By Colombo Telegraph –
“Rajapaksa produced a recently published interview with Mr. Upali Tennakoon, President of the Sri Lanka Editor’s Guild, in which Tennakoon stated he had never experienced pressure from the Government but that the United National Party was exerting considerable pressure on the media to publish pro-opposition stories. Boucher expressed appreciation to Rajapaksa for bringing the article to his attention and stated the Embassy’s willingness to investigate the matter further.” the US Embassy Colombo informed Washington.
A leaked “CONFIDENTIAL” US diplomatic cable, dated May 15, 2007, updated the Secretary of State on Assistant Secretary Boucher’s visit to Sri Lanka, written by the Ambassador Robert O. Blake shows President Rajapkasa used Upai Tennakoon’s interview to justify his claim that GSL never intimidated Journalsits.
The Colombo Telegraph found the related leaked cable from the WikiLeaks database. The cable is classified as “CONFIDENTIAL” and discuses “Press Freedom situation in Sri Lanka under the subheading “FREEDOM OF THE PRESS: ESSENTIAL TO DEMOCRACY” .
The Ambassador Blake wrote “In his meeting with President Rajapaksa, Boucher also addressed Sri Lanka’s deteriorating record on media freedom, citing the number of Tamil journalists killed in the last year. Rajapaksa dismissed claims of violence against Tamil journalists working for Uthayan and Sudar Oli as nothing more than “Tiger propaganda.” Boucher rejected this, and emphasized that protection of journalists critical of the government is one of the hallmarks of democracy.”
“Rajapaksa asserted that the Government never intimidated journalists in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa produced a recently published interview with Mr. Upali Tennakoon, President of the Sri Lanka Editor’s Guild, in which Tennakoon stated he had never experienced pressure from the Government but that the United National Party was exerting considerable pressure on the media to publish pro-opposition stories. Boucher expressed appreciation to Rajapaksa for bringing the article to his attention and stated the Embassy’s willingness to investigate the matter further. However, he reiterated, it was not the United National Party who was responsible for killing Uthayan’s journalists in Jaffna and again urged the President to safeguard freedom of the press.”
However the same Upali Tennakoon was attacked two years later and forced to leave the country. He is currently living in USA. Meanwhile another leaked US diplomatic cable contradicts Rajapaksa’s claim that “violence against Tamil journalists working for Uthayan and Sudar Oli as nothing more than “Tiger propaganda.” His brother and Chief Advisor Balsil Rajapaksa said to the US ambassador ‘looked like’ EPDP cadres, along with the SLN, had perpetrated the mid-August burning of the pro-LTTE Uthayan newspaper office in Jaffna.
You can read Upali Tennakoon’s original interview here. (Sinhala)
28. 02. 2012 -This article has been revised to reflect the following issue:
Today we received a gross translation of the interview in question form the former President of the Editors Guild Upali Tennakoon. Below we reproduced it in full. You can read it after the US cable.
Below we give the relevant part of the leaked cable;
VZCZCXRO5431 OO RUEHBI RUEHLMC DE RUEHLM #0702/01 1351143 ZNY CCCCC ZZH O 151143Z MAY 07 FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 6038 INFO RUEHRL/AMEMBASSY BERLIN PRIORITY 0386 RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA PRIORITY 0093 RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD PRIORITY 7074 RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU PRIORITY 5165 RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 3735 RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI PRIORITY 0949 RUEHNY/AMEMBASSY OSLO PRIORITY 3806 RUEHOT/AMEMBASSY OTTAWA PRIORITY 1074 RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 2886 RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI PRIORITY 7660 RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI PRIORITY 5341 RUEHON/AMCONSUL TORONTO PRIORITY 0199 RUEHLMC/MILLENNIUM CHALLENGE CORPORATION PRIORITY RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 2025 RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI PRIORITY RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS PRIORITY C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 COLOMBO 000702 SIPDIS SIPDIS DEPARTMENT FOR SCA/INS MCC FOR D NASSIRY, E BURKE AND F REID E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/10/2017 TAGS: PGOV PREL PTER PHUM MOPS CE SUBJECT: SRI LANKA: BOUCHER TELLS GOVERNMENT TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES UNDER CONTROL REF: A. COLOMBO 591 ¶B. 2006 COLOMBO 2078 Classified By: Ambassador Robert O. Blake, Jr., for reasons 1.4(b,d). ¶1. (C) SUMMARY: After meeting with human rights and non-governmental organization leaders in Jaffna, Assistant Secretary Boucher urged Sri Lankan officials to control SIPDIS paramilitary groups' human