FMM is disturbed over remarks by Army commander


The Free Media Movement is deeply disturbed over the  remarks attributed to the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka in recent interviews he has granted.

            One such interview appeared in the state run Sunday Observer newspaper of 20th July 2008. The contents were later posted on the website of the Ministry of Defence ( thus giving it official credence. Another interview was published in  the Sunday Sinhala weekly Lakbima and was posted thereafter on their website ( 20.07.08/index.htm).

            We reproduce below relevant excerpts of the interviews where Lt. Gen. Fonseka is quoted as justifying the recent attacks, intimidation and harassment of journalists.

“If Keith Noyair has not done anything wrong, he does not have to live in fear. If he has done some damage to our organisation or to a person, especially when he has done something which he is not suppose to do, then it is natural he must be living in fear. If they think that they have done something of that nature the best thing for them is to correct themselves and rectify the mistake”.

“We know that journalists are being bribed, given ‘drinks’, treated in restaurants and they have their own vested interests.. . We know very well about those media people who take bribes, write and voice their opinion for some personal gains.

These so called media guys are not responsible to the people and they are not entitled to such media freedom.

That Keith Noyair who was assaulted was returning from a restaurant with his friends and they were drunk. We do not know that somebody in the restaurant had got annoyed with them, followed him and assaulted.

So, especially the media people should behave well and set an example to others. To me, those who stage protests with unshaven beards, long hairs and wearing costumes like in fancy dress competitions are not scribes who are clamoring for media freedom but a gang of thugs”. (Interview with the Observer, reproduced in )

In another interview with Sinhala language weekly Lakbima the commander had said the attacks on Keith Noyahr, Iqbal Atthas and Namal Perera could be the consequences of their “misdeeds”            

If indeed Lt. Gen. Fonseka has made the remarks attributed to him, the FMM is of the view, that it is unbecoming conduct of a highest military   officer. At a time when he is spearheading a war against Tiger rebels, it is unfortunate that he has chosen it fit to justify indirectly the recent attacks on journalists. (The FMM waited for a week before making this statement to see if there would be any corrections to the interviews form the commander.)

            In reporting any public interest issue, no doubt, independent journalists may express dissenting views. Such views may sometimes be uncomfortable to various persons in the echelons of power. The time honoured tradition under successive Governments have been for those concerned to counter those views, correct the facts if they are known or state their own.

 If they violated the laws of the land, they would also have recourse to Courts. However, if the remarks of Lt. Gen. Fonseka are in fact correct it clearly leaves an indelible impression that the might of the military is being brought to bear on unarmed and unprotected journalists. This in the form of a hate campaign to threaten harasses, intimidate and force them into silence. This is an extremely disturbing trend and is unprecedented in Sri Lanka.

            Making this even more disconcerting, the FMM strongly believes, is the deafening silence of the Government. Not so long ago, they announced the appointment of a Ministerial Committee to alleviate the problems faced by journalists. Several Ministers made pledges to protect them and ensure media freedom.

            FMM believes that it would be the responsibility of the Government to make its position clear. Otherwise, FMM fears, their silence or indifference would only pave the way for more journalists to be killed, brutally assaulted, intimidated and harassed.


Mahanayaka Thera supports media

The Mahanayaka thera of the Malwatte Chapter the Ven.Thibbotuwawe Sri Sumangala Thera has stressed the need to excert pressure on government to stop threat to media freedom in Sri Lanka.

Secretary general of the Working Journalists Association (WJA) Poddala Jayantha who met Most Venerable Thibbotuwawe Sri Sumangala Maha Thera on Monday said that they met the venarable thera to brief on the present situation faced by the media in Sri Lanka.

He said they are now meeting religious leaders to make them aware of the pressures and threats that they have faced with, and seek their blessings.

Losing democratic rights

Poddala Jayantha said, “suppression of media has left public without reliable information and this is a sign of losing democratic rights”.

The journalists requested the prelate to intervene and advise the politicians against the attacks on free media.

“Maha Nayaka Thero is aware of the incidents and told us that he will request the president to take action to stop attacking media”, said Poddala Jayantha

Journalists working for state television network were attacked following an incident involving Minister Mervin Silva last December.


In Sri Lanka, harassment of journalists is commonplace

There was one moment for me in Sri Lanka, when I knew my job would be something beyond challenging.

It was early in the morning on my first day. I was in Colombo, the administrative and economic capital of Sri Lanka. A 21-year-old in a raggedy Army uniform was pointing a Kalishnakov (AK-47) at me, telling me I would be unable to get past the checkpoint he was guarding unless I showed him my media credentials.

I had already obtained an official journalist visa to enter Sri Lanka, but was told at the last minute by embassy officials I needed to head to the Foreign Ministry on arrival to “check in,” provide a second pile of letters proving I am not a terrorist – which I made up – and get further credentials.

I said to the gun-toting post-adolescent with pimples that I did not have credentials yet, and that I was in fact at that moment in this taxi with my translator on my way to the Foreign Ministry to obtain said credentials.

He said again, “You cannot get past this checkpoint without credentials.”

I said, “I cannot get credentials without getting past this checkpoint.”

This went back and forth a few more times, and we of course lost our side of the argument, being gunless.

This month is the 25th anniversary of Black July in Sri Lanka, when 1,000 ethnic Tamils were killed in general rioting by the Sinhalese majority. The causes of those riots are under dispute, but their long-term result is not. They touched off a civil war that continues today.

The current president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapkse, two years into power, has taken the official position that all media, local and foreign, are either “with them or against them” in the civil war.

As a result, open season has been declared on local journalists by all sides. They are regularly arrested, beaten, threatened by government officials and, as happened this past March, hacked to death when they report things either the government or the insurgents do not like.

My translator told me that while foreigners are only in the rarest of circumstances harmed, they are often deported and harassed, especially if they do not have credentials.

So we went back to the checkpoint several hours later and mercilessly harassed the deputy minister who was the only one who could help us get the credentials by phone.

We finally got past the checkpoint and got a 5-second meeting with the minister, who says upon arrival that he doesn’t have time to sign the letter – that we then have to take to the other ministry to get our laminated, stamped credentials – because he’s on his way to a meeting.

He said, “You should come back.”

I explain the checkpoint problem to him.

He said, “Yeah, right, well, I’m off.” And he leaves.

I got my credentials three days later, but was continually harassed by government officials during the duration of my stay in Colombo and was told I would not be allowed to travel to the part of the country with the worst tsunami destruction because of the war.

There were also plenty of moments where I would walk into a store and someone would follow, pull out their cell phone, start texting furiously, then follow me back into the street without purchasing anything.

I eventually made it to the southern coast – which had plenty of tsunami destruction and was far away from the conflict zones – by riding in the back of a Red Cross car, which flew through checkpoints.

I got a handful of good stories from tsunami survivors, but I wanted to have dozens of stories and more time to spend with each person. Under the stressed, tense circumstances, it was as good as I could’ve done.

I’m still not sure how much of an accomplishment it was to make it out of there in one piece. A friend with significant experience reporting in some of the world’s worst places told me when I got back, “That’s life. We usually never know how close we come to death, disability or dismemberment, as they say on the insurance forms. I suppose when we die, there’ll be some guy who’ll meet us in heaven and say, ‘Hey, you know that time in Trenton in 1998 when you stopped at the Gulf station for gas instead of the Sunoco? That saved your life because somebody at the Sunoco was going to blow your brains out.'”

Joshua Norman is a former Sun Herald staffer who was here after Katrina. He has spent the past year as a Kaiser Family Foundation Media Fellow, which included his recent trip to Sri Lanka.