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October – A bleak month for freedom of expression in Sri Lanka

Type of Violation in October 2020. Image via Groundviews

Type of Violation in October 2020. Image via Groundviews.

This post by Ruki Fernando originally appeared in Groundviews, an award-winning citizen media website in Sri Lanka. A shortened and edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement with Global Voices.

October was a bleak month for freedom of expression in Sri Lanka with four cases of assault against five provincial journalists. All five journalists had to be hospitalised. Media organisations issued statements condemning these incidents and protests were held in the aftermath of at least one incident.

There were also other violations. One person was arrested for exercising her right to freedom expression online. An indirect threat was levelled against those criticizing the army for alleged shortcomings in their treatment of suspected COVID-19 patients. The month saw the passage of the 20th Amendment to the constitution, which according to human rights groups is detrimental to democracy.

This article offers a snapshot of challenges to freedom of expression in Sri Lanka during the month of October. It is based on conversations with some of those affected and information provided by journalists, media organizations and media reports. It lists incidents against freedom of expression with basic details on each incident and quotes from victims, concerned groups and experts.

Incidents during the month

Attack on journalist in Moneragala district

On October 3, Derana TV journalist Mr. Indunil Wijenayake was assaulted by sand miners while covering an illegal sand mining operation in Moneragala district in the Southeast of Sri Lanka. He was treated at the Moneragala District Hospital. His camera was damaged during the attack. Indunil mentioned that two persons were arrested for the assault and later released on bail. After a hearing on October 27 at the Moneragala Magistrate Court (case no. 96/297/2020), the hearings have been postponed until January 2021. The Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka condemned the incident and called for justice.

Attack on journalist in Trincomalee district

On October 11, Mr. M. H. Yusuf, a provincial correspondent for Independent Television Network (ITN), was assaulted while reporting on an accident in Trincomalee District in the Eastern province of Sri Lanka. During the assault, he also lost his camera. A complaint was lodged with the Agbopura police (complaint no. CIB 132/71). Yusuf mentioned that three persons were arrested and presented before the courts for an identification parade but he was not able to identify them as he had been nervous at the time of the incident and there had been many people. The Muslim Media Forum condemned the incident.

Attack on two journalists in Mullaitivu district

On October 12, two Tamil Guardian correspondents, Mr. Kanapathipallai Kumanan and Mr. Shanmugam Thavaseelan, were verbally threatened and physically attacked while investigating an alleged timber trafficking operation in Mullaitivu district in the Northern province of Sri Lanka. The journalists’ attackers wiped most of the documentation they had taken of the deforestation and removed their memory cards. The attackers also stole their money and jewellery and filmed the journalists on their mobile phones while accusing them of trespassing. After the incident, Kumanan and Thavaseelan were admitted to Mullaitivu Base Hospital for treatment. Members of the Jaffna Press Club protested about the attack in front of the Mullaitivu District Secretariat, police station and District Forestry Office.

According to a media report, one suspect who has permanent residency in Norway has been given bail while the three other suspects have been remanded in custody. The incident was condemned by several media organizations such as the Jaffna Press Club, the Muslim Media Forum, the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) and the Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka (FMM).

Assault on journalist in Gampaha district

According to Mr. M. H. K. Jayantha, President of the Gampaha District Journalists Collective, Mr. Manoj Edirisinghe, a Sirasa TV correspondent residing in Mirigama, was assaulted and had to be hospitalized for several days with injuries to his face and an eye. The incident occurred on October 19 when the journalist was returning home after work. A suspect has been produced before a Magistrate and has been remanded until November 3. The incident has received some media coverage.

Arrest for posting a video on Facebook

The police arrested a woman on or around October 18 for uploading a video on Facebook with content that is alleged to have hateful content against the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo. She was remanded until November 2 for having committed offences under the Computer Crimes Act and Article 291A of the Penal Code.

The Administrative Secretary of the Archdiocese issued a statement saying that the video released on social media had false, unfounded, insulting and misleading content and that complaints had been lodged with relevant institutions.

Threatening remarks to critics by the Army Commander

The Commander of the Army, who also heads the COVID-19 prevention centre, made threatening statements after facing criticism in the media and complaints to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) for the Army’s alleged mistreatment of apparel workers suspected of having COVID-19. The complainants to HRCSL had made the Commander a respondent. The Commander termed the allegations “unfounded and fabricated” and stated that “all those intentional fabrications bear the hallmarks of a precursor to a bigger future machination the interested elements are now mapping out in order to tarnish or ridicule the role of the troops”.

Other significant trends and events

20th Amendment to the constitution

The 20th amendment to the constitution was passed in parliament on October 22. The amendment enhances most of the constitutional and executive powers to the Sri Lankan President which was previously abolished in the 19th amendment. This weakens the powers of the Prime minister's office and the cabinet. Before its passage, the amendment was criticized as a threat to democracy, human rights and freedom of expression by the Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka and human rights lawyers.

Unethical reporting by media

During September, Ethics Eye Facebook page and Twitter account highlighted unethical reporting by various media outlets on topics such as COVID-19 patients, suicide and sexual abuse. There were also derogatory references and negative portrayals of women, non-Sri Lankan citizens, drug users, ethnic and religious minorities. Ethics Eye, a research-based public education platform which monitors violations of media ethics in the Sinhala & Tamil press, noted media outlets’ failure to consider ethics in reproducing violent images, pre-judging the guilt of the accused and exposing private and personal information. The Director-General of the Government Information Department noted violations by the media of recommendations issued in relation to coverage of funerals of those succumbing to COVID-19 and requested the media to abide by these recommendations. The College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka called for regulations to control the illegal disclosure of COVID-19 patients and their contacts by the media.

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