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Assaults on freedom of expression

Any hopes that the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka would inaugurate renewed freedom of expression have been dashed, says Rohini Hensman. Several outspoken journalists have been attacked, web journals focusing on corruption and human rights violations have been blocked, and a state plan to set up an Internet filtering system with the help of Chinese experts was exposed

I should clarify at the start that I propose to use ‘freedom of expression’ in a broad sense, as encompassing not only freedom of the press but also the freedom to make speeches, hold up banners or placards and shout slogans in peaceful demonstrations, and express opinions in e-magazines, blogs, YouTube and SMS messages. Indeed, strikes and pickets can also be seen as ways in which workers express their dissatisfaction with the prevailing situation in their company or country, while campaigning and voting in elections are ways in which citizens express their feelings about government policies. And the right to use one’s own language without being victimised can surely be seen as an element of freedom of expression.

Historical background

Attacks on the rights of Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka began in 1956, but the wholesale clampdown on freedom of expression began in the latter half of the 1970s. The month after J R Jayawardene and his United National Party (UNP) were swept to power in the July 1977 elections, there were pogroms against Tamils in Jaffna, Colombo, Kandy and elsewhere. Investigations showed that these were carried out at the behest of the UNP by the police. Subsequent massacres, most notably those of July 1983, were carried out by thugs of the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS), supposedly a trade union affiliated to the UNP. These same stormtroopers were used to conduct brutal assaults on striking workers and picketers with the collusion of the police. In 1981, the civil rights movement documented dozens of such incidents in which strikers suffered grievous injuries and, in at least one case, death. Even pregnant women were not spared. The sacking of around 40,000 striking government employees in 1980 made it clear that the regime would not countenance long-established modes of expression of working class dissatisfaction.

The right to campaign and vote in elections was also attacked. In 1980, Jayawardene divested Sirimavo Bandaranaike, his main rival, of her civic rights, thus preventing her from standing or even campaigning against him in the October 1982 presidential election, and effectively disenfranchising her supporters. Moreover, the entire government apparatus (including vehicles, personnel and state-controlled media) was used to campaign for him. Despite all this, he got only 52.91% of the votes cast, and there was a marked swing towards Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). In order to forestall an opposition victory in the general elections that were to follow, he carried out a referendum in which the people of Sri Lanka, who had always taken elections seriously, apparently voted to disenfranchise themselves by cancelling the elections. This result was achieved by massive vote-rigging at the referendum, accompanied by extensive intimidation of voters, who were physically prevented from voting in opposition strongholds.

The presidential elections of December 1988, which resulted in Ranasinghe Premadasa of the UNP coming to power, were even worse. Opposition candidates and organisers were detained or shot dead, curfews were suddenly declared when opposition candidates were about to have a meeting, and opposition campaigning was disrupted by bomb-throwing and other violence. Measures taken on polling day included UNP supporters voting several times, ballot boxes being captured and stuffed, armed thugs at polling booths monitoring how ballot papers were marked while the police looked on, trees felled across roads which voters would have to travel in order to reach polling stations, voters and polling officers shot dead, and a large number of polling booths closed down during polling. The violence continued into the general election of February 1989, with over a hundred people being killed every day, at its height.

All this was accompanied by assaults on freedom of expression in the more traditional sense. For example, 20,000 pamphlets opposing the referendum brought out by a Buddhist monk organisation, Voice of the Clergy, were seized by the police in 1982, while the Communist Party newspaper, Aththa, which also opposed the referendum and had an editorial entitled ‘The Dictatorship of J R Jayawardene is Already Here’, was sealed. The assault on journalists who were critical of the regime was exemplified by the murder of prominent journalist, author, human rights activist and actor Richard de Zoysa. He was abducted from his home in Colombo in the early hours of February 18, 1990, by two men in police uniform assisted by others in black uniforms; his dead body, showing signs of torture, later washed up on the beach around 12 miles south of Colombo.

