By Jehan Perera –
The failure of public opinion to function in a manner that considers all sections of society equitably can be seen in the matter of journalists who have been victims of human rights violations. There was a time when Sri Lanka was known to be one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work. Today the situation has changed significantly so that Sri Lanka is described as the best destination for international tourists to visit. That change occurred four years ago with the change of government. But ironically, all the perpetrators of the crimes against journalists remain at large.
Most of those journalists who became victims and lost their lives or had their human rights violated seriously were Tamil journalists. These included Nimalarajan who worked for BBC and Sivaram who was one of the country’s best politico-military commentators. But today their names are not in the forefront when it comes to issues of justice for journalists who became victims of human rights violations. This is because their families, friends and colleagues do not feel strong enough to publicly campaign for them. It is also because of the prejudice that they may have been supporters of Tamil separatism.
Unfortunately, the quest for justice for victims of human rights violations is driven not by the law enforcement mechanisms in the country, but by the relatives, friends and colleagues of the victims. They are the ones who are willing to take risks and pay the price for asking for justice. This is seen in the continuing protests and demonstrations by families of the missing for their loved ones. Whereas the families of the missing count in the tens of thousands, the families of media personnel who were killed or suffered human rights violations are in the few dozens. Those who would wish justice for journalists often do not have the strength of numbers.
In the media field, Lasantha Wickrematunge and Prageeth Ekneligoda are the names most frequently mentioned. In the case of Ekneligoda it has been his wife Sandhya who has had to brave various harassments, including death threats, attacks on social media and even having nationalist groups attend court hearings to intimidate her.
The assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge who was slain in broad daylight in the vicinity of a security forces base remains an unsolved crime ten years after his death. There are strong suspicions that the perpetrators of the crime were from the security forces. At the time of his assassination and continuing today the suspicion is that the killing was also connected to the government of that time. Therefore, Wickrmatunge’s killing became a symbol of the impunity that prevailed during that time when the war was coming to an end and the bloodiest period was about to begin. Wickremetunga was a high profile editor and one of the best known journalists of that time. His family, friends and colleagues continue to gather at his grave to remember him and the injustice that continues with his assassins remaining at liberty.
The end of the war did not bring the period of impunity to an end. Instead it saw the rise of an ideology that gave to national security the first place. A securitization mindset began to take hold in which it was seen as necessary to prepare for a new war in order to prevent it from happening. In that context, those who dissented became seen as enemies of the state and liable to be eliminated. Journalists were amongst those who fell victim to this mindset. One of the pledges made by the government at the UN Human Rights Council in October 2015 was to investigate these acts of media suppression and human rights violations and to hold to account those who had been the perpetrators.
During the past four years since the change of government, several investigations have taken place regarding the crimes committed against journalists and others. The most prominent of the media cases are those against Wickrematunge, Ekneligoda and Keith Noyahr and Upali Tennekoon, two other senior editors. However, all of these cases appear to have got stalled. They do not progress beyond a point. The police investigations have led to the identification of some of those who played a direct part in the commission of those crimes. However, there has been resistance from within the governmental system most notably the defence authorities and security forces to cooperating fully in the investigations. This needs to change.
The principles of good governance and the examples of more peaceful and democratic countries is that every single life is important and no one is above the law. Until these principles are entrenched in society there will be no opportunity for Sri Lanka to put its violent past behind it. But making matters difficult, President Maithripala Sirisena has made it known on many occasions that he is against the prosecution of members of the security forces for war crimes and human rights violations without adequate evidence. The problem is that his stance then emboldens the security forces to resist cooperating in such investigations and weakens the will of the investigating authorities to push through with their investigations.
The recent takeover of the former Ministry of Law and Order and the police department that was under its purview by President Maithipala Sirisena is not a positive indication that the situation will improve in the near future. The president’s supporters have sought to justify his takeover of the police and putting it into the defence ministry as due to his concern about an assassination plot against him. There are doubts growing about the veracity of this claim, as the chief witness in the alleged assassination plot is being seen to have a checkered past which is being disclosed by the ongoing police investigations. In addition, the president’s new alliance with the former president and members of the former government are also indicators that he will not wish to put his new allies in trouble, regardless of whether they are perpetrators or not.
There are two challenges that Sri Lanka and its civil society needs to address. The first is widen the band of moderates and to create a large enough number of opinion formers who are able to transcend the narrow boundaries of ethnicity, religion and social class, and to value every citizen’s life as being of equal value. The second is to develop a system of law enforcement that is strong enough to ensure that no one is above the law and putting an end to reliance on political patronage. It is an unfortunate reality that Sri Lankan politicians see governance in terms of outmaneuvering their opponents by using the law selectively on their opponents but not on their allies. What the country needs instead are politicians who will explain matters to the people, win their confidence and do the right thing so that justice and not cover ups prevail.