Fire Mervyn, SLRC unions ask President

State television trade unions last night demanded that President Mahinda Rajapaksa sack Minister Mervyn Silva and vowed to go ahead with a planned strike from tomorrow, if they do not get an assurance from the president. The sacking of Minister Silva was one of the five demands the unions put forward to President Rajapaksa last night.

The notice of trade union action came in the aftermath of attacks on five employees of the Rupavahini Corporation. The attacks follow a December 27 incident in which Minister Mervyn Silva was attacked by a mob after he stormed the TV station and threatened the news director.
SLRC Assistant Director Arunasiri Hettige lying on his hospital bed with a deepneck wound that required 10 sutures. Pix by Bertie Mendis
The letter to President Rajapaks was signed by Programme Producers Union, Production Artists Association, Sri Lanka Rupavahini Employees Union, the Technical Officers Union and the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya.

The other demands are: a security guarantee from the President and the government, taking action against the thugs who accompanied Mr Silva to the corporation and those responsible for the subsequent attacks, paying compensation to the employees who came under attack and an assurance that no action will be taken against the union members involved in the agitation campaigns.

SLRC joint trade unions spokesperson Kanchana Marasinghe told The Sunday Times that in the backdrop of increasing attacks the matter was regularly discussed with the SLRC Management, the Media Minister and the Police but no proper action had been taken up to now.

The assault on the Assistant Director of Supplies Arunasiri Hettige was the latest in a series of attacks on SLRC employees within a short span of one and a half months. Those attacked so far, had been present when non-cabinet Labour Minister Mervyn Silva stormed the SLRC premises on December 27 and allegedly attacked news director T.M.G. Chandrasekara.

Mr. Hettige the SLRC Sevaka Sangamaya President was attacked by two unidentified men at Kotikawatte on Friday at about 7:45 am while waiting to take a bus to office. Mr. Hettige who had missed the earlier bus was standing at an almost deserted bus halt, when the men riding a motorcycle had got off at the spot, dragged Mr. Hettige by his legs and slashed his neck with a sharp instrument. Mr. Hettige’s name appears in the list of 21 SLRC employees wanted for questioning by the CID with regard to the spontaneous protest staged after the Mervyn Silva drama at the Rupavahini premises and coincidently four of the five people attacked had their names on that list.

By way of protest, live telecasts, production and recording of programmes were temporarily stopped on Friday morning, with normal services resuming only after 4:00 p.m. The guests invited for various programmes were asked to leave and the Trade Unions claimed the SLRC incurred a revenue loss of some one million rupees with the stoppage of regular programmes.

Following the attack on Mr. Hettige, the Trade Unions also met Police Chief Victor Perera who assured them he would take steps to ensure the maximum safety and security of the employees. The trade unions strongly condemned the assault on Mr. Hettige and claimed it was a well executed operation.

The attack came a day after the trade unions met Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Police Chief and urged them to provide swift and relevant action to curb such incidents. The Defence Secretary directed the Police Chief to work out a suitable security plan that would ensure safety of the employees.

“This is a political problem which needs to be resolved immediately. Mr. Hettige was also present at this discussion and asked various questions on the matter. Although the Defence Secretary assured us he will act to ensure our safety, less than 18 hours later another SLRC employee comes under attack. What does this mean? Does it not show that even his directives are being disregarded”, Mr. Marasinghe asked. The Trade Unions claimed the Media Minister was not available for comment.

Ceylon Trade Union Federation Secretary Piyasiri Wijenayake blamed the Government for the attack and called on the workforce and civil society to join hands to put an end to the string of attacks. Last week Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa promised to work closely with SLRC employees and the management in safeguarding their security.

SLRC Director General Sisira Kotelawela told The Sunday Times that new security measures to protect SLRC staff was now in place.“A civil defence team has been set up to patrol the vicinity of the SLRC. We have also set up a pool of officials whom the staff members could contact if they receive threatening calls,” he said and added that if requested for, security would be provided for employees on their way home.

“These measures were discussed at the meeting between the SLRC unions and the Defence Secretary on Thursday and have now implemented them”, he said. The Free Media Movement (FMM) appealed to the President to intervene in a situation which appears to have gone too far and out of control.

“This is an untenable situation. We hold the President directly accountable for the actions of those in his Government and the safety and security of all media personnel, particularly those who took part in agitating against the chaotic actions of Minister Silva at the SLRC. At a time when such attacks are taking place with impunity and in broad daylight, it is laughably tragic and grossly inappropriate that the Government is even contemplating a national media policy without first ensuring the security of journalists and the freedom of expression and media freedom”, the FMM said.