rights abuses and encourage greater freedom of the press. The Government asserted that it is not involved in human rights violations and has no control over those that are, specifically blaming the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for the deteriorating human rights conditions in Sri Lanka. While acknowledging that the Tigers are guilty of serious human rights violations, Boucher refuted arguments that the Tigers are solely responsible for Sri Lanka's problems. Paramilitary factions like the Eelam People's Democratic Party and the Karuna faction are engaging in hundreds of human rights violations, he stated, and the Government is capable of controlling these groups. Boucher also flatly rejected Government assertions that it was not engaging in human rights violations against the media, citing specific examples of journalists killed in places and at times that could only have been accomplished with the knowledge of Government security forces. He stated that the international community is beginning to lose faith in the Government, and Sri Lanka is suffering as countries, including the United States, begin to curtail economic support both because of Sri Lanka's weak human rights record and because the of the escalating conflict. Boucher urged officials to reverse these trends before it is too late. END SUMMARY. ¶10. (C) In his meeting with President Rajapaksa, Boucher also addressed Sri Lanka's deteriorating record on media freedom, citing the number of Tamil journalists killed in the last year. Rajapaksa dismissed claims of violence against Tamil journalists working for Uthayan and Sudar Oli as nothing more than "Tiger propaganda." Boucher rejected this, and emphasized that protection of journalists critical of the government is one of the hallmarks of democracy. Rajapaksa asserted that the Government never intimidated journalists in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa produced a recently published interview with Mr. Upali Tennakoon, President of the Sri Lanka Editor's Guild, in which Tennakoon stated he had never experienced pressure from the Government but that the United National Party was exerting considerable pressure on the media to publish pro-opposition stories. Boucher expressed appreciation to Rajapaksa for bringing the article to his attention and stated the Embassy's willingness to investigate the matter further. However, he reiterated, it was not the United National Party who was responsible for killing Uthayan's journalists in Jaffna and again urged the President to safeguard freedom of the press. BLAKE
National security should not be betrayed for political gains- By Manoj Abayadeera
Upali Tennakoon, President of the Editors Guild , Rivira Chief Editor and Former Editor Divaina
Q: Conflict reporting in Sri Lanka has now become a contentious matter. This argument took a new turn when Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa allegedly threatened the Editor of the Daily Mirror newspaper. The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka came under heavy criticism on the basis that it remained silent over the incident. How do you view this situation?
A: Well, first of all when we analyse the incident between Defence Secretary and the Editor of Daily Mirror newspaper, no other person is involved in the incident except those two. But Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe charged that the Editors Guild did not even issue a statement until the opposition raised the matter. But that is completely a false allegation. We issued a statement on time. The Editors Guild cannot issue statements suddenly and carelessly without ascertaining the truth. The EGOSL issues statements on behalf of the media and the media personnel of the country. That is our practise and tradition. But political parties obviously have a different approach. They can issue various statements on various matters, having many ulterior motives in the back of their minds. May be that is why they want the EGOSL to issue media statements according to their whims and fancies. But as an organization we cannot act irresponsibly. That is the difference between political parties and the EGOSL.
Sri Lanka is country where there is a national crisis. Everyone is concerned about the national security. It is a hideous act to betray the country and the national security for petty political gains. In a context like this, journalists and newspaper editors have a great responsibility. This doesn’t mean that the journalists should give false information to the public. But they should not give arms to the terrorists also. So media at large should act very prudently and responsibly.
Q: addressing a conference in Ghana recently, the Opposition Leader had said that the journalists in Lebanon and Israel engage in conflict reporting without getting carried away with patriotism. In other words, he is indicating that the Sri Lankan journalists are overwhelmed with ‘patriotism’. Should there be patriotism in conflict reporting?
