participated at the event.
Kurukulasuriya began the programme by giving details of the suppression of the media in the country. He then criticised the President as well.
He said that media suppression was being done during the tenure of a president who has always posed as a friend of the media.
After Kurukulasuriya had spoken two rounds criticising the President, the government and media suppression in the country, when the time for the third round came, the host of the show announced that the programme was being stopped.
Since the programme could not be stopped abruptly, the telecast was transferred to the main control room and ended thereafter.
The reason for stopping the programme was due to a call received by the SLRC Chairman from a high government official. It is learnt that the Chairman had even been chided for telecasting the programme on SLRC. Orders were promptly issued to immediately stop the programme.
The outcome was an unexpected one. Apart from the participants, everyone was unhappy with the decision. Apart from Kurukulasuriya, the others represented the government.
The reason for SLRC to invite him for the programme was to create the impression that the free media had the freedom to express views amidst the new regulations. However the abrupt termination of the programme showed the true nature of the media freedom that is prevalent.
A Tuesday night live programme on State-run Rupavahini on the proposed tough regulations on television broadcasts came to an abrupt end before Free Media Movement Convenor Uvindu Kurukulasuriya could respond to two other participants.
Mr. Kurukulasuiriya said he was invited as a guest to take part in ‘Ira Anduru Pata’ programme along with Media Ministry Advisor Charitha Herath and Colombo University lecturer Dhammi Dissanayaka. Mr. Kurukulasuirya said according to the format of the programme Mr Herath and Mr. Dissanayaka first made their comments. He had thereafter expressed his views on the regulations.
He said it was in the second round that Mr. Herath and Mr. Dissanayaka had gone further into detail. He was ready to give his own response. “Suddenly the programme was interrupted by commercials. I thought after they were over I would get an opportunity to respond. Instead some songs were aired. When inquiries were made I was told that the programme had ended,” he said.
Mr. Kurukulasuirya said he was told that instructions had come from the ‘top’ to suspend the programme. However, the person who gave such an order was not identified. The Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association, the Free Media Employees Trade Union, the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum, the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance and the FMM strongly condemned the sudden suspension of the programme.
Watch the debate here;