Police Spokesman Deputy Inspector General N.K. Illangakoon said a new security plan has been prepared but declined to disclose its details.“Police are conducting investigations on all five cases,” he added.

JVP blames Rajapaksa

The JVP yesterday accused President Mahinda Rajapaksa of not taking steps to halt a string of attacks on Rupavahini employees and vowed to carry out a public agitation campaign demanding justice for Rupavahini employees who are facing threats.

JVP frontliner Anura Kumara Dissanayaka said neither the government nor the police were taking any serious action to arrest the suspects and the party believed that the President was protecting Minister Mervyn Silva.The JVP MP’s comments came in response to an attack on Rupavahini’s Assistant Director Arunasiri Hettige on Friday. He was the fifth Rupavahini employee to be attacked since the Mervyn Silva incident on December 27.

Mr. Hettige, JVP trade union leader, was visited by the JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe and Mr Dissanayaka on Friday.

List of those attacked or threatened.

On January 25 at 11:00 pm journalist Lal Hemantha Mawalage was slashed with a knife on his right arm by two men in Athurugiriya while he was returning home from work.

On January 29, two men armed with a pistol entered the house of Duleep Dushantha at the Kollupitiya government flats and threatened his mother with death if she informed police of the incident.

On February 27, Assistant Camera News Director Priyal Ranjith Perera was threatened by an unidentified gang while he was at his residence.

On March 5, SLRC library Assistant Director Ranjini Althuge Herath’s shoulder was slashed with a razor blade while in a bus travelling home after work.

On March 14 Assistant Director and unionist Arunasiri Hettige was hit on the neck with an iron rod at 7:45 am while at a bus halt in Kotikawatte on his way to work.

(Sunday Times 16th March)

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Media groups reject ‘national media policy’

AS Sri Lanka suffers the indignity of being classified amongst one of the 10 worst places for journalists, five media organisations have called for the implementation of their recommendations, and rejected government moves to introduce a ‘national media policy’ in favour of a self-generated, self-regulated and independent framework that encompasses journalists from all sides of the nation’s conflict.

The Media and Information Ministry published newspaper advertisements explaining details of the policy and called for public submissions while leading media organisations including the FMM and the Sri Lankan Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA) have strongly criticised the proposed policy.

They said there was a need for members of the government, local authorities and the general public to respect journalists and an independent media culture, and to support the protection of media rights.

“The media is not a state-controlled body. It is a self-regulatory sector. If a government is trying to introduce policies for the media, it shows how primitive it is. What is necessary from the government is to establish a solid legal framework for a free media culture,” said FMM Convener, Sunanda Deshapriya.

“For their part, journalists and media institutions should be bound by an independent code of practice that prescribes the ethical and professional conduct of all media practitioners. Journalistic codes of practice are best respected and implemented when they are created and agreed upon by journalists and media organisations, without government intervention,” he added.

The five media organisations recommended the enactment of the proposed Right to Information Bill that has already received cabinet sanction, amendment of existing laws to transform state-owned electronic media into genuinely independent public service broadcasters, broadbase ownership of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd, revive the All Party Lakshman Kadirgamar Parliamentary Select Committee with a view to bring the Contempt of Court Act on par with similar laws in the United Kingdom and India, and to urgently amend the Parliamentary (Powers and Privileges) Act as per the Colombo Declaration.

– (Sunday Leader 16th March)

Barbarians at the door

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti ( Sunday Leader 16th  March)

THE old belief is that lightning would strike not once but twice. But lightning strikes many times in certain instances, and ever since Non Cabinet Labour Minister, Mervyn Silva was given a dose of his own medicine within the SLRC premises along with his ‘security’ goon, with lightning speed, SLRC employees have come under attack, five times so far.
 

Since that fateful day, December 27 last year when Silva was at the receiving end there has been systematic victimisation of SLRC employees, one by one. Last Friday, with the latest attack on an assistant director of SLRC and a trade union leader, Anurasiri Hettige, the scorecard currently reads five. Did anyone ever say, ‘Hell hath no fury like a politician scorn’d’?

With Assistant Director, SLRC and President, Sri Lanka Sevaka Sangamaya, Anurasiri Hettige attacked with an iron rod causing serious head injuries, there is public outrage once more against the ruffian politician who appears to be unleashing his notorious Mafia upon the unsuspecting SLRC workers. There is a history to this.

Black mark

When Mervyn Silva and his gun toting personal security guard, known as ‘Kudu Nuwan’ for good reason forcibly entered SLRC premises and assaulted News Director, T. M. G. Chandrasekara on December 27 for the alleged offence of not airing his defamatory speech attacking Parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera, the outraged SLRC staff shed all their differences to give the politician of ill-repute a sort of  ‘baptism of fire.’

