Friday, December 18, 2009

IFJ Mission Identifies Key Challenges for Sri Lanka's Media after War's End

Read the IFJ Sri Lanka Mission Report - 2009 December

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) today released the report of a press freedom mission to Sri Lanka, identifying key challenges for the country's journalists and media at the end of 25 years of internal conflict and the inauguration of a new phase of political contests.

Media stakeholders who met with the mission during its visit to Sri Lanka in November identified the current political circumstances as embodying numerous threats and opportunities.

The entry of a former army commander into the race for the Presidency next year has thrown the contest open and provided an opportunity for local media to create more space for itself. At the same time, the heightened intensity of the political contest may also engender threats.

Certain new flashpoints have emerged in the always fraught relationship between the media and political power-holders. Any form of reckoning with the tactical decisions made during the final stages of the war earlier this year and the humanitarian consequences is actively discouraged. Despite this element of coercion on the media, this issue has been coming up in the campaign debates between rival candidates for the presidency.

The opposition's common candidate for the presidency, General Sarath Fonseka, has made special mention about the abuses suffered by the media during the years of war, especially in its final stages. If elected, he has committed himself to addressing these abuses in a spirit of candour and reconciliation. The media community is encouraged by these commitments, though certain among them recall his own far from spotless record, especially when it involved media criticism of his war-time role as Sri Lanka's army commander.

The actual record of addressing past abuses has been dismal, with little progress recorded in the investigation of the most conspicuous cases, including the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunge in January 2009.

The report documents the current stage of the investigations into this and other cases. It inquires into the conviction of J.S. Tissainayagam on terrorism charges and examines the credibility of the prosecution case, especially in view of the unconditional discharge of two of his co-accused.

In a climate of intolerance, several journalists are being induced to give up efforts to obtain redress for violations of their rights. The mission observed that journalists are being required to withdraw applications under the fundamental rights provisions of the Constitution merely to be set at liberty after prolonged periods in wrongful detention. In the judgment of the mission, this is a grossly unequal exchange.

Recent moves by the Government to revive a coercive form of media regulation, embodied in a 1973 legislation, have been opposed by journalists and publishers, who have renewed their commitment to a code of self-regulation.

The mission report concludes with recommendations that would set the relationship between the media and the Sri Lankan state on a different course. These include the return of all exiled Sri Lankan journalists, the unfettering of state media institutions so that they are able freely and fairly to report on the ongoing election campaign, the conversion of these institutions into a public service trust, the enactment of right to information legislation, and the addressing of all past abuses in a spirit of truth and reconciliation.

The mission report will soon be released in Sinhala and Tamil.

Apart from the IFJ, the mission team included representatives of the International Press Institute, Vienna (IPI) and International Media Support, Copenhagen (IMS).

© International Federation of Journalists

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Friday, December 18, 2009

EU to suspend trade concessions to Sri Lanka

The European Commission has decided to suspend Sri Lanka's preferential trade status following a probe criticising the island's human rights record, an official said Thursday.

Bernard Savage, the head of the European Union delegation to Colombo said the decision would be formally ratified within the next two months, with the suspension coming into effect six months later.

"The European Union will continue its dialogue with Sri Lanka during this period to try and iron out issues, so that the tariff concessions can be restored," Savage said.

The suspension follows a year-long European Commission probe that concluded that the Sri Lankan government was in breach of commitments on human rights and good governance that come with the preferential trade status.

The EU probe identified shortcomings in respect of three UN human rights conventions -- the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Sri Lanka, which ended a decades-old internal conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels in May, is one of 16 countries benefiting from an EU deal giving its exporters easier access to the EU market.

Sri Lanka gains about 150 million dollars annually due to preferential tariffs, according to trade estimates. The island's clothing industry is the main beneficiary, using the tax breaks to sell to high street retailers in Europe.

During the final months of the war with the Tigers, the United States and the EU voiced alarm at Sri Lanka's treatment of non-combatants, along with its internment afterwards of up to 280,000 people, mostly minority Tamils, under military surveillance.


Related Links:
Trade concessions to Sri Lanka at risk - BBC Sinhala
EC proposal to suspend GSP to Lanka is biased: SL Minister - Daily Mirror

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Sri Lanka: Embattled general

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY - Sri Lanka will vote in a snap presidential poll and the main players will be President Rajapaksa and Gen. Fonseka.

General elections to the Sri Lankan Parliament are due by April 2010. Call it the fate of the country or the irony of its politics, the year 2009, which began with a bang – with the fall of the administrative headquarters of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – has ended on a bizarre note. President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced a snap presidential election to seek re-election two years ahead of schedule. But no one imagined until a few weeks ago that a prematurely retired Army chief, General Sarath Fonseka, would enter the race, six months after the forces led by him defeated the LTTE. The Army chief, who led from the front in Eelam War IV, and the supreme commander of the armed forces, who provided the leadership from Colombo, are to be the main actors in the election, scheduled for January 26. The mainstream opposition parties are playing the role of sidekicks of the military strategist-turned-politician.

