Our attention has been drawn to a letter written by the Police Media Spokesperson and Senior Superintendent of Police, Mr. Ranjith Gunasekera, addressed to the Chairman and News Director of Sirasa News, dated 11th August 2008. SSP Gunasekera’s main complaint is that he has been subject to disrepute by the reportage of the views of media organisations’ expressed during public protests against Minister Silva’s conduct, in which it has been contended that SSP Gunasekera had no basic conception or understanding of democracy. The letter unfortunately also contains two contumelious references by name to Mr. Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, the Convenor of the Free Media Movement (FMM), although he has not been copied in the said letter.
While SSP Gunasekera is perfectly within his rights to write a letter of complaint against what he sees as unfair reportage of his comments as the official police spokesperson, the instant letter is cause for serious concern on several matters to the extent it makes reference by name to Mr. Kurukulasuriya. These references are made in the context of an extended and polemical political argument by SSP Gunasekera about the exercise of the democratic freedoms of expression, association, assembly and protest, in the backdrop of the war against the LTTE. In brief, SSP Gunasekera’s argument is that, firstly, protests organised by Mr. Kurukulasuriya in Colombo on various occasions against media suppression, are an abusive exercise of the fundamental rights guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution in a manner that hinders the free exercise by others of their rights to freedom of movement. According to SSP Gunasekera, this is indirectly an obstruction of the economic progress of the country.
Secondly, in what has become a tiresomely repetitive theme of official spokespersons of the government in the recent past, SSP Gunasekera argues that if Mr. Kurukulasuriya’s desire was to endear himself to the general public, he should have done something useful to strengthen the armed forces and police led by the President in their fight against the LTTE. The clear implication is that Mr. Kurukulasuriya’s activities tend to favour the LTTE.
FMM categorically states that all media protests are organised by 5 media collective and not by any individual. FMM is afraid that making FMM convenor the target of police spokespersons undue criticism may make him vulnerable to another attacks by anti media groups. FMM notes once again the fact that direct or implied threats of this nature have all too often been the ominous precursors of far more unpleasant consequences for media professionals who have attracted such unwelcome attention.
FMM believes that SSP Gunasekera has in this instance exceeded his legitimate right of reply by indulging in unseemly personal contumely. In order to sustain his otherwise untenable argument, he has also been impelled to give a peculiarly idiosyncratic interpretation to Article 14 of the Constitution, as well as engage in political arguments about the prosecution of the war, which is beyond both his official remit and, it seems, his competence. SSP Gunasekera has thereby unwittingly added credence to the original issue of contention about his basic comprehension of democracy, or lack thereof.
Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees to every citizen, inter alia, the fundamental rights of the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. It is inherent in these rights that the freedom of political protest is both a legitimate and necessary element of the democratic way of life, and which the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed in such celebrated judgments as the Jana Ghosha Case. This truth is so self-evident that we find it incredible that we have to repeat it here in response to SSP Gunasekera’s attempts at constitutional interpretation that engaging in disciplined and peaceful protest is an obstruction of the rights of others. His astonishing claim that organised protests against what has become a wholly unacceptable and pervasive culture of physical attacks and intimidation against the media, and impunity for publicly known perpetrators, are detrimental to the economic development of the country is scarcely more plausible.
FMM finds it deeply regrettable that SSP Gunasekera has in this instance combined an overdeveloped sensitivity to legitimate criticism, with a confusion of the public interest that he is enjoined by law to uphold, with that of the government of the day, and which has resulted in him indulging in a vituperative personal attack on Mr. Kurukulasuriya, in a letter addressed to a third party, in a manner that is utterly unworthy of a public officer of the law. FMM therefore calls upon SSP Gunasekera, in his capacity as the police spokesperson, to retract these statements and to desist from such verbal attacks in the future.
FMM would also use this opportunity to reiterate its call for the immediate implementation of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, so that the independence, integrity and competence of the Police Department can be established in a manner that ensures that police officers may comport themselves and exercise their lawful duties in conformity with the public interest under the rule of law. FMM firmly believes that only the prompt re-establishment of a genuinely independent National Police Commission appointed on the recommendations of the Constitutional Council (itself to be reconstituted), will free the Police Department of the shackles of politicisation that presently reduce even senior police officers to obsequiousness before governments of the day, and which is plainly at the root of SSP Gunasekera’s unnecessary and most unfortunate missive.