United in their anger and contempt for the law enforcement authorities for not meting out justice, the SLRC workers first ran the ‘Mervyn Show’  live on national television. Then they took the politician to task. It was payback time for a man who has been a black mark to this nation and to representative politics. Silva did not bargain for the violent treatment as he was assaulted, bruised and had colourful paint poured over his pate.

No action

That should have been the end of the story. But no. ‘Disciplinary action’ was promised against Silva by his party for his misconduct, but no action has been taken against him. Silva is so confident  that nobody would touch him or dare to reprimand him that very recently, he was heard promoting himself as presidential nominee to the Constitutional Council, no less.

Since Silva came under attack, a tragedy had been unfolding involving the SLRC workers. T. M. G. Chandrasekara, very much the victim in this instance was transferred to the Research Unit almost immediately. The SLRC staff was blamed by none other than President Mahinda Rajapakse for disrupting regular programmes and airing the Mervyn Silva Show live on December 27 – a day most Sri Lankans rejoiced, and justified the physical attack on the attackers.

In this backdrop, informed sources told The Sunday Leader that Mervyn Silva was scheduled to go overseas on February 26, and warned of attacks on SLRC workers soon afterwards.

It is also reliably learnt that Silva has referred to two media activists as “revula” (bearded man) and “kondaya” (long haired man) and pledged not to allow their campaign against him. 

Just after Silva’s departure on February 26, so far three attacks have taken place. It is as if a video copy of the SLRC’s ambush of Silva is being used to identify the employees and to attack them one by one, in a way that they would be not just be physically scarred but mentally scarred, forever.

Series of attacks

The very next day,  Assistant Director, News Camera, Priyal Ranjith Perera was attacked by an unidentified armed gang at his home. On March 5, SLRC Librarian, Ranjani Aluthge was stabbed with a razor knife while travelling in a public bus.

The series of attacks commenced a month after Silva came under attack within the SLRC premises.

On January 25, a senior producer/presenter, Lal Hemantha Mawalage was attacked by two armed men. He suffered severe cuts to his arm. He also received death threats on his phone on March 4.

Four days later on January 29, an attempted attack on Duleep Dushantha by two armed men at his home was averted. Dushantha’s mother was threatened with death for informing authorities of the incident.

Then came the cutting of the SLRC librarian’s back with a razor knife and an armed group’s attack on an assistant director.

The fifth attack was on March 14, when an unidentified gang beat Anurasiri Hettige while he was travelling from his Kotikawatta residence to SLRC around 7.45 a.m. He was hit with an iron rod causing head injuries and is currency at the Intensive Care Unit of the Colombo National Hospital receiving emergency treatment.

Real threat

“The attack on Anurasiri Hettige is a clear indication that all SLRC journalists and staff who protested against the intrusion into the station by Minister Silva on December 27 are facing a real threat,” the FMM said in a statement. 

“The government’s silence over this series of attacks and its failure to act to end the violence and threats allegedly linked to a member of the government, must end now,” demanded IFJ Asia-Pacific Director, Jacqueline Park, urging urgent action against the perpetrators.

The IFJ has with concern noted that as many as 10 journalists and media workers from other television stations and media also have been reportedly targeted for their involvement in covering the December 27 incident and the subsequent media staff protests against Minister Silva.

Poddala Jayantha, a senior journalist with Silumina and the secretary of the Sri Lankan Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA), an IFJ affiliate, endured an attempted abduction by armed assailants at his home on January 7.

Death threats

Death threats were made to leading personnel at MBC TV and Radio Networks: MTV Head Chevaan Daniel, Sirasa Director Kingsley Ratnayaka and Sirasa News Director Susil Kindelpitiya. Kindelpitiya reports that suspicious people are watching his house and whereabouts.

Threats also have been delivered to media activists including Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) President, Sanath Balasooriya and the General Secretary, Federation of Media Employees Trade Union, Dharmasiri Lankapeli.

 “We have been demanding action against Mervyn Silva and his goon squad since they forcibly entered the SLRC premises and assaulted its news director. There was deafening silence. Is it that Silva is above the law or is our political leadership indebted to Silva in some mysterious way that no action is possible against the worst possible politician this country has ever produced?” demands media activist and General Secretary, SLWJA, Poddala Jayantha.

But Police Spokesman,  DIG  M. K. Illangakoon pledged an impartial inquiry into the recent most attack on a SLRC employee and said a ‘special team’ has already been deployed to investigate.

