United in Fear: Travails of Detainee families

(Published in TheSunday Times on last sunday written by wife of Tissainayagam, the journalist in TID custody)

 March 30th, 2008

 By Ronnate Tissainayagam

 It was very early on a Saturday morning, we were all gathering in  front of the Fort Railway Station. No we were not planning to go on a  trip, We were the wives/sisters of the four journalists taken into  detention on March 7th. Saturday is visitor’s day to the Terrorist  Investigation Department (TID). Family members of the detainees have  to gather at the Fort Railway Station between 9 a.m and 12 noon. There  they are checked, bundled into a police van and taken to the TID.

So the five of us together huddled together at the station – half  ashamed and hoping no body would notice us. We reminisced the many  times our husbands/brothers had come to this very station to ‘cover’  various protest rallies but how there were none for them. A man  approached us asking if this was the line for those waiting to board  the train to Anuradhapura we waved him on embarrassed in case he found  out where we were really going.

Suddenly the police jeep appeared and all of the families of the  detainees got up from their own little groups and surged toward it.  There were plainclothesmen shouting at us to get into lines – men on  one side and women on the other. There were very few men going to  visit people at the TID and most of them had come to accompany the  wives, sisters and mothers of detainees.

As this was the first time  that I was doing this I just followed the rest of the families as they  seemed to know the system. The checking began through the hustle and bustle with babies crying and plainclothes men yelling at the families  to keep to their lines. Loud wails from the checking room emanated as  carefully prepared food parcels that the families were bringing the  detainees were man handled and made unfit for consumption.

Finally we were bundled into a large blue police jeep, which one had  to climb into. It was too high for everyone and all the elderly ladies  had to crawl in on all fours or be carried in by the other members of  the family. We were packed liked sardines. For if we got late that was  so much less time to see our loved ones, so we were all eager to go as  soon as possible. One elderly gentleman had a problem with his knee  and therefore he could not bend it but had to keep it stretched out. 

The plainclothesman yelled at the gentleman to put his leg inside the  vehicle. The gentleman being a monolingual Tamil speaker was  bewildered at this barrage of Sinhala. Those of us who knew Sinhala  tried to explain to the plainclothesman the plight of this man. The  plainclothesman then yelled at some people who were already in the van to get down and after they got out, he pushed the elderly gentleman’s  leg inside the jeep and slammed the door shut. The elderly gentleman  was in pain all the way to the TID on Chaitya Road.

As we were dropped outside the TID office on the roadside the plainclothesmen shouted at us to get into the nearby bus that was  parked on the side of the road there, so we could be transported to  see our loved ones. Those of us ‘newbies’ who were able to do the jump  from the back of the jeep by ourselves, scrambled to get the front  seats of this bus. As we neared it, the plainclothesman laughed out  loud the bus had all of its tires deflated. This was his little joke  to rag the newbies who did not know the system!

Another TID officer came up to the broken bus and he asked us for the  names of the detainees that we had come to see. Then came the long  slow wait in the relentless sun. At first we (journalists’ wives) did  not speak with the relatives of the other detainees. Then as the hours wore on we went from timid smiles to exchanging information.

One lady had been a bride of one week before her husband was detained.  Now he had been detained for 3 months and no reason had been given to  him or to her as to why he was in custody. Another had a babe of three weeks in her arms, her husband had also been held for three months without reason being given for detention.

This was the first time that her husband would be seeing this child.  One other lady had to come from Kurunegala every week just to see her  husband. He had been held for six months and not yet been charged.

As we stood exchanging stories in the blistering sun it became clear  that while all of our races, backgrounds and cases were different what  bound us together was fear. Fear of what might be happening to our  husbands inside the TID, fear that neighbor’s might find out our husband’s were in detention and hound us from our homes, and fear that  any of our actions could be misconstrued by the police and TID  officers there and that could lead to the further detention of our  husbands.

All of us, regardless of ethnicity or case had been warned by the TID  officers not to take this matter to court or involve any lawyers. If  we did involve lawyers then our husbands could be held indefinitely we  were told. I, in my desperation to ensure my husband’s freedom was  also thinking that I should not stand up for my husband’s rights. But  then in the blazing sun I realized that for 20 years my husband had worked for the rights of the people of Sri Lanka and that in his own  case he would not want me to stay quiet about his own rights.

