Challenges in Addressing Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists in Sri Lanka
Photo courtesy of UCA News
Today is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists
In a report on Sri Lanka presented to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2023, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had stated, “lack of accountability at all levels remains the fundamental main human rights problem”. This is also relevant to serious crimes against journalists and although this report lacks specific focus on media freedom, there is reference to emblematic cases, which in past reports by the High Commissioner for Human Rights included killings and disappearances of journalists and impunity for them.
Many journalists have been killed and subjected to enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, with the Jayewardene-Premadasa led UNP governments of 1977 to 1994 and Rajapaksa led UPFA government of 2006 to 2014 being the worst. Many journalists have also been arrested, detained, assaulted, threatened, intimidated and harassed under different governments. Media institutions have been subjected to arson and legal actions. The English weekend paper Sunday Leader and the Uthayan, the most popular Tamil newspaper in the war ravaged North, both strong government critics, were the worst affected media institutions. Last year, journalists covering massive people’s protests faced reprisals. An investigation was ordered into MTV networks, a popular private television channel, in an effort to blame the channel’s live broadcast of a major protest outside the then president’s house for violence that occurred. A group of journalists from the same private channel were beaten by the STF on July 9 when they were covering a major protest outside the then Prime Minister’s residence.
As far as I know, not a single person has been convicted for serious crimes against journalists such as killings and enforced disappearances. Only two cases have reached the prosecution stage. In one of them, the media reported that the Attorney General had instructed the courts not to continue the case against the suspects in 2021. The only case that is continuing is the January 2010 disappearance of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda with several army personnel being arrested and indictments being filed against the nine accused at the tail end of the Maithripala Sirisena presidency. The return to power of the Rajapaksa family in November 2019 presented new obstacles with the Rajapaksa government pledging not to prosecute “war heroes”.
5,000 days of campaign
The progress in Ekneligoda case is largely due to determined campaign of more than 5,000 days by his wife, Sandya Ekneligoda, through multiple interventions such as in courts, in streets, through media and through international interventions. She had been in courts hundreds of times. When Mr. Mohan Peiris, the head of the government’s delegation to the UN Committee Against Torture, claimed that Prageeth was living abroad, Sandya wrote to the committee to make further inquiries and in Sri Lanka persisted in getting Mr. Peiris to testify in court. She had to brave death threats to her and children, intimidation and discrediting to pursue truth and justice. Hostile posters appeared in public places against her and there have been online vilifications. In 2012 she was subjected to harsh questioning in courts by a Deputy Solicitor General at the Attorney General’s Department, implying her search for truth and justice for her husband was bringing the country into disrepute. In courts and in streets, she had to face hostility of suspects and accused from Army intelligence and their supporters. When she was threatened inside a court premises by Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, she complained to the police and later resisted attempts to settle the case through mediation. The magistrate at that time also complained about the monk’s behaviour in courts on that day and the monk was convicted and imprisoned for both cases. The former president pardoned the monk but Sandya has challenged that pardon in courts.
In another rare case, in September 2023, Gnanasara Thero, five other monks, and a lay person pleaded guilty for disrupting a press conference organized by Watareka Vijitha Thero, a Buddhist monk advocating for inter religious harmony and rights of ethnic and religious minorities. But the accused only had to pay compensation of Rs.300,000 to the victim, who had toiled for more than nine years seeking justice, often travelling from his remote temple in Rotalawela to Colombo Fort Magistrate Court, a journey of about seven hours or more involving several buses.
Despite ample evidence, there are early signs of impunity in the case of about 50 Sinhalese men, some of them armed with knives and swords and led by a Buddhist monk, surrounding and vehicles detaining three Tamil journalists for about five hours in presence of local government officials in August 2023 in eastern Sri Lanka. The journalists were reporting on alleged state backed encroachments on Tamil cattle farmers’ land in the Mylathamadu area. A group of religious clergy and social activists the journalists were travelling with were also detained. One journalist who was wearing a press jacket was forced to delete photos and videos of farmers’ testimonies and the mob setting fire to the land. He was also forced to sign two letters in Sinhala and Tamil stating that he would not report on the incident. The other two had initially hid their journalist identity from the mob but informed the police who arrived only about five hours later that they were journalists, at which point the mob had demanded the police to get the journalists to delete photos and videos.
Licensing impunity by offering high positions to police and military predators
In July 2021, Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (SDIG) Deshabandu Tennakoon made death threats against prominent investigative journalist Tharindu Jayawardena through Facebook comments after a report about him was published by Tharindu. Despite a formal complaint to the Inspector General of Police, only a statement from Mr. Tennakoon was recorded by the police and that too, after more a year. Afterwards, Tharindu has been informed by the police that the Attorney General had advised thatthere was no basis to continue a case against Mr. Tennakoon and it appears that he will never be held accountable despite clear evidence. Despite this and many other allegations against him including in relation to Easter Sunday attacks of 2019, he continues to serve as a SDIG and in recent days there were disturbing reports that he may be appointed Inspector General of Police.
Nearly seven years ago, on December 10, 2016, International Human Rights Day, Sri Lanka’s then Navy Commander Vice Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, in civilian attire, assaulted and verbally abused a journalist who had been reporting on a protest at Hambantota Port. Instead of being held accountable, he was promoted as Defense Chief of Staff. While in this senior most position in the defense establishment, he was arrested and remanded on November 28, 2018 after being accused of protecting the main suspect who allegedly abducted and murdered 11 young men in 2009. Mr. Wijegunaratne’s security men assaulted a journalist and pushed other journalists aside as he was leaving court that day. Neither Mr. Wijegunaratne or his men have been held accountable. Instead, in October 2023, the Committee of High Posts of the Parliament had approved Mr. Wijegunaratne to be new Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Pakistan.
Challenges to challenging impunity
Impunity has contributed towards continuing crimes against journalists and empowering predators. Journalists in Sri Lanka had to subject themselves to self-censorship, go into hiding and flee into exile; more are likely to follow even as predators are being rewarded. Systemic weaknesses in Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system has made pursuing accountability a time consuming, costly and emotionally draining exercise for anyone, including journalists. Challenging impunity is also dangerous and many fear challenging impunity.
Political will is a major factor for impunity. Present president Ranil Wickremesinghe used Ekneligoda disappearance to highlight state of media freedom and impunity as an opposition politician and called for information about the progress on investigations when he was prime minister from 2015 to 2019. He had called Sandya Ekneligoda the day after Prageeth’s disappearance and promised to help her find truth and justice. But under his presidency there are signs the prosecution’s commitment to ensure justice in Ekneligoda case is weakening with prolonged delays in two key court cases.
The likes of Sandya Ekneligoda, Ahimsa Wickrematunge the daughter of slain journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge and many courageous, committed journalists and their families continue to demand accountability. We can take inspiration from the occasional and rare gains they have achieved and such efforts must be appreciated, encouraged and supported. Support from national and international media freedom and human rights groups have been important in these endeavours. But there is lack of long term, comprehensive and holistic and flexible support for such efforts. Multi-pronged approaches involving street protests, cultural activities, legal actions and international interventions are important. Pushing for accountability on individual cases must run parallel to more structural reform of the criminal justice system and political will if we are to achieve accountability. The UN High Commissioner’s assertion that “Sri Lanka suffers from an extraordinary accountability deficit that unless addressed will drag the country further behind” is very much true for journalists, media freedom and freedom of expression and opinion.