Sunday, December 13, 2009

Attacks on media: The story unfolds

Sunday Times Political Editor - Despite reports that the US would seek "a more positive relationship" with Sri Lanka based on a bi-partisan accord reached by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Blake was on track. He raised almost all issues of concern to the Obama administration and later fielded questions from the media at a news conference on Thursday.

A significant aspect was references to the media though most outlets did not focus upon the fact. Blake declared in a prepared text, "An important element of reconciliation is safeguarding and protecting the rights of all Sri Lankans. In practice, this means that journalists should be able to write their perspectives and report on events freely, without fear of reprisal; that individuals should be able to voice their differences openly; and that people who have violated the rights of others should be held accountable for their actions."

The statement, the official viewpoint of the Government of the United States, assumes greater significance in the light of the buck-passing that is now going on. Gen. (retd.) Sarath Fonseka continues to insist he had nothing to do with murder, assaults, intimidation, harassment or the white-van abductions of journalists, democracy activists and others. More pointedly, he told the National Association of Lawyers on November 27 that he had nothing to do in the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunge, Editor of The Sunday Leader. He stood near United National Front leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, as he garlanded a portrait of the slain editor cum lawyer. Now the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which has taken over investigations, is to question Gen. Fonseka on the murder of Wickramatunge.

A response to those remarks by Gen. Fonseka came from Defence Secretary, Lt. Col. (retd.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, his arch foe now. He told our sister paper the Irida Lankadeepa (November 29) during a lengthy interview, "he (retired Gen. Fonseka) is now saying something else. He is belatedly talking of media freedom."

Asked why he remained silent when attacks on the media were carried out, Lt. Col. (retd.) Rajapaksa is quoted as saying, "We did not keep quiet knowing it. We do not say it even up to now. We are saying it now because he (Gen. Fonseka) is talking about media freedom. In my web site (reference is to the website of the Ministry of Defence run by the Defence Secretary) we have not reported these.

"We are saying it because (Gen. retd.) Fonseka is saying it. Particularly at that time, I accepted the accusations made by the media. I kept silent all throughout. I wanted to save the armed forces chiefs. The reason is because we did not think of personal matters since we had a common goal. My silence over the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunge and other issues thus led the blame being placed on me. My aim was to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)."

Lt. Col. (retd.) Rajapaksa's remarks to the Irida Lankadeepa were repeated in other interviews he gave both the print and electronic media thereafter. They were to draw the attention of the Colombo-based diplomatic community, particularly those representing western nations. If the issue was lost on media rights groups both in Sri Lanka and abroad, some of the western nations that release reports on human rights violations were to take note of the Defence Secretary's remarks. That was the fact that he was aware of what was going on but did not act in order to protect armed forces commanders.

For the United States, it appears to have answered questions raised with regard to the media in the State Department annual report on Human Rights. Similarly, for the European Union, though not intended, it provided the answers to the issue of attacks on the media. The EU too had raised the issue in two consecutive reports. These reports were a prelude to the EU Council of Ministers taking a formal decision later this month on whether or not the GSP Plus concessionary tariffs to a basket of Sri Lankan exports should be continued.

If the Government did not respond to the first report, a team of Ministers formulated a response to the second one. To say the least, Lt. Col. (retd.) Rajapaksa's latest assertions were at variance with the official positions taken by the Government. There is little doubt that the EU Council of Ministers will take note of these new developments. An EU diplomat who did not wish to be named told the Sunday Times "it is now certain there will be no extension of the GSP Plus after June next year. Not until the tough conditions the EU will place are paid heed to by the Government."

Here was a situation where Gen. Fonseka is saying he was not involved in any acts of violence against the media. On the other hand, here was the Defence Secretary strongly denying any involvement but significant enough, admitting he was aware they had occurred but yet acknowledging he had chosen to remain silent. That was to "save the armed forces chiefs" and to achieve the "common goal" of defeating the Tiger guerrillas. That silence was whilst the official web site of the Ministry of Defence brazenly named several journalists and branded them as "traitors".

Mangala Samaraweera, MP and one of two spokespersons for Gen. Fonseka's polls campaign charged that the Defence Secretary had withheld information and asked why the CID had not recorded a statement from him. He said he had violated the Penal Code by disclosing in interviews that he was aware of attacks on journalists but remained silent. He was speaking at a UNF news conference on Thursday. Samaraweera said that the Defence Secretary was a senior Government official and therefore could not engage in politics nor give lengthy political interviews to the print and electronic media on behalf of his brother. He claimed this went against the ruling of the Commissioner of Elections that no Government officials engage in political activity.

"We will come with answers to those issues (attacks on the media) at the right time," said a UPFA campaign official. He said some television programmes and booklets to answer the issues raised were now under preparation. "They will be aired and distributed respectively after our polls campaign begins in Anuradhapura on December 18. They cannot get away by placing the blame on Gotabhaya," the official added.

Amidst this controversy, state-run television networks have provided wide coverage to allegations that a member of Gen. Fonseka's family profited by military deals with the Government, a charge that is dismissed by the former Chief of Defence Staff as "baseless and malicious".

Even before the official polls campaign is set to begin after nominations on Thursday, both the UPFA leadership as well as the main Opposition parties have begun to woo the media. Last Tuesday, for the fourth time, President Rajapaksa invited a thousand media workers, journalists, library staff, printing personnel among others, to dinner at 'Temple Trees'. Rajapaksa had only walked to a few tables to smile and say "hello" to his guests when some confusion broke out. Beer was served and some left the tables to help themselves to the brew preventing him from his regular public relations routine,

Those media events have also become the subject of debate. Gen. Fonseka was asked, at his first news conference to announce his candidature, on November 15, his policy towards consumption of liquor. He said he did not object to the consumption but added that he would crack down on drug abuse. Sections of the pro-Rajapaksa Buddhist clergy tried to make an issue of these remarks.

They argued that whilst the UPFA Government spoke of Mathata Thiththa (full stop to alcohol and drugs), Gen. (retd.) Fonseka was talking about consumption of alcohol. Loyalists of the 'common candidate' were quick to point out that alcohol was freely served during Rajapaksa's media events. If it was only beer for the thousand that gathered on Tuesday night, there was premium whisky, brandy and other liquor at the previous event for the media at the Colombo Hilton, they pointed out.

It is now Gen. Fonseka's turn now to wine and dine the media. His campaign staff was busy yesterday making arrangements for a major event tomorrow evening. The Sunday Times has learnt that tomorrow's event at the Taj Samudra will assume greater significance for another reason. Besides the entertainment aspect, the Opposition's 'common candidate' for the Presidency is to spell out his media policy and make commitments to practitioners should he be voted to power.

According to one source, "he will go beyond assurances of media freedom" but declined to elaborate saying matters were still not finalised. "I can only tell you he has some interesting surprises," the source added. Though he will not put forward a manifesto, as reported earlier, a common minimum programme of sorts will incorporate the policies towards media which Gen. Fonseka is expected to announce tomorrow.

(This is an edited version of the Sunday Times political column. To read the full article, click here)

© The Sunday Times

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