SRI LANKA: Attack on Sunday Leader – Press freedom in a lawless country

The attack on the printing press of the Sunday Leader as well as the very manner in which the attack was carried out, comes as no surprise to anyone who has observed the ease with which any form of violence can be perpetrated in present day Sri Lanka.

The strategy of this violence is now very much like the tricks one might use in a computer game. It is easy to kill, easy to burn and easy to escape. In Sri Lanka, by sheer experience which is repeated endlessly, over and over again, this strategy is now known to everyone. Anyone who wishes to be a villain does not need much training and the rest of the population has learned how to carry on with life as if nothing has happened.

Robert Frost is quoted to have said that he can summarise his views on life in three words which were, it goes on. The situation of violence and lawlessness in Sri Lanka can also be summed up in the same three words, that is, it goes on.

All social behaviour whether it be good or bad is conditioned. The present situation regarding violence in Sri Lanka is also conditioned. What is the conditioning that created the possibility for such behaviour as the burning of the printing press of the Sunday Leader? A few of the obvious conditions are as follows: The State has clearly abandoned its obligations to investigate all crimes. Within the Sri Lankan State there is no longer the recognition of a powerful and overriding principle that all crimes, irrespective of who commits them, or for what purpose they are committed, need to be competently, thoroughly and speedily investigated. By abandoning the primary obligation to investigate all crimes as an absolute obligation, the Sri Lankan State has removed the foundation stone on which any credible criminal justice system can stand. Therefore, today it can be said that the criminal justice system of Sri Lanka has no legs to stand on. Nothing creates a better climate for violence and crime than the perpetrator’s knowledge that the criminal justice system simply does not work.

Months before the burning of the press there was an attempt to arrest the editor of this same paper without any legal basis for such arrest; timely publicity prevented it. Thereafter there was a threat to the editor of the Daily Mirror of a possible assassination by a group which, she was informed, the state might not be in a position to prevent. This incident too, caused much publicity. As to be expected no action was taken to investigate these issues and to take legal action, which would have necessarily followed within a system where the criminal justice mechanism functions normally. Now, in this instance of the burning of the press, there is more subtlety. Unknown persons entered the printing press, got all the workers present to surrender, burned the printing machines and disappeared with ease into the night. Such is the ease that lawlessness creates for the criminals.

Much has been said about this act of violence being carried out in a high security zone. However, there is no surprise in this also. Nadarajah Raviraj, a well known Tamil Member of Parliament, was killed in a high security zone. There are rumours that there were warnings before the incident to the relevant law enforcement agencies that some act of this sort might happen and they were not supposed to get upset. The crimes committed in the high security zones are numerous. Many of the abductions, several of which have ended up as disappearances also took place in high security zones. It is not difficult to coordinate the carrying out of a crime within one of these zones. All that needs to be ensured is that the particular act had been cleared and is considered necessary. When this message gets through directly or indirectly, those receiving the message know the rules of the game and behave accordingly. The term, ‘high security zone’ is a misnomer. These zones do not provide security to the people. More often than not, these zones are part of the repression of the democratic freedoms of the people.

Then comes the stage in which some persons representing authorities appear on the scene and promise investigations. There are immediate press conferences and news releases. The essence of these is all the same: a serious investigation has begun. Within days or sometimes within hours there is another announcement to the effect that there is no evidence about the perpetrators to the crime. Each act enters into the registry of uninvestigated crimes.

All this will be accompanied and followed by condemnations and calls for investigations from local as well as international sources. However, no amount of condemnation and calls for action can make the lame walk or the blind see. Nothing can now make Sri Lanka’s criminal justice machinery perform the normal functions that are expected of such a system. If the criticism about the failure to investigate and to prosecute crimes in Sri Lanka is to bear a significant result it is necessary to accompany it with calls for such action with an exposure of the system as a whole. Until the systemic problems of the criminal justice in Sri Lanka are addressed, similar or worse crimes are unavoidable.

The preservation of press freedom in Sri Lanka is now faced with enormous odds. Killings of journalists or otherwise harming them, intimidation and destruction of the properties that belong to press agencies is now a part of normal behaviour patterns within the country. There needs to be a local and international effort to attack these problems in their totality. It is the basic obligation of protection through an effective criminal justice mechanism that the Sri Lankan State has abandoned. It is for this the Sri Lankan government should be taken to task, locally and internationally.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-278-2007
Countries : Sri Lanka,