SRI LANKA: Do newspapers like the Sunday Times, Daily Mirror and Lankadeepa contribute to the prevalence of endemic torture in Sri Lanka?
(A dossier of shame - The full dossier of reports published, objections sent and other related material on a torture case with a letter written to R.S. Wijewardene, Chairperson, Wijeya Newspapers Ltd and his reply. The full document can be found at http://www.srilankahr.net/pdf/newsreports_onPalithaCase.pdf
Prior to the publication of this statement, as a matter of courtesy we wrote to R.S. Wijewardene, the Chairperson of Wijeya Newspapers Ltd to request that he look into several complaints regarding false and unfair reports which had appeared in his publications relating to the torture case of Korala Liyanage Palitha Thissa Kumara.
We requested the Chairperson to inquire into the matter and the reply we received, dated November 24, 2006 is given below. The Chairperson has simply suggested that we take our problem to the Press Complaints Commission. However, the best way to deal with false and unfair reporting is to present the case to the public ourselves. Thanks to the communication revolution that has taken place in the world people no longer have to wait on newspaper owners, sometimes referred to as 'magnates', to get their ideas published. Much of the suppression of opinion in the country has gone through such absolute control of the media by a few persons. However, in this age of the World Wide Web there are avenues to present a case to the public without having to depend on newspaper owners.
Having shown Mr. Wijewardene this basic courtesy on our part in order to give his newspapers a chance to make corrections we found them unwilling to do so. Therefore, we now place this dossier before the public.
Beyond the importance of the individual event, this dossier may also illustrate how powerful interests prevent proper discussion on human rights issues on such grave problems such as torture. Despite over a hundred years of the existence of newspapers in the country, torture remains endemic in Sri Lanka, practiced in almost every police station on a daily basis. Have the newspapers generated any outrage among the people about this barbarous practice? Or are the newspapers, through a consistent practice of self censorship on this issue, encouraging the continuity of the large scale bullying of the people by the law enforcement authority in the country? Are not the newspaper owners and editors sophisticated enough to understand that democracy and freedom of expression will not be realised within the country while such endemic torture is part of day to day life? Or is it that Sri Lankan newspapers owners and editors do not really want a vigorous and active democracy within the country? Are not such media houses responsible for the constant silencing of people and the maintenance of a system of terror in the country?
Our complaints regarding this include a false report on a Supreme Court judgement by Anthony David, a journalist belonging to the Sunday Times together with several other items of false information published in his news item, 'Acquitted police officer taking case to HRC'. In this report the author made several blatantly erroneous statements which presented the entire incident in a false perspective. After several protests a separate news item was published about the Supreme Court judgment. However, no apology was made for the false reporting done earlier. The simple question arising is as to why a journalist went to the extent of making such a false report on a Supreme Court case and several other items on the same issue. Did he check the records, which are a matter of public record, before publishing such an article?
Despite of the protests on this issue the sister paper, the Daily Mirror carried another item along the same trend of giving partial information and suppression of other information already made available. This was followed by a Lankadeepa report of a full page judgement of the High Court case on this same issue. This report also did not mention the other information made available to the newspaper.
When we made our complaint to the chairperson of the newspaper group we believed that he would make an inquiry as to why his newspaper reported on this one particular case only from the High Court. On November 24, 2006 a group of NGOs had to pay a large sum of money to get the text of a translation of the Supreme Court judgement on Gerard Perera's case published as an advertisement in Lankadeepa. When it comes to publication of Supreme Court judgments and judgments of higher courts on human rights issues, none of these newspapers has shown any generosity in the way they have done in their one-sided reporting of this particular torture case from the Kalutara High Court. Our grievance is not about the publicity given to a High Court judgement. It is rather as to why Lankadeepa, the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Times will not give equal space to the judgement of higher courts on human rights abuses. Even to get a few inches of space for such issues remains difficult in these newspapers. Why then this sudden and unusual interest in this particular case?
Sri Lanka has produced many excellent journalists and in recent times a number of them have been assassinated while others have faced very serious threats. Thus, better journalism is subjected to persecution while other types of journalism thrive. Any influential bully can get his work published, not on the basis of high journalistic ethics but by other means.