What adds to the melodrama is the dilemma faced by the parties representing the minorities. The script, to say the least, is not only misleading; it is sanctimonious humbug with the focus on constitutional and electoral reforms, nepotism, corruption in high places and a solution, acceptable to all stakeholders, to the three-decade-old ethnic conflict.

The simple truth is that the decision of the general to contest and that of the opposition to put him up as the least unacceptable common candidate have nothing to do with any of the issues tossed around in the non-existent presidential script. It became evident on the afternoon of December 7, when S.B. Dissanayake, the national organiser for the United National Party (UNP) and the opposition leader of the Central Provincial Council, said at a hurriedly convened news conference in Colombo that the entry of the Army chief into politics was “dangerous” not only for the UNP but also for the country. He must have jolted the general also with his announcement to break ranks and return to his parent party, the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and lend all help to Rajapaksa.

The action of the opposition parties is rank opportunism. The November 30 editorial in The Hindu noted:

“The more serious question is what kind of political and ideological message the United National Party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Mahajana wing) are sending to the people, the Sinhalese, the Tamils, and the other ethnic groups.

“Is this an invitation to yet another South Asian variant of Bonapartism? This is the first time in the 61-year-old history of independent Sri Lanka that a mainstream effort is being made to politicise the military, which has unswervingly stuck to its job unlike some of its counterparts in the region. The island nation stands at a crossroads of history following the comprehensive military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

“There is a new opportunity to redefine and settle the terms of unstable relationship between the 75 per cent Sinhalese majority and the Tamil and Muslim minorities on the basis of genuine devolution, equality, and justice…. Opposition parties have a lawful right to go for their best shot at the top political job, especially when the odds seem stacked against them. Moreover, the combined Sri Lankan opposition can be given some credit for placing on the agenda the issue of the long-promised abolition, or at least whittling down of the powers, of the executive presidency.

“To be fair, Army chief Fonseka commanded the respect of his men and had a reputation for professionalism – as long as he stayed a soldier. The problem was that, from time to time, he crossed the lines and betrayed quirkiness, triumphalism, chauvinism, and hints of political ambition. At the height of the Eelam War IV (August 2006 to May 2009), he went on record with assertions like ‘I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese’ and that the minority communities ‘can live in this country with us but they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things’.”

Three days after the military defeat of the Tigers in May, Fonseka was ardently pleading for a 50 per cent increase in the Army’s numerical strength on the grounds that it was the only way to ensure that forces like the Tigers did not rear their heads again in Sri Lanka. In his latest interview to Outlook, an Indian weekly English-language magazine (issue dated December 5), the general revealed that he was disgusted with the remarks of Rajapaksa five or six days after the demise of Velupillai Prabakaran that as President he could not let the Sri Lanka Army turn the island nation into a Myanmar. No questions have been asked nor any answers provided as to why the conscientious general chose to stay on from May 23 to October 13, the day he wrote his resignation letter, if he had indeed come to a conclusion that it was not safe to let Sri Lanka be governed by a “tinpot dictator” called Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The antics of the retired general were not confined to Sri Lanka. Wittingly or unwittingly, he caused serious embarrassment to the government he served by characterising sections of Tamil Nadu’s political leaders as a “bunch of jokers”. His new-found allies and friends are being treated on a par. At his maiden news conference on November 29 in his new avatar as a politician and a presidential hopeful, Fonseka, much to the chagrin of his political supporters, talked about the need to “relook in the present context” at the 13th Amendment to the Constitution pertaining to devolution of powers to the provinces.

In response to a question on the 13th Constitutional Amendment, which came in after the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, he said that since it was the by-product of certain circumstances, the amendment and issues relating to it needed to be reviewed in the present context.

Fonseka seems to have deliberately kept his answer vague on the contentious subject as the two main opposition parties propping him up have diametrically opposite views on the subject. The UNP led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, wants what is known as the 13th Amendment plus, that is, meaningful implementation of the provisions of the amendment with further improvement in the powers to the provinces. However, the JVP is totally opposed to the amendment and wants it be scrapped on the grounds that it has been imposed by India.

The mockery does not end there. Fonseka-in-uniform was waging a parallel war with his current political sponsors, some of whom dubbed him a racist and went so far as to accuse him of manipulating the data on Tiger cadre killed in the fighting to bolster the sagging morale of the Army. The general, however, does not want to be reminded of the past. He wants to move on to the future.

The travails of the general are not only from the ranks of the opposition. Despite the backing of most of the main opposition parties, his campaign has been a lacklustre one.

The lack of coordination among the supporting parties is too glaring to be missed. Nine days after he jumped into the presidential fray, Fonseka was still to announce the name of the party under which he would file his nomination.

