SRI LANKA: Use of anti terrorism laws to suppress media and human rights organisations – the Sunday Leader episode and CBK’s UNESCO issue

January 2, 2007

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

SRI LANKA: Use of anti terrorism laws to suppress media and human rights organisations – the Sunday Leader episode and CBK’s UNESCO issue

The alleged attempt to arrest Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of the Sunday Times was treated in the country as an attempt to use the anti terrorism laws to suppress media freedom.

It is alleged that a decision to arrest Mr. Wickramatunga had been made on December 28, 2006 and that this decision was made at the highest level.  However, President Rajapaksa is reported to have denied the allegations saying that, “he neither gave any such order, nor would he give any order to arrest the Editor.”

The reason for the alleged attempted arrest was a revelation made by the Sunday Leader regarding a move by the government to build a Rs. 400 Million bunker at the president’s residence, which would also have required the demolition of buildings located in a key business area.  According to the original story published in the Sunday Leader (December 24, 2006):

“A multimillion-dollar luxury bunker is under construction within the High Security Zone (HSZ) of Colombo for the protection of President Mahinda Rajapakse and his family.

According to initial estimates done by the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau, the luxury bunker will cost in the region of Rs. 400 million given the protective cover to be afforded to the bunker.

The Sunday Leader learns work on the luxury bunker commenced in July this year with the services of a private company availed to carry out the mammoth construction.

Due to security considerations, The Sunday Leader refrains from disclosing the location of the luxury bunker or the names of the companies involved in the underground construction work.

It is learnt, millions of rupees worth of work has already been carried out on the construction, for which the Treasury is expected to meet the costs.

The luxury bunker is built as a safe haven for the First Family with modern living quarters, which will be self-contained.”

The government considers the issue of the bunker as one of high security affecting its anti terrorism drives.  There had been many complaints of the harassment of journalists since the promulgation of new anti terrorism laws and regulations a few weeks ago following an alleged suicide bomb attack in Colombo considered to be aimed at the President’s brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Secretary of Defence, who is increasingly seen as an emerging strong man.  This harassment included the questioning of three journalists by the security services about their sources of information and the abduction of the chief of a security firm, allegedly for obtaining information on the sources of information of a journalist who wrote on the country’s security situation.  The general apprehension that the anti terrorism laws will be used against the media is very high.  Local and international human rights organisations have condemned the present laws and questioned their necessity and validity.

The promulgation of the anti terrorism laws was treated by many commentators and human rights organisations as a prelude to a revival of the time of terror which prevailed in the late 80s.  However, before the promulgation of these laws extreme violations of rights had already been taking place and there have been allegations of abductions and disappearances in the North and the East as well as in Colombo itself.  The further use of repressive measures can only worsen the situation.

However, the promulgation of anti terrorism laws and anti terrorism propaganda that is being carried out by the state media is also seen as an attempt to achieve political transformations outside the democratic process and to displace this process altogether.  Since 1978 an authoritarian style of government which has raised the executive beyond the scrutiny of the parliament and judiciary has existed in the country.  Over the years this system has been used for extreme abuses of power and for preventing any challenges against corruption.  Within this framework the concept of state responsibility does not exist.  There is no way to make the state responsible for whatever it does including its violations of the Constitution.  Under these circumstances transparency and accountability cannot exist.  It is this situation which makes the anti terrorism laws and the propaganda based on these laws even more dangerous.

The news of the attempted arrest drew a strong response from the media as well as others who flocked to the premises of the Sunday Leader newspaper to defend its editor.  The following news item appearing in the paper on December 31 reflects this response:

A big thank you – THE management of The Sunday Leader and its Editor extends a big thank you to all the media colleagues, members of the diplomatic community, judges, lawyers, the Opposition Leader, veteran politicians, leaders of several political parties, ministers, MPs, police officers and the many well wishers who extended their solidarity and support to the Editor and the newspaper by calling over at the office or telephoning following the news of the editor’s imminent arrest.

The Asian Human Rights Commission condemns the plans of the alleged arrest and also sees the readiness of the media and others to come forward in retaliation for such possible arrest as a sign of the growing protest and resentment against the abuse of power and abuse of legal process to suppress the freedoms of the people.  This response also shows that anti terrorism propaganda used as pretence for repression is also resented by the people.

Under these circumstances the AHRC finds it strange that the Sunday Leader itself published an article on December 31, 2006 written by Dilrukshi Handunnetti, entitled ‘Targeting CBK and LTTE’s southern gift’, which tries to portray the complaint made against former president Chandrika Kumaratunga to UNESCO as abetting terrorism.  The writer attempts to make out that the allegations of violations of human rights and abuse of power made in the complaint are a mere ruse in a ploy to assist terrorism and tries to distorts facts to attack the Asian Human Rights Commission, which made the original complaint.  The article is also silent about the fact that there were over a hundred local and international organisations that supported the complaint.  The article is devoid of any factual material and in fact, distorts the little information that it has in the classical style of cheap and unscrupulous propaganda writing (for details please see AHRC-OL-001-2007 or  Similar attacks have also been going on for a long time on independent civil society and human rights organisations where also, the pretext is that these indirectly undermine the anti terrorism drive of the state.

The defence of media freedom and the defence of independent civil society and human rights organisations stems from the same basic principles of freedom of expression and organisation.  One cannot be defended effectively without the other.  Those propaganda journalists who engage in the attacks on independent civil society and human rights organisations are themselves a part of a league that is trying to continue with the destruction of the very foundations on which media freedom is based.

The AHRC urges all those who are now taking note of the dangers of anti terrorism laws and the propaganda machinery of anti terrorism to seriously consider the intrinsic links between the defence of media freedoms and the freedom of organisation and to usher in the new era of a strong movement to defend and reconstruct democracy in Sri Lanka.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-001-2007
Countries : Sri Lanka,