Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Brief

Today is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists

Many journalists have been killed and subjected to enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, with the Jayewardene-Premadasa led UNP governments of 1977 to 1994 and Rajapaksa led UPFA government of 2006 to 2014 being the worst. Many journalists have also been arrested, detained, assaulted, threatened, intimidated and harassed under different governments. Media institutions have been subjected to arson and legal actions with the English weekend paper Sunday Leader and the Uthayan, the most popular Tamil newspaper in the war-ravaged North, both strong government critics, being among the worst affected. Impunity has reigned for all these.

More recently, in October 2020, Shanmugam Thavaseelan and Kanapathipillai Kumanan were badly beaten up and injured when they were covering illegal deforestation in the highly militarized Mullaitheevu district. Although some arrests were made, suspects were quickly released on bail and two years later, no one has been held legally accountable.

In July 2021, Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police, Deshabandu Tennakoon, threatened prominent investigative journalist Tharindu Jayawardena through Facebook comments (including implied death threats) after a report about him was published. Despite a formal complaint to the Inspector General of Police, there has been no proper investigations and Tennakoon has not been held accountable. 

This year, journalists covering protests have also faced reprisals. An investigation was ordered into MTV networks, a popular private television channel, in an effort to blame the channel’s live broadcast of a major protest outside the then president’s house for violence that occurred. A group of journalists from the same private channel were beaten by the STF on July 9 when they were covering a major protest outside the then Prime Minister’s residence.

One of those beaten up and injured was Mr. Waruna Sampath, who was also one of the two journalists beaten up and injured in August 2008 by then Minister Mervyn Silva and a group of goons. Waruna courageously filed fundamental rights petitions in relation to both incidents. The Supreme Court awarded him compensation for the 2008 incident and the fundamental rights petition in relation to this year’s incident has been postponed to next year. But no one has been held legally accountable for either the 2008 or 2022 incidents despite both incidents happening in front of police, media cameras and thousands of people.

Not surprisingly, many journalists fear challenging impunity and have subjected themselves to self-censorship and some have fled into exile. More are likely to follow.

Protests and international developments

This year, an unprecedented economic crisis led to a historic people’s protests that toppled a racist, corrupt and authoritarian ruling family who was well known as a predator of independent minded journalists. The Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association placed huge billboards of murdered, tortured and disappeared journalists on the fence of the Presidential Secretariat, the most prominent protest site in the country. They were removed and destroyed but were quickly re-installed. During the protests, there were also ordinary citizens holding smaller placards remembering murdered and disappeared journalists and demanding justice.

The protests coincided with significant international developments to address impunity. The Permanent People’s Tribunal in The Hague held hearings into murder of journalist and editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. The hearing was based on an indictment presented by a coalition of international press freedom organizations focusing on the overall context of crimes against journalists and impunity in Sri Lanka, noting that Lasantha’s murder was part of systematic attacks on journalists during the civil war. Forty-four names of journalists and media workers killed or disappeared between 2004 to 2010, the majority of whom are Tamils, was read out by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka while acknowledging there had been many more killed and disappeared before that. The tribunal judgement noted that the Sri Lankan government, through their acts and omissions (the lack of investigation, the lack of reparation to the victims and the full impunity) was guilty of grave violations of human rights of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, specifically the right to life, the right to freedom of expression, the right to an effective remedy and right to freedom from discrimination based on political opinion covering articles 6, 19, 2 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  

The Hague Tribunal hearings follow other international initiatives to seek justice for Lasantha’s murder in January 2009. These include the filing of a case in the United States in 2019 and a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee in 2021, both by Lasantha’s daughter, Ahimsa Wickrematunge, after a decade of waiting for justice under two different governments.

There is also a pending complaint at the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances on disappeared journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda. In November 2021, UN Working Group wrote to the government about reprisals faced by his wife Sandya Ekneligoda in her efforts to challenge impunity. Last month, she spoke at the UN’s Committee against Enforced Disappearances.

Impunity for serious crimes against journalists have featured prominently in UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reports to the Human Rights Council. Last month, the UN Human Rights Council voted on a resolution on Sri Lanka that decided to continue the evidence gathering process related to crimes and support prosecutions, and this could include serious crimes against journalists.

Judicial processes in Sri Lanka

These international initiatives have become significant as entrenched impunity has served as a license for continuing crimes and violence against journalists. Not a single person has been convicted for serious crimes against journalists and only two cases have reached the prosecution stage. In one of them, the murder of journalist Mylvaganam Nimalarajan in Jaffna in October 2000, the media reported that the Attorney General had instructed the courts not to continue the case against the suspects last year. The other is the disappearance of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda in January 2010. After an exceptionally courageous and determined campaign by his wife Sandya Ekneligoda, several army personnel were arrested and indictments filed against nine accused. Much of the progress was during new government elected in 2015 but after the return to power of Rajapaksa family in November 2019 (under whose watch Ekneligoda disappeared), there were fresh obstacles with the Rajapaksas pledging not to prosecute war heroes (i.e. military personnel). A top investigator went into exile and his chief overseeing the investigations was arrested and detained before being released on bail by a higher court and going into retirement. Even the minimum progress in investigations, arrests and prosecutions seen under the previous government in a few high profile cases that happened in Colombo was absent in cases involving Tamil journalists.

Opportunities for media freedom organizations

Although primarily driven by economic crisis, protesters on the streets of Colombo have been insisting on radical long term institutional, legal, cultural and political reform. This has provided fresh momentum to push for independent and effective criminal justice system, including more independent and professional police, prosecutors and judiciary, which is central to challenging impunity.

For decades, media freedom organizations have been campaigning against impunity, on the streets, through seminars and statements. But although they often demand criminal accountability through judicial processes and international involvement, their interventions in the judicial and international spheres have been limited. For example, there were no strong interventions in relation to the Hague Tribunal or various UN initiatives to address impunity. There has been very little legal assistance to survivors of crimes and victim’s families to challenge impunity, which takes years, as the Ekneligoda case indicates.

The judicial system offers various opportunities to challenge impunity such as filing writs, fundamental rights cases and becoming an intervening party in ongoing cases, which have not been explored much by media freedom groups in Sri Lanka. A writ filed by former prisoner and rights activist led to a landmark prosecution and conviction of a senior prison official in a prison massacre. Systematic trial observations and advocacy in relation to significant court cases would also be important in addressing impunity.

In the last few months, leaders of the Young Journalists Association (YJA) have filed court cases including a private plaint at a Magistrate’s Court and fundamental rights case at the Supreme Court to address impunity in relation to a freedom of expression and assembly violations by the police. YJA has been at forefront of challenging impunity for crimes against free expression by lodging many complaints to the Human Rights Commission in context of people’s protests. Their activism, along with some families of victims such as Sandya Ekneligoda and Ahimsa Wickrematunge, has been inspiring and breath of fresh air in challenging impunity.

This year of crisis, uncertainty and hope could become a turning point to challenge impunity for crimes against journalists. Innovation, creativity, consistency, commitment and courage from local media freedom organizations, especially in the judicial and international spheres, could be a key factor.