In the early 1990’s my husband worked for the Organization of the  Parents and Families of the Disappeared-an organization that worked in the South helping Sinhala families get justice for their children who  had disappeared. My husband was one of those who compiled the  documents that contained the names of the disappeared that then MP  Mahinda Rajapakse took to Geneva in 1992. Today he is being accused of  being a terrorist for seeking justice for those who had disappeared in  the North and East. Here was a man who truly believed in the Rights of  all people in Sri Lanka, who worked unstintingly for peace with  ministers of this government and of members of all parties at the One  Text Initative. He is now being incarcerated for speaking up for the  people of his country.

When I looked at the tired, scared faces around me, I asked myself  whether I should be ashamed of my husband or of my country?

[Ronnate is the wife of journalist JS Tissainayagam who is being held  in detention from March 7th. A fundamental rights petition filed on  his behalf has been given leave to proceed by the Supreme Court. It is  to be taken up on March 31st. Meanwhile the Terrorist investigation  dept has sought a court order seeking to seal up the Tissainayagam  residence. It is also learnt that a detention order for three months  was issued on March 27th against Tissainayagam]=

Advertisements

On harassments faced by Film Director Thushara Peiris in Chennai, India

Hon. Alok Prasad

His Excellency the High Commissioner

Indian High Commission

Colombo 2, Sri Lanka.

30 March 2008

Dear Sir,

On harassments faced by Film Director Thushara Peiris in Chennai, India

It has been reported that film director Thusara Peiris was harassed and assaulted by a group calling themselves as “Tamil Nadu Film Directors Association” when he visited Gemini Studios in K.K. Nagar in Tamil Nadu to work on a Tamil Language copy of his film titled Prabhakaran.

We wish to register our disquiet about this incident.

Our concern here is with the principle, not the content of the film per se. We believe that right to hold and express opinions are fundamental rights accepted by both our countries and enshrined in our respective constitutions. Making films or any other cultural production related to a social, an economic or political theme is to exercise this inviolable right. It is in this context that we believe the recent attack against Thushara Peiris is a violation of that right.

Condemning the assault, we would like to express our gratitude to officials who rescued Thushara Peiris from the violent mob and facilitated his safe passage back to Sri Lanka.

Our organizations have been informed that the master tape of the film is still at the Gemini Studios and we urgently request the intervention of your good offices to return these master tapes.

Emphasizing the need for enhanced cooperation between our respective Government’s and peoples on supporting and strengthening media freedom and the freedom of expression we look forward to stronger relations in the future as we work towards shared goals of democratic governance.

Sincerely,

Sunanda Deshapriya & Sanath Balasuriya

CC: Media
Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA)

Federation of Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU)

Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF)

Sri Lanka Tamil Journalists Alliance (SLTJA)

Free Media Movement (FMM)

The state media and freedom of expression

ST Online

Sunday March 30, 2008

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardena

If EEC Abeysekera, that quietly unflagging champion of the broadbasing of Lake House was alive today, he would surely have rejoiced at the (somewhat peculiar) fact of the Lake House Employees’ Union (LHEU) invoking the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court this week asking for the implementation of the ‘Lake House Provisions Act.’ Rather quaintly, the petition (as reported in the website, ‘Lanka Dissent’) is aimed at ‘stopping politicians from intimidating the staff and ensuring the independence of the institution.’

Whatever may be the motives behind the reported filing of this petition (and I am not privy to any details that may shed light on that score either), some details as disclosed in this news report, do strike at the very heart of the issue. Thus, the LHEU alleges (a la Rupavahini vis a vis the repulsively rumbustious ‘Dr’ Mervin de Silva) that the bulk of the Lake House turnover, amounting to nearly Rs. 03 billion has been (and is being) used to further the activities of politicians. Spokesmen of the LHEU name the culprits refreshingly, as not only politicians of previous regimes but the present government as well. The amount that the government owes the institution for a single election campaign exceeds Rs. 40 million. Nearly 2,500 of the 3,000 strong staff are political appointments. It is also a grouse of the LHEU that successive governments have changed job responsibilities as well as recruitments and dismissals to suit their needs.