Fonseka is regarded as an excellent field commander, but politics is a battlefield of a different kind. Whether he can overcome the obstacles before him and occupy the most powerful executive post in the country, which he promises to abolish and pave the way for a democratic model akin to India’s, is a difficult question.

© Fronline - India

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Lanka: North-East Tamils may tilt polls balance

P.K.Balachandran | ENS - The indigenous Sri Lankan Tamils living in the Northern and Eastern provinces may tilt the balance in the January 26 Sri Lankan Presidential election which is expected to be a close contest between Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent President, and Gen.Sarath Fonseka, the joint opposition candidate.

In the last Presidential election held at the end of 2005, Rajapaksa won by a very narrow margin, getting 4,887,152 votes as against 4,706,366 secured by his rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP).

The margin was narrow despite the fact that Wickremesinghe’s popularity was thought to be at its lowest at that time.He had been dubbed as a pro-LTTE and pro-West politician who would divide Sri Lanka as he allegedly tried to do as Prime Minister during the 2002-2004 Norwegian-brokered and West-backed peace process. Rajapaksa, on the other hand, was portrayed as a quintessential Sinhalese nationalist.

Rajapaksa would have lost if the LTTE had not unofficially enforced a partial but significant boycott in the Tamil-dominated areas of the North and East. Only 1.2 percent of the 700,000 voters in Jaffna district, the Tamil political heartland, voted. In the more ethnically mixed electoral district of Wanni, polling was better, but still poor, at 34.3 percent. In Batticaloa, nearly 50 percent stayed away. Voting was good only in areas in which Tamils were a minority, as in Trincomalee (63.8 percent) and in Amparai (72.2 percent).

Had the Tamils voted normally, Wickremesinghe would have won. Tamils were considered his pocket borough because of his 2002 peace initiative and accomodation with the LTTE.


This time round, the opposition is in a better position. Firstly, unlike Wickremesinghe, Gen.Fonseka is an acknowledged Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist, and is also a military hero who defeated the LTTE.Secondly, unlike Wickremesinghe in the 2005 election, Fonseka is expected to be on the offensive pointing an accusing finger at Rajapaksa for corruption, nepotism, and inability to deliver to the Sinhalese masses the much expected peace dividend. Thirdly, the LTTE is not there to prevent the North-East Tamils from voting. Fourthly, the largest Tamil party,Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is not contesting to take away the Tamil votes. Fifthly, Tamil notice that Fonseka is backed by their favourite, Wickremesinghe.

The Tamils do have a grievance against Fonseka for vanquishing the LTTE, killing most of its top leaders, and leaving the Tamils leaderless and shorn of pride. But they blame Rajapaksa more for their plight because it was his iron political will which kept the international community at bay and enabled the army to decimate the LTTE.


However, Fonseka has significant political problems.Rajapaksa is accusing him of being in the company of “anti-nationals” like the UNP which had pooh poohed the war effort, describing it as unwinnable. Rajapaksa, on the other hand, has an unsullied record of being a fearless and uncompromising nationalist.

Rajapaksa is saying that Fonseka will not be able to implement his radical promises to the Tamils because the ultra-Sinhalese nationalist JVP is in his camp.


Since 2006, the opposition had consistently lost rank and file supporters, MPs and parties to the Rajapaksa camp.. Both the UNP and the JVP are badly split, with the dissidents being with Rajapaksa. The Indian Tamil party, Ceylon Workers’ Congress, is still with Rajapaksa, as are the majority of Muslim leaders who crossed over Most of the known Sinhalese nationalists are also with Rajapaksa.

The Rajapaksa camp is spreading fears of a military coup after Gen.Fonseka wins the elections. It is argued that, for Fonseka, a coup would be the easiest way to put an end to contradictions that would certainly arise between him and the motley crowd of political parties propping him up now.

It is too early to say with certainty as to how these various factors will play, and affect voting. But what can be forecast is a close contest in which the north eastern Tamils will decide who the winner is.


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Friday, December 18, 2009

Sri Lanka presidential rivals hand in nominations

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and his main rival in elections next month, former army general Sarath Fonseka, handed in their poll nomination papers on Thursday.

Rajapakse and Fonseka, both dressed in white national dress, were among 22 candidates whose papers were accepted by the national Election Commission.

Rajapakse has called the January 26 poll two years early to take advantage of his popularity following the defeat earlier this years of Tamil Tiger rebels that ended a decades-old ethnic conflict.

Fonseka, who as army chief led the successful final offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), hopes the victory will also work in his favour at the polls.

Fonseka quit the military in November, accusing the government of sidelining him and of falsely claiming he was trying to stage a coup.

The two men briefly put aside their animosity Thursday to shake hands, exchange pleasantries and smile for the cameras before going their separate ways to talk to party supporters.

Election Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake said independent monitors from Commonwealth and Asian countries had agreed to monitor the January 26 poll.


Related Links:
Record 22 candidates to contest Sri Lanka polls - Reuters
Nominations close for Sri Lanka's presidential poll - Malaysia News.Net

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