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Sri Lanka ignores attacks on journalists


By Basil Fernando

Hong Kong, China — The Sri Lanka Press Institution and the Newspaper Publishers Association are offering a reward of Rs. 5 million (about US$50,000) for information on the assault of journalist Namal Perera. Perera, who works for the SLPI, and Mahindra Ratnaweera, a political officer with the British High Commission, were severely assaulted on Monday, June 30, and the car in which they were traveling was smashed up in broad daylight by a group of unidentified men.
The SLPI initiative in offering this reward demonstrates the determination of the media organizations to uncover the sources behind the increasing attacks on journalists and other media persons. The case of Keith Noyahr, the defense correspondent of the Nation newspaper, who was abducted and tortured, is another well-known example.

So far no one has been arrested, investigated or prosecuted for these attacks. This initiative by the SLPI also demonstrates the extreme frustration of the media organizations over the unwillingness and incapacity of the country’s police authorities to investigate such assaults.

Usually it is a country’s government that offers rewards to persons who are able to provide information on crimes the state authorities find hard to resolve. The state, which has the obligation to investigate crimes, sometimes finds it difficult to gather information for various reasons, and in such circumstances the state offers rewards to the public for any information leading to the identification of the perpetrators. There have been past instances when Sri Lankan authorities have offered such rewards relating to crimes they were determined to resolve.

However, despite the recent increase in crime and the growing number of unresolved crimes, the government of Sri Lanka and the police authorities have failed to resort to this mode of calling for information. They do not appear to want to publicize unresolved crimes or offer an incentive so that informants might come forward and reveal the identity of the perpetrators.

It may be interesting to interview the inspector general of police or any other high-ranking police officers as to why they are not using this well-tried method of seeking information relating to crimes, a method which has been tested the world over.

Perhaps the more worrying question is whether the government really wants information about crimes like the attacks on journalists. A spokesman for the International Federation of Journalists was quoted by the BBC Sandeshaya as saying that forces within the government are “behind many of the recent attacks.” If this is not true then it is the duty of the state authorities to show who the real culprits are by taking steps to effectively investigate such incidents.

If the state does not demonstrate by visible actions that it is genuinely interested in investigating these crimes, the government’s credibility will be lost. In fact, generally, there is no trust that crimes of this nature will be effectively investigated at all.

This brings us to the question of responsibility for continuing human rights violations. While critics of the government have challenged the political will of the state to deal with such matters, the spokesman for the government has refuted this and sought to make it appear as if the lack of technical assistance from the international community is the reason that the Sri Lankan government is unable to resolve crimes. Such a claim by a government spokesman will sound hollow until the will to thoroughly investigate crimes is demonstrated by resolute actions from the state authorities.

There does exist, in name at least, a Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. This appears quite fitting as the human rights situation in the country has reached a disaster level, particularly in terms of media freedoms. This ministry has not effectively condemned the attacks on the media or done all it can to activate the government machinery to investigate such crimes. Instead, the spokesman for this ministry makes it appear that it is the media that is a threat to the defense of the country.

Meanwhile, from the highest levels of government there is a claim that complaints about attacks on the media are simply a ploy to discredit the country. If this is so, the government could easily expose the truth by utilizing the investigative machinery of the state to probe into these crimes and demolish such ploys.

The hypocrisy of speeches about the political will to eradicate human rights violations is seriously exposed when the government fails to take even the usual steps that are taken anywhere in the world to obtain information about serious crimes.

Column: Burning PointsPublished: July 04, 2008

(Basil Fernando is director of the Asian Human Rights Commission based in Hong Kong. He is a Sri Lankan lawyer who has also been a senior U.N. human rights officer in Cambodia. He has published several books and written extensively on human rights issues in Asia. His blog can be read at http://srilanka-lawlessness.com.)

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