De Zoysa had published articles describing death squad killings of students in southern Sri Lanka; in one such article, entitled ‘Sri Lanka: Nearing a Human Rights Apocalypse’, he accused the special task force, a police commando unit, of carrying out extra-judicial executions. Furthermore, he was involved in staging a play, ‘Who is This Man and What is He Doing?’ that was highly critical of the government and satirised President Premadasa. A municipal councillor taking part in the production, Lakshman Perera, had disappeared in January 1990. De Zoysa’s mother, Dr Manorani Saravanamuttu, witnessed his abduction and was later able to identify one of the police officers who carried it out, Ronnie Gunasinghe. Her lawyer informed the police and the magistrate conducting the inquiry, but he was not arrested. Instead, Dr Saravanamuttu and her lawyer Batty Weerakoon were issued death threats.  

Non-state actors violating freedom of expression

It was not just the state that was responsible for violations of the right to freedom of expression. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led by Rohana Wijeweera, a Sinhalese militant organisation with an ideology that was a mixture of socialism, Sinhala nationalism and extreme authoritarianism, was equally intolerant of dissent. The first JVP insurrection in 1971 was crushed rapidly by the state. The second, despite brutal state repression, carried on from 1987 until it was crushed following Wijeweera’s execution in late-1989. In 1986, the JVP murdered the leader of the Colombo University-based Independent Students Union, Daya Pathirana, who was sympathetic to the grievances of Tamils. After the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed by J R Jayawardene and Rajiv Gandhi in 1987, proposing a political solution to the ethnic crisis that was far from perfect but went further towards satisfying Tamil grievances than any previous proposal, the JVP targeted all those who supported it. This included members of the main left parties: the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), Communist Party (CP), Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP), and Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP). Several members of these parties were killed by the JVP, prominent among them were Vijaya Kumaratunga, leader of the SLMP (killed in February 1988), and George Rajapakse of the CP. Terrorised and desperate, some members of the left parties, like Chandrika Kumaratunga, fled abroad, some took up arms to defend themselves, and some -- tragically -- collaborated with state security forces hunting the JVP.

The other major non-state organisation responsible for the destruction of freedom of expression was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Its use of detention, torture and murder to silence critics claimed thousands of lives and sent many others into exile to escape such a fate. The case of Rajani Thiranagama exemplifies its modus operandi. Thiranagama was a doctor, lecturer, feminist and author who was also a founding member of University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) (UTHR-J). In 1989, she and three other academics from the university jointly published a book, The Broken Palmyra, which catalogued and criticised human rights violations committed by all parties to the conflict, including Tamil militant groups. A few weeks later, on September 21, an LTTE gunman shot her dead while she was cycling home from work. UTHR-J was forced underground, but continued to produce unbiased reports of human rights violations in the civil war: one of the exceedingly few sources from which it was possible to obtain accurate information about what was really happening.

It can be argued that the LTTE’s ruthless suppression of freedom of expression under its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, was what ultimately led to its downfall. Protests by Tamil civilians in the parts of Sri Lanka’s northeast controlled by the LTTE, especially against its policy of conscripting children into the armed struggle, were ignored or crushed. This refusal to accept any criticism of its policies, even those that were universally hated, led to disenchantment with the LTTE and withdrawal of any popular support it may once have enjoyed. Dissatisfaction with Prabhakaran’s goals and strategy even penetrated the ranks of the LTTE, and in 2004, was voiced by his eastern commander, Karuna Amman. Instead of taking the criticisms on board, Prabhakaran threatened Karuna with death, and launched a military assault against him and his supporters. Some of those supporters were killed, but Karuna himself escaped, and later teamed up with the government to fight against the LTTE. This was probably the mistake that marked the beginning of the end for the LTTE. But it was compounded by the LTTE’s boycott of the presidential elections of 2005, enforced by violence. This is what enabled hardline President Mahinda Rajapaksa to come to power and crush the LTTE in 2009, with tens of thousands of civilian casualties.

A brief reprieve

In 1993, Premadasa was blown up by a suicide bomber, and in the presidential and parliamentary elections at the end of 1994 Chandrika Kumaratunga and the People’s Alliance (PA) led by her were swept to power on a platform of peace with justice for Tamils. There followed a decade during which assaults on freedom of expression by the government were reined in. It is true this was only a brief reprieve, but it is important to record it, lest it be thought that the people of Sri Lanka do not value freedom of expression, or that the majority of Sinhalese people are inherently and virulently anti-Tamil.

