15 June, 2021

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Rule Of Thumb For Police Spokesman: “If You Are In Doubt – Leave It Out”

By Ranga Kalansooriya

Dr Ranga Kalansooriya

Dr Ranga Kalansooriya

The infamous Embilipitiya incident turned yet another page on the story of Sri Lanka Police in many fronts – but professionalism being the foremost factor. The entire episode still depicting the fact that how unprofessional our police force has been in handling crisis issues and the damage controlling efforts in the aftermath of such a crisis.

But there seems to be two clear sets of officials when it comes to their professional conduct. The most senior officials including the Inspector General handled it in a professional manner without attempting to cover up the wrong-doing of his junior officials, as I see it. Added to this credit is Senior DIG Chandana Wickramaratne who prepared a thorough investigative report on the incident that left no stone unturned.

Senior DIG Wickramaratne’s attempt was somewhat contrary to his own colleagues who tried to justify the brutal attack on protesting HNDE students through holding press conferences a several months ago. Their justification of the attack proved wrong within a few weeks as the police commission found it erroneous and took action against the officials involved.

Former Anandian Senior DIG Wickramaratne is known for his professionalism within the rank and file since he joined police force as a young graduate commissioned officer in early 90s. He exposed the unprofessional conduct of his junior officers in the Embilipitiya police division through his lengthy report to the Police Chief while recommending seeking advises from the Attorney General to take legal action against the errant officials. Thus, the magistrate ordered the arrest of an ASP and the Embilipitiya HQI on Wednesday (27). More action to follow.

As reported in the media, Senior DIG Wickramaratne’s report was explicit about the totally uncalled-for conduct of these concerned police officers of Embilipitiya. This particular incident not only demands stern action against those officials, but also a total assessment on the psychological status of the men and women in police uniform. A comprehensive study is required – first to understand the reasons behind their unusual conduct and then find solutions to those issues through a comprehensive process of perception change. It may also require structural changes within the police force since most of those unstable conditions are derived from job frustration – a common lamenting that one could hear from almost every police officer.

Look at the way the police officers have treated the journalists during the magistrate inquiry by snatching their note books. Just think of the mentality of that particular officer, what kind of a higher authority he holds when conducting such an act within the magistrate courts. I am interested to know the act that has been taken by Senior DIG Wickramaratne on this particular issue.

This notebook incident prompted The Editors Guild Of Sri Lanka also to take some admirable steps for the protection of freedom of expression within this context. The Guild will file a strong FR case as advised by the Chief Justice which will not only be a classic case study for the freedom of press in Sri Lanka, but also a good lesson for the high-handed police officers who take the law into their own hands.

The act of the Guild further provides a message to other media organizations, too. Such errant acts by officials demand something beyond street fights such as holding placards and shouting slogans. The Guild has handled it in a professional and systematic manner and hope it will teach a good lesson to the men and women in uniform when dealing with media and freedom of expression issues.

There is one strong lesson that policemen and women should learn – that it is not anymore the 19th or 20th century where uniform over rode the rights of the citizens. And the people of this country stood against unruly force and authoritarianism on January 8 last year and people will not tolerate it at any cost. In a nutshell, Sri Lanka is no more a police state, we converted it into a state of good governance, which needs to be penetrated into police as well. Yahapalanaya will not be realistic if the law enforcement agencies to do not understand the very concept of good governance.

There is another victim of this entire Embilipitiya incident – my classmate buddy ASP Ruwan Gunasekera, the poor police spokesman.

As I have highlighted in many of my previous columns, these particular positions such as spokesperson requires specific skills and capacity before appearing in-front of microphones and cameras. Like a reality show super star, he reaches stardom within days but loses credibility and reputation sooner than he reached stardom. In countries like India, such officials must undergo specific training program before undertaking this painful job of spokesman. The Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi is one such institution that conducts those courses for Indian police and military forces. As Sri Lanka has no such system in training these officials in this strange field, poor officials just pushed before the camera and they soon become laughing stock among the public. No spokesperson, especially in police, ended up with a good untarnished image and ASP Gunasekera is the latest victim of this chain. We know how his predecessors like SSP Ajith Rohana were caricatured in social media for their unsuccessful attempts to defend his colleagues and their errant acts. This is not their fault at all – this is a dire mistake of the system.

Of course, the duty of the police spokesman is to defend his own colleagues and office based on the reports he receives. The initial reports from Embilipitiya police were entirely misleading and false, Wickramaratne report exposes this fact. But poor Gunasekera took extra effort and additional burden in his attempts to defend his Embilipitiya colleagues and then later he said he did not know. This is not professional.

One has to be mindful of the fact that information could not be hidden from the public in this era of information technology. Within hours of the incident social media was full of stories as to what has happened on January 4 night at Mendis Building in Embilipitiya. Thus, how could poor spokesman swim against the current and attempts to defend his colleagues at the cost of his own reputation?

In simple terms – a spokesperson should not go into detail if things are not yet clear. Even in journalism we say “if in doubt – leave it out.” But ASP Gunasekera could not leave it out as he was questioned by media, but he could have bought time simply saying “investigations are on,” which is the truth, because Wickramaratne report came two weeks later.

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Latest comments

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    This is a massive problem in Sri Lanka. Over the years the Politicians ruined the credibility and the honour with which Police has to function. Adding fuel to fire the Police Personnel also very willingly went behind the Politicians to get whatever they could grab. So here we are. Now if the Government and the people look forward to arrest this situation; it is a must to change the whole system. This has become an easier task now that the Police Commission has been set up. This Commission must now, without delay address this issue on a priority basis. If allowed to continue, there could arise a situation, in that, maintenance of Law and Order of the country would be challenged and hijacked by unscrupulous persons. This is seen happening in the case of disruptions in Courts of Law initiated by the self styled “Guardians” of Religion and the Country.

    This position of “Police Spokesman” must be immediately reviewed. When an incident where police has to inform the Public, that person must come prepared to provide in an “question & answer” the actual background and leave the on going investigations to proceed without any assessments. I have seen how this is happening in the outside world specially USA,UK,Canada etc. If questions are asked as regards the “accusations” and “suspects” those are left out with a simple answer: “No comment”; “I cannot comment”; “The investigations are continuing”. This is the “culture” of Police Media Briefings that I have seen.

    It is time to consider establishing an “Independent Unit” either within the Police Commission or the Attorney General’s Department, composed of all civilians such as Doctors, Lawyers, Sociologists, Engineers, etc. specially assigned investigations where Police brutality or loss of life take place. It can be titled Special Investigation Unit – SIU. This is in operation very successfully in Canada. Food for thought.

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    “……………………….Sri Lanka is no more a police state……”
    No, it is not.
    But ask any northerner and he will tell you that it is a military state.
    Occasionally the police assist the military in the north, but the latter decide how the citizens should behave, and especially not protest publicly, about anything.

    In the south, the citizenry need to keep the police happy – if asked to donate arrack, they need to do so.
    A refusal to such a simple request, had reportedly led to the whole Embilipitiya incident, when a citizen had died.

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