A: there is a great difference between the terms ‘racism’ and ‘patriotism’. The Opposition Leader is highlighting the incidents in Lebanon and Israel; but what happened in America? The US President George W. Bush is also talking about patriotism, American identity and national sentiments. The American media support such ideas and they all work according to a common agenda. It is not a secret anymore.
But what is Mr. Wickremesinghe’s concept about reporting sans patriotism? Does it mean that we should support terrorists?
Q: if the journalists cling to terms such as ‘our army’ ‘enemies’ and ‘patriotism’, wouldn’t that invariably result in a censorship where truth becomes concealed?
A: there is a significant difference between a democratically elected government and a terrorist organization. That is the media has a right to stand up against terrorist organizations. This is not a battle among Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim communities. Many people, even the elements in the government, misinterpret this problem as an ethnic conflict. There is no ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. This is absolutely a terrorist problem. If there is an ethnic conflict, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities cannot live together outside the North and Eastern provinces.
Q: it is widely alleged that the government is curbing media freedom using battle against terrorism as a shield. And it is also said that he EGOSL keeps mum on this. What is your reply to that?
A: as far is I know, there is only allegation of that nature and that is Parameshwaree’s (mawbima) incident. There was another incident where some trade union activists being arrested by the police. Some term this as an act against media personnel, too. But I don’t think it cannot be termed as an act of curbing media freedom.
Well, when Parameshwaree was arrested we did not issue a statement because we were also confused to a certain extent. She was arrested along with a suicide bomber and therefore we had to wait for the outcome of the initial investigations. EGOSL , a i said earlier, cannot issue statements like a political party. But even the UNP did not issue any statement when she was arrested. The Opposition Leader did nit raise that matter in Parliament. Soon after she was released the UNP organized a felicitation ceremony merely to get a political advantage out of that incident.
Q: some editors accompany President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his foreign tours. in official tours to other countries. due to this, according to the opposition leader, the editors have become stooges of the government. Has the EGOSL has also become a servant of the government?
A: No. there is nothing like that. When our politicians are in the opposition, they jabber about media freedom. When the Opposition Leader was in power,some Editors accompanied him too. the UNP sent gifts to some editors regularly. Political parties so things like that and it is not strange. in a context like this, no one can blame the editors for accompanying the President in his official tours. that doesn’t make them stooges of the government.
when the head of state extends such an invitation, it is indecent to decline it. having double-standards on such matters is obviously bad.
There is another aspect of this problem. if the Defence Secretary threatened the Editor of Daily Mirror newspaper we certainly condemn it. But the Opposition Leader too, in a public meeting, castigated a newspaper editor and threatened him. To me, there is no great difference between the two incidents.
Q: The Opposition Leader raise his voice on behalf of media in both local and international domains. one can say that it is a clear indication on the jeopardized media freedom in Sri Lanka
A: I can give a clear cut answer for that question. To me, there is no interference. I don’t have close connections with politicians. out of the few politicians whom I deal with, the majority affiliated with the United National Party. I have never experienced any interference from the President or any other politician. Even the colleagues who work with me in the same editorial, have never experienced any interference from the government. Recently, when the Opposition Leader levelled allegations against the EGOSL, I asked my fellow editors as to whether they have any interference from the government. They clearly said there is no interference.
But I told them that I have a problem with the Opposition Leader since he levels baseless allegations against me and the EGOSL. I think he is trying to intimidate the editors.
Different people can define these remarks in different ways. but I am speaking on behalf of media. On the other hand, the Opposition Leader was the one who triggered this argument. He can appear for
press freedom. But he cannot intimidate anyone. I cordially urge the Opposition Leader to look into the matters of his own party and work for the betterment of the party.
Instead of doing that, he is advising the EGOSL. I think the EGOSL does not need any instruction from him. We work independently and appear for the freedom of media and media personnel.
We formed the EGOSL in 1994, when Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga sued the editors under the Criminal Defamation law. I must gratefully admit that Wickremesinghe is the one who repelled that law during his tenure as the Prime Minister. He took measures to present a right to Information bill too. But it did not materialize because Parliament was dissolved. I appreciate his past efforts even though they are in sharp contrast with the remarks and statements he makes today.