Financial wastage in state media

These details of the financial wastage involved brings to my mind, similar disclosures some years back when the United National Front (UNF) administration of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s succeeded Chandrika Kumaratunge’s People Alliance (PA) government in the general elections of December 2001 with however Kumaratunge remaining as President. In the famously misnamed ‘cohabitation’ period that followed, brief as it was, one tug of war was in the arena of the state media. The Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and the Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) argued over who should carry the bill of Rs 2.8 million owing to Rupavahini from SLT for the live satellite broadcast by President Chandrika Kumaratunge on Rupavahini during the elections. Both institutions, in the control of the UNF by that time, refused to carry the tab on the basis that the speech was political and propagandist in nature. Similarly, Lake House sued the SLFP (the major constituent partner of the PA) for the recovery of Rs 43.4 million as unpaid bills for print of propaganda material for the SLFP while in government.

The sapping of the financial energies of the state media institutions is, of course, a well established fact. No government has ever done anything constructive to remedy this deplorable situation. For all its efforts to bring about media law reform in regard to Freedom of Information and Contempt of Court, the UNF government also did nothing to broadbase Lake House. The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited Special Provisions Law No 28 of 1973 (as amended) specifically mandated (Section 5) that broadbasing the ownership of ANCL was to take place by the gradual selling of shares to the public. This had been ignored for more than thirty years. In mid 1995, a committee appointed by the PA government recommended that Lake House shares be re-distributed in a manner that would ensure the creation of a broadbased democratic newspaper company with the widest possible citizens’ participation. The committee observed that this was, in fact, an election promise in the manifestoes of major political parties, subject to the condition that no single person or group will be able to own more than a quarter of the shares so re distributed. These recommendations were also not implemented.

Greater intimidation of the state media

It is in this context that the petition reportedly filed by the Lake House trade unionists becomes interesting, just as much as the Rupavahini workers rebelled against a thuggish minister. Would this suffice to compel government ministers to take notice of the blatant abuse of state media resources to suit party political ends? Or would this, on the contrary, result in greater intimidation of state media personnel who exhibit a contrary opinion to that of their political masters? The shameful example of the trials and tribulations that befell the protesting Rupavahini workers is a case in point. While one after the other was attacked, slashed and assaulted, the Minister in question continued to perform in office and indeed, accompanied President Mahinda Rajapakse in all his disreputable glory at a public function recently. The patronage that he continues to receive from the office of the Executive Presidency far exceeds what others of his ilk received from other past Presidents. At least in none of the past instances, was the patronage so blatantly and shamelessly given; in any event, underworld thugs were just that and not elevated to ministerial rank.

Freedom of Expression in Sri Lanka

There are those of us who revel in pointing to critical columns and news reports to illustrate that there is media freedom in Sri Lanka. The contrary is however, actually the case. As long as the targeting of particular journalists and media personnel continues, as long as these individuals are threatened, intimidated and arrested on the flimsiest pretext, the presence of a few critical voices will not suffice to detract from the fact that this country lacks the crucial characteristic of democratic dissent. The mere fact that no censorship regulations are formally in force will prove little as long as defence correspondents are vilified, abused and threatened.

And the convenient pretext of the war cannot serve to cover reporting of issues that expose corruption and abuse of power by politicians. Whichever way one looks, what we have is a good facade of a functioning democracy; whether it is the continued non-implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, the abuse of the state media, the arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists or the supposed full securing of rights and freedoms.

Employees Unions files FR petition to save Lake House

   
          
  The Lake House Employees’ Union filed a Fundamental Rights petition in the Supreme Court yesterday (Mar. 27th) against Lake House workers being compelled to work to the whims of political forces who ignored implementing of the Lake House Provisions Act for nearly 35 years.

Speaking to ‘Lankadissent’, Secretary of the Union, Dharmasiri Lankapeli said the main objective of this action is to protect the people’s right to information, calling for the implementation of the Lake House Provisions Act, stopping politicians from intimidating the staff and ensuring the independence of the insEmployees Unions files FR petition to save Lake House
  
         
  The Lake House Employees’ Union filed a Fundamental Rights petition in the Supreme Court yesterday (Mar. 27th) against Lake House workers being compelled to work to the whims of political forces who ignored implementing of the Lake House Provisions Act for nearly 35 years.

