Inspector General of Police,
13th February 2008
A note alerting you to harassment faced by journalists in Sri Lanka by Civil Defense Committees and members of the Police
The Free Media Movement (FMM) would like to bring your attention significant problems faced by journalists and media workers in Sri Lanka in carrying out their duties. We firmly recognize the need to take into account the prevailing security situation in the country in your deliberations on the protection of all civilians from violence and harm. At the same time, we stress that security measures thus taken must not impinge on and severely undermine fundamental constitutional rights including the freedom of expression, the freedom of movement and other rights that have a bearing on media freedom.
We wish to bring to your attention several cases in this regard. On 12th February 2008, Gemunu Amarasinghe, a well known photo-journalist working for Associated Press (AP) was arrested by civil defense committee members while he was covering students entering Isipathana College, Colombo. He was doing a photo story on the reopening of schools after being closed for a week. He was handed over to the police by members of the Civil Defense Committee and taken to the Narahenpita police station. He was released nearly two hours later after interventions by media institutions and organizations. His arrest and detention meant that he could not carry out his duty as a journalist.
On 23rd January 2008, freelance TV journalist Aravinda Sri Nissanka was arrested by Civil Defense Committee members in Ratmalana, South of Colombo, who threatened to assault him before handing him over to the Mount Lavinia police station. He was covering pedestrians crossing the road without any consideration of colour lights. Police officers verbally abused Aravinda, saying journalists were the cause for all troubles in Sri Lanka and detained him for more than two hours without any reason.
In both these cases the journalists had due media accreditation that those who detained them did not accept as professional IDs. It is very clear that Civil Defense Committees organized by the police do not have any understanding of the rights of media workers or knowledge of media accreditation cards and show a disturbing tendency to resort to verbal abuse and mob violence. What is even more disturbing is the fact that the even the Police do not accept, or even seem to know the existence of journalist accreditation IDs.
We firmly assert that journalists and media workers have a right to gather and disseminate information in the public interest. Any means that directly or inadvertently curtails the rights journalists is tantamount to censorship. We believe the duty of the Police is to protect these rights that are the foundation of democracy. Sadly, in the both cases noted above, the actions of the Police were inimical to their role as defenders of rule of law, giving in as they did to the arbitrary actions of essentially over enthusiastic vigilantes.
More cases brought to the attention of the FMM over the course of this year alone prove this point further. On 12th February in Galle, the police kept 8 journalists in custody for two hours merely because they were covering an unruly incident in a Southern Provincial Council meeting. On the same day policemen posted at the entrance of the Government Secretariat in Batticaloa stopped two Muslim journalists – M. S. M. Noordeen and S. M. M. Mustafa – from entering the Secretariat premises. The policemen went on to verbally abuse the journalists.
We urge you to recall and adhere to the final verdict of the court in a case lodged by the journalist William Fernando of Mannar in January 2008, in which the court warned police to not harass journalists and delete photographs taken by them without due legal process. According to verdict only a court of law has the jurisdiction to confiscate or destroy photographs taken by journalists and media workers.
We urgently and firmly request you to,
- Advise all police personnel on the rights and duties of media workers and journalists
- Alert them to the fact that media accreditation cards exist and are valid IDs for all media workers and journalists
- Be sensitive to the threats against media workers and journalists in Sri Lanka at a time of unprecedented censorship and violence directed against them
- Advise members of all Civil Defense Committees that they should not impede and debar lawful activities of media workers and journalists
We strongly believe that official communication from your office on these matters will create an enabling environment for journalists to carry out their duties in gathering and dissemination information to report in the public interest, including capturing photographs, videos and audio.
We thank you in advance for you urgent attention to the important matters noted in this letter.