Tight lipped

While the government remains tight lipped about the continued attacks on SLRC personnel, it has called for public responses for a new media regulatory policy that has come under serious attack by media groups.

“Sri Lanka’s government must take concrete steps to ensure the safety and protection of journalists in the conduct of their work, starting with public reprimands for government members who verbally and physically attack the media, and give directives to local authorities to investigate and act on attacks against journalists across the island, including the attacks on SLRC staff,” said IFJ Asia Pacific Director, Jacqueline Park in a statement.

Currently, it seems that the strategy is to attack and curb the media in as many ways as possible. While media practitioners come under continued attack including death, intimidation, harassment and threats, the administration has elected to turn a blind eye. There is a growing culture of impunity with law enforcement authorities having so far failed to bring a single miscreant in the recent attacks against the media to book.

Move opposed

At the policy level, there are new moves to introduce a ‘national media policy’ that is opposed by a large majority of the community for its overt desire to regulate the media.

With the media under siege in every possible way, there is little wonder as to why Sri Lanka’s flagging human rights record including that of freedom of expression has become a worldwide concern, and more so, as to why the country is classified among the 10 worst places for journalists

Journalists under fire

By Jayantha Sri Nissanka (Lakbima English/16th March)

Has the Government decided to silence the voice of Sri Lanka’s minority community journalists? Many Tamil journalists are today at risk of being called “LTTE informants” and being framed on false charges. They are plagued with difficulty when attempting to carry out their duties as journalists.
Of course, the real informants whether Tamil or Sinhala, should be arrested and charged for aiding and abetting with terrorists. Unfortunately, many Tamil journalists fear that the government is using Emergency Regulations to frame charges against reporters who are not in the state’s good books.
Last week, Sunday Times columnist J.S. Tissainayagam was arrested. Also taken in by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) was S Sivakumar, Free Media Movement Tamil spokesman and editor of the bi-monthly Tamil language “Sarinihar” magazine. Journalist N. Jasiharan, K. Wijesingha and cameraman Ranga of the “outreachsl.com” website, too, were detained.
Some of them were released but Tissanayagam is serving a 30 days detention order. Although Selvakumar is the Tamil spokesman of the FMM, he declined to comment on his arrest when contacted.
The outreachsl.com has information mostly on current issues that are also used on other news websites. But Tissanayagam’s weekly column hits the government hard on various issues. The question is being asked whether he was arrested for that reason.
The government has shown a habit of arresting Tamil journalists claiming they are LTTE informants. A classic example is the detention of Maubima journalist M Parameshwari.

Detention

Parameshwari was arrested by the TID and kept in detention for four months on a claim that she was aiding and abetting with a LTTE female suicide cadre, Thambirasa Susanthi, and providing her accommodation in Colombo.
But she was released after the police failed to establish that she had links with the LTTE. Recently, the alleged suicide bomber Thambirasa Susanthi was also acquitted by courts for lack of evidence.
Parameshwari’s newspaper Maubima was closed by the government which claimed the organisation had links with LTTE. The owner of the company is Tiran Alles, a close friend of SLFP renegade MP Mangala Samaraweera. There were no allegations of terrorist links until he stayed on the good side with the government. But he got into trouble after Samaraweera formed the SLFP- Mahajana Wing and Alles lent one of his houses in Castle Street, Borella, to the SLFP-M to run its office.
It is becoming the trend for the govern
ment to label “aggressive” journalists – or those that criticise the regime – as LTTE informants. If a journalist is Tamil, he is exceedingly more vulnerable to arrest on false charges.
Parameshwari continues to be harassed after her release. Her passport was forcibly taken away in Borella. Though she had lodged complain at the Borella police station, the suspect is still at large. It is uncertain whether the Borella police will ever trace this suspect.

Attacked

Parameswari’s family was attacked on Friday by a mob that claimed they were LTTE supporters. Her father and a sister were seriously injured. The gang, armed with clubs, had stormed her house in Gampola. They surrounded her house and prevented injured persons from being taken to hospital. The Gampola police had eventually rescued them. The mob threatened to burn Parameshwari alive if she returned to Gampola.
This is the abysmal state of Sri Lanka’s media freedom. Even when the courts acquit Tamil and Sinhala suspects due to their innocence, Sinhala extremists harass them.
The Rajapaksa government is talking about untrammeled media freedom in the country. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, speaking at the Ruhuna Artists Forum, said there is absolute media freedom in the country but that the government is not answerable for isolated incidents as and when they occur. Who will guarantee the lives of Sri Lankan journalists if the head of state treats the Fourth Estate in such a manner?