Speaking to ‘Lankadissent’, Secretary of the Union, Dharmasiri Lankapeli said the main objective of this action is to protect the people’s right to information, calling for the implementation of the Lake House Provisions Act, stopping politicians from intimidating the staff and ensuring the independence of the institution.

The bulk of the Lake House turnover, amounting to nearly Rs. 03 billion, is being used on activities of politicians and the present government is rigorously encroaching on them further, charges the LHEU.

The petition mentions that previous regimes too owe the Lake House huge amounts for massive amounts of posters printed.

The amount the UPFA government owes the institution for a single election campaign exceeds Rs. 40 m, it adds.

Nearly 2,500 of the 3,000 strong staff are political appointments Lankapeli said, adding that successive governments have changed job responsibilities as well as recruitments and dismissals to suit their needs.

The petition pleads that an Act should be brought through a special committee in Parliament to stop this practice, added the LHEU Secretary.
titution.

The bulk of the Lake House turnover, amounting to nearly Rs. 03 billion, is being used on activities of politicians and the present government is rigorously encroaching on them further, charges the LHEU.

The petition mentions that previous regimes too owe the Lake House huge amounts for massive amounts of posters printed.

The amount the UPFA government owes the institution for a single election campaign exceeds Rs. 40 m, it adds.

Nearly 2,500 of the 3,000 strong staff are political appointments Lankapeli said, adding that successive governments have changed job responsibilities as well as recruitments and dismissals to suit their needs.

The petition pleads that an Act should be brought through a special committee in Parliament to stop this practice, added the LHEU Secretary.
 

On continued detention of Tamil journalist Tissainayagam

The Free Media Movement is concerned about the continued detention of Tamil journalist Tissainayagam and of Mr. and Mrs. Jesiharan, the owners of E-Kwality Press on whose premises Mr. Tissainayagam had the offices of his website OutreachSL.

It is now over two weeks since Mr. Tissainayagam was detained by the Terrorist Investigations Department, He continues to be held at the Chaitya Road office of the TID, in conditions which have been described by UN Special Rapporteur on Manfred Novak as ‘inhuman’ in his report on his visit to Sri Lanka in October 2007. Up to date Mr. Tissainayagam remains unaware of the reasons for his detention and about whether there is a Detention Order issued in his name or not. The fact that three others who were detained along with him were released after 13 days in detention with no charges being framed against them leads us to question the arbitrary nature of these arrests.

The extended detention of Mr. Tissainayagam and others also points once again to the perilous situation of Tamil media professionals in Sri Lanka. Since 2006, and the intensification of the conflict, there has been a steady silencing of journalists’ voices in the north and east of the island. Today there are almost no Tamil journalists left in the towns of Batticaloa and Jaffna, which used to be vibrant regional centres of media activity. The media institutions that used to operate from the north and east have been virtually shut down, and most media persons have fled the area. We fear that the recent round of arrest and detention of Mr. Tissainayagam and others is an indicator that the same fate may now be extended to Tamil journalism in the capital city of our island.

The manner in which the arrests and detention of Mr. Jesiharan, Mr. Tissainayagam and their colleagues has been carried out as well as the manner in which FMM spokesperson Mr. Sivakumar was brought in for questioning with regard to these arrests has created an environment of insecurity not only for these individuals, their family members and associates but for the entire Tamil media community operating out of Colombo. The closure of the office of the website operated by Mr. Tissainayagam, Outreach sl has driven the website out of cyberspace, silencing yet one more space for independent Sri Lankan voices to be heard.

The creation of such an environment and the wide sweep of the Emergency Regulations now in place in turn make it almost impossible for these persons to rent accommodation for both official and private purposes and to continue with their professional lives. All this happens while leading members of the government continue to pledge their commitment to media freedom. 

The Free Media Movement calls on the government to ensure that Mr. Tissainayagam and the Jesiharans are brought before Courts and indicted according to law or else released without further delay.

We also call on the government to guarantee the safety and security of journalists, media professionals and their families and desist from using a ‘national security’ framework and argument to crush media freedom and silence legitimate voices of dissent in Sri Lanka

Keheliya angry over Lankadeepa, Leader and Lanka e News

Lanka-e-News, 2008 March 25, 8.00 PM) Defence Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella criticized Lankadeepa, Leader and Lanka-e-News website for disseminating news that affected the security forces.