Sri Lanka today is at the lowest ebb of the rule of law. The newspapers have neither contributed nor are they contributing to pulling the country out of this mess. Thus, when the media themselves contribute to decadence, decay and destruction the people must find news ways of publishing their views
Please see below the texts of our letter to the Chairman of Wijaya Newspapers Ltd which is followed by his reply. Also, a file containing all correspondence and copies of the newspaper articles may be found at http://www.srilankahr.net/pdf/newsreports_onPalithaCase.pdf
November 17, 2006
Mr. Ranjith Wijewardene
Wijaya Newspapers Ltd
8, Hamapitiya Cross Road
Fax: 94 11 2448333
Re: Unfair and one-sided reporting on Kalutara High Court case No. 444/2005 (Appealed by the Attorney General via CA (PHC) APN 222/06) also appealed by the aggrieved party via CA (PHC) APN 214/06
This letter is written in support of a letter written to you and the editor of Lankadeepa regarding a full page report that appeared in Lankadeepa on 13.11.2006 (page 19). The report carried in full the verdict given by the Kalutara High Court judge on 19.10.2006 in which he acquitted a Police Sub Inspector who was charged on two counts of causing torture on a victim, by severely beating him with a cricket pole and causing a tuberculosis patient to spit into his mouth.
The letter written to you by Rasika Sanjeewa Weerawickrame, Attorney-at-Law, on behalf of the aggrieved party (the torture victim) was to request that similar publicity be given to the appeal made by the aggrieved party at the Court of Appeal. A translation of this appeal in Sinhala together with a copy of the appeal registered at the Court of Appeal has been sent to you and the editor of Lankadeepa by registered post.
The complaint of the aggrieved party is not about giving publicity to the High Court judgement but rather about not giving equal publicity to the appeal. As the Daily Mirror and Sunday Times have already published news items on the appeal filed by the aggrieved party, as well as the Attorney General, the editor of Lankadeepa and the particular correspondent who was dealing with the matter could not have been unaware that an appeal had been lodged on the case.
Our support for this request by the aggrieved party through his lawyer is on the basis of the right of people to know the whole truth, particularly when it is available through official documents.
The reputation of news reporting is tarnished when a news editor deliberately suppresses part of the truth by not publishing material that is available giving the other side of the story to the one that is published in the paper.
Given the fact that Lankadeepa has consistently published reports giving only the side of the accused police officer, completely ignoring the side of the aggrieved party is itself reason to doubt the fairness of such reporting.
We have also had occasion to observe that in the Daily Mirror and The Sunday Times, partial and in fact factually incorrect information was published on the same case. The news item in the Sunday Times appeared on 29.10.2006 under the title 'Acquitted police officer taking case to Human Rights Commission'. On the same day a lawyer for the aggrieved party, the torture victim and the Asian Human Rights Commission pointed out the blatant factual errors in the news report and asked for corrections. No correction was made but instead a separate short report was published about the appeal. In the Daily Mirror a news item written by Susitha R. Fernando appeared on 8.11.2006 entitled 'Officers suffer from NGO-backed offenders false accusations: SI'. This once again was a report with factually incorrect information and a partial reporting. A request was made for a correction of the report and also to give publicity to the appeal, details of which were provided to the editor of the paper. However, no correction was made nor was any publicity given to the appeal. The relevant documents regarding this matter were sent to you by separate post.
Our interest in this matter is the same as that of Emile Zola when he wrote the historic essay 'J' accuse', in the famous Dreyfus Affair where he declared what he thought was his duty to protect the citizens from powerful bullies. Torture is one of the worst forms of bullying another human being. Those who fight their cases in courts against such bullying deserve equal opportunity to have themselves heard as much as their powerful opponents who they accuse of committing torture.
We are writing this letter in the hope that you will uphold this great tradition by making the publication as requested by the lawyer for the torture victim and also inquiring as to why three newspapers within your group consistently refused to make the necessary corrections of factual errors and to give equal publicity to the version of the torture victim in this case.
Asian Human Rights Commission
Reply from Wijeya Newspapers dated 24th November 2006
Mr. Basil Fernando
Asian Human Rights Commission
Go-Up Commercial Building
998 Canton Road
Unfair reporting Kalutara HC 444/2005
This refers to your letter of Nov. 17th on the above subject.
With regard to the other issues mentioned in your letter, may I suggest that you avail yourself of the services of the Press Complaints Commission, email@example.com, (www.pccsl.lk) by whose ruling newspapers of this institution are bound.
WIJEYA NEWSPAPERS LTD