The failure of public opinion to function
in a manner that considers all sections of society equitably can be seen in the
matter of journalists who have been victims of human rights violations.
There was a time when Sri Lanka was known to be one of the most dangerous
places for journalists to work. Today the situation has changed significantly
so that Sri Lanka is described as the best destination for international
tourists to visit. That change occurred four years ago with the change of
government. But ironically, all the perpetrators of the crimes against
journalists remain at large.
Most of those journalists who became
victims and lost their lives or had their human rights violated seriously were
Tamil journalists. These included Nimalarajan who worked for BBC and
Sivaram who was one of the country's best politico-military commentators.
But today their names are not in the forefront when it comes to issues of
justice for journalists who became victims of human rights violations.
This is because their families, friends and colleagues do not feel strong
enough to publicly campaign for them. It is also because of the prejudice
that they may have been supporters of Tamil separatism.
Unfortunately, the quest for justice for
victims of human rights violations is driven not by the law enforcement
mechanisms in the country, but by the relatives, friends and colleagues of the
victims. They are the ones who are willing to take risks and pay the
price for asking for justice. This is seen in the continuing protests and
demonstrations by families of the missing for their loved ones. Whereas
the families of the missing count in the tens of thousands, the families of
media personnel who were killed or suffered human rights violations are in the
few dozens. Those who would wish justice for journalists often do not
have the strength of numbers.
In the media field, Lasantha
Wickremetunge and Prageeth Ekneligoda are the names most frequently
mentioned. In the case of Ekneligoda it has been his wife Sandhya who has
had to brave various harassments, including death threats, attacks on social
media and even having nationalist groups attend court hearings to intimidate
The assassination of Lasantha
Wickremetunge who was slain in broad daylight in the vicinity of a security
forces base remains an unsolved crime ten years after his death. There
are strong suspicions that the perpetrators of the crime were from the security
forces. At the time of his assassination and continuing today the
suspicion is that the killing was also connected to the government of that
time. Therefore, Wickremetunge's killing became a symbol of the impunity
that prevailed during that time when the war was coming to an end and the
bloodiest period was about to begin. Wickremetunga was a high profile
editor and one of the best known journalists of that time. His family,
friends and colleagues continue to gather at his grave to remember him and the
injustice that continues with his assassins remaining at liberty.
The end of the war did not bring the
period of impunity to an end. Instead it saw the rise of an ideology that
gave to national security the first place. A securitization mindset began
to take hold in which it was seen as necessary to prepare for a new war in
order to prevent it from happening. In that context, those who dissented
became seen as enemies of the state and liable to be eliminated. Journalists
were amongst those who fell victim to this mindset. One of the pledges
made by the government at the UN Human Rights Council in October 2015 was to
investigate these acts of media suppression and human rights violations and to
hold to account those who had been the perpetrators.
During the past four years since the
change of government, several investigations have taken place regarding the
crimes committed against journalists and others. The most prominent of
the media cases are those against Wickremetunge, Ekneligoda and Keith Noyahr
and Upali Tennekoon, two other senior editors. However, all of these
cases appear to have got stalled. They do not progress beyond a
point. The police investigations have led to the identification of some
of those who played a direct part in the commission of those crimes.
However, there has been resistance from within the governmental system most
notably the defence authorities and security forces to cooperating fully in the
investigations. This needs to change.
The principles of good governance and the
examples of more peaceful and democratic countries is that every single life is
important and no one is above the law. Until these principles are
entrenched in society there will be no opportunity for Sri Lanka to put its
violent past behind it. But making matters difficult, President
Maithripala Sirisena has made it known on many occasions that he is against the
prosecution of members of the security forces for war crimes and human rights
violations without adequate evidence. The problem is that his stance then
emboldens the security forces to resist cooperating in such investigations and
weakens the will of the investigating authorities to push through with their
The recent takeover of the former
Ministry of Law and Order and the police department that was under its purview
by President Maithipala Sirisena is not a positive indication that the
situation will improve in the near future. The president's supporters
have sought to justify his takeover of the police and putting it into the
defence ministry as due to his concern about an assassination plot against
him. There are doubts growing about the veracity of this claim, as the
chief witness in the alleged assassination plot is being seen to have a
checkered past which is being disclosed by the ongoing police
investigations. In addition, the president's new alliance with the former
president and members of the former government are also indicators that he will
not wish to put his new allies in trouble, regardless of whether they are
perpetrators or not.
There are two challenges that Sri Lanka
and its civil society needs to address. The first is widen the band of
moderates and to create a large enough number of opinion formers who are able
to transcend the narrow boundaries of ethnicity, religion and social class, and
to value every citizen's life as being of equal value. The second is to
develop a system of law enforcement that is strong enough to ensure that no one
is above the law and putting an end to reliance on political patronage.
It is an unfortunate reality that Sri Lankan politicians see governance in
terms of outmaneuvering their opponents by using the law selectively on their
opponents but not on their allies. What the country needs instead are
politicians who will explain matters to the people, win their confidence and do
the right thing so that justice and not cover ups prevail.