Lankadeepa was criticized since one of its articles said that the Army Commander Sarath Fonseka first said that the war would be ended after Wanni and Kilinochchi were captured but now he says that eliminating terrorists is worthier than capturing ground. The Minister said that the writer was trying to emphasize that this as duplicity, But the Army Commander wanted to state that the ground would be retained easily as the terrorists were eliminated.

Minister Rambukwella said that an article in Sunday Leader said ironically that the difference between the LTTE’s strength and its death toll proclaimed by the Army was mere 600, undermining the seriousness of the war. He said that the article had deliberately excluded the child recruitments and other recruitment drives that amounted to thousands after the war was commenced.

Lanka-e-News was criticized by the Minister for yesterday�s news with the heading ‘A team to gather information of media persons in the guise of gathering information of LTTE.’ The Minister said that the news was misleading emphasizing that the government had no need to suppress media.

However, a debate was triggered as the Lanka-e-News representative stood for the accuracy of the story of his website.

Question: We have information that the state has sent the phone numbers of several journalists, together with the phone contacts of LTTE cadre Ramesh who is now in custody, to obtain information of the telephone calls they have made. These media persons report security affairs. Is this news wrong?

Answer: If journalists are in the phone book of Ramesh, they might have connection with him.

Question: The problem is that the media persons’ names have been sent to the phone companies falsely stating that they were among the contacts of Ramesh. We know that the phone numbers of at least two journalists are under scrutiny.

Answer: It can be two of the journalists of your website. You posted a false report on Maheswaran killing as well. But I do not talk about it now.

Question: The relevant phone numbers belong to two journalists of state media. They have no connivance with terrorism.

Answer: We have to go after any information obtained from Ramesh. If their names have been added erroneously, the investigation will be good for them. However, no such special team has been appointed so far.

Question: What does so far mean? Do you hope to do so in future?

Answer: We do not have any such idea for the moment. That period can be years, months or days.

Retrograde Government MP threatens media again

22nd March 2008, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Free Media Movement (FMM) is deeply disturbed to hear that Government MP and Minister of Labour Mervyn Silva, notorious for threatening media and journalists, has threatened MTV / MBC journalists covering the opening of a flyover bridge in his electorate on 20th March. Addressing the News First journalists, the Minister said,

“I am neither indebted to you, nor do I have anything to do with you and am not afraid of you. You are the most vagrant, despicable media institution in the country. Today, I point my finger at you. Hereafter I will raise my hand. Therefore, in the future, do not let me see you attending any function held in my electorate. I ask you who spread evil to find a place to hide.”

The FMM condemns this completely unwarranted and despicable threat of violence against media by an infamous MP best known for his flagrant and violent abuse of journalists with complete impunity.  Further, we consider the Minister’s statement as a threat against the entire media community critical of him and his shenanigans.

Susil Kindelpitiya, Director of News at MTV/MBC has already lodged a complaint with the Inspector General of Police (IGP) on this open threat to their news reporters. In his letter of complaint, Kindelpitiya states that

“This is to bring to your urgent and immediate attention that News 1st reporters and staff are being threatened by Minister Doctor Mervyn Silva. Given the numerous past instances of public violent attacks against citizens and media institutions by Mervyn Silva, we are seriously concerned about threats to life and property of our News 1st staff. We therefore expect you to immediately and urgently investigate this issue and ensure justice. ”

All media other than those under government control and many politicians, including those in the Government ranks, have voiced their anger on the violence unleashed by this Minister and his henchmen on media personnel. Given the ruling party’s inability and unwillingness to take any disciplinary measure against the Minister, the FMM can only believe that the Minister’s actions and statements are with the tacit approval of the regime. Further, given that this threat was made despite a promise made by the Minister in front of the President a few days ago at a meeting with senior media trade union leaders and journalists to not inflict any further harm upon journalists, the FMM holds the President himself accountable for the Ministers statement and actions.  

The FMM requests all democratic forces to roundly condemn the Ministers action and to pressure the ruling party and regime to take urgent and meaningful disciplinary measures against this retrograde MP as a sign of their commitment to democratic governance. We also await eagerly the response of the IGP to the complaint filed by MTV / MBC since, to date, he has been unable and unwilling to bring a single culprit of violence against media personnel to book.