However, it is important to remember that throughout this period, the LTTE’s assaults on freedom of expression continued unabated, affecting not only the population of the north and east, but even Tamils in government-controlled areas including Colombo. Among the high-profile cases of Tamils who were eliminated because they did not toe the LTTE line were Sarojini Yogeswaran, Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) politician and mayor of Jaffna (killed on May 17, 1998); Neelan Tiruchelvam of the TULF, internationally renowned scholar and lawyer (killed on July 29, 1999); Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, also a distinguished diplomat and lawyer (killed on August 12, 2005); and Ketheeswaran Loganathan, author, journalist, political activist and human rights advocate (killed on August 12, 2006). By systematically silencing Tamils who spoke out for peace with justice for Tamils, the LTTE eliminated a large proportion of the men and women who could have negotiated a just political settlement, and made the bloody finale of the war inevitable.  

The Rajapaksa regime

Under the Rajapaksa administration, Sri Lanka descended once more into the ranks of those countries where journalists are most at risk. Between 2005 and mid-2008, 14 media workers were killed, seven abducted, and 25 fled abroad due to threats to their lives. Defence correspondent Iqbal Athas was subjected to sustained attacks by the Ministry of Defence, while government ministers repeatedly and openly attacked mediapersons verbally and physically without any disciplinary action being taken against them. Thirteen journalists were arrested and detained, including senior journalist J S Tissainayagam, who was later charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and sentenced to 20 years in jail. Defence columnist Keith Noyahr, Namal Perera of the Sri Lanka Press Institute, and Poddala Jayantha, secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association and campaigner for press freedom, were abducted and beaten so mercilessly that they barely escaped with their lives.

The case that received most publicity, perhaps, was that of Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, shot dead on January 8, 2009. These words in his last editorial, which was published posthumously, made it clear that this was a death foretold: “No other profession calls upon its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces -- and, in Sri Lanka, journalism… Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories, and now especially the last… When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.” 

Any hopes that the end of the war would inaugurate renewed freedom of expression were rapidly dashed. Indeed, the presidential and parliamentary elections in early-2010 and the passage of the 18th amendment to the Constitution, abolishing the two-term limit to the executive presidency and nullifying limits to the president’s power that had been introduced by the 17th amendment, were eerily reminiscent of events in the 1980s. The use of government machinery to campaign for Mahinda Rajapaksa, the use of violence against the campaign of the main opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka, numerous polling irregularities, the arrest and incarceration of Sarath Fonseka after the presidential elections and denunciation of those who had voted for him as ‘traitors’, and the way in which a constitutional amendment was rushed through without the required procedure, could all have come straight out of Jayawardene’s and Premadasa’s regimes. At the same time, journalists in Sri Lanka continued to be threatened and attacked, and foreign publications with articles critical of the regime were seized by customs.

A means of expression which was largely absent in the 1980s but has become extremely important today is the Internet. Consequently, attacks on freedom of expression have targeted websites and web journalists with censorship and violence. LankaNewsWeb was rendered inaccessible since July 11, 2009, and LankaeNews, InfoLanka and Sri Lanka Guardian were blocked temporarily. TamilNet remained blocked. In an interview with Reporters Without Borders, LankaNewsWeb editor-in-exile Chandima Withanaarachchi explained that his website focuses on “human rights abuses, corruption and malpractices of political leaders”: clearly not topics that the regime wishes to see discussed. In February 2010, the Sunday Times and LankaNewsWeb reported a plan by the state to set up an Internet filtering system with the help of Chinese experts and make Internet website registration a requirement. The plan was abandoned only after being denounced by the World Bank, which funds Sri Lanka’s Telecommunications Development Programme.

On January 24, 2010, political analyst and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, working for LankaeNews, disappeared. More than a year later, no progress has been made with his case. In July 2010, there was an arson attack by a dozen armed men on the Voice of Asia group’s offices. Another arson attack destroyed the offices of LankaeNews during the night of January 30-31, 2011, after it published an article challenging the testimony given by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, secretary of defence and the president’s brother, during the trial of Sarath Fonseka. The website’s editor, Sandaruwan Senadheera, had already been forced to seek asylum in the UK with his family after receiving threats.  

No action has been taken against the perpetrators of any of these crimes, making it clear that they were done at the behest of the regime in power. This makes it all the more important that violations of freedom of expression in Sri Lanka should remain in the spotlight.

(Rohini Hensman is an activist and independent scholar working on issues of workers’ rights, women’s rights, the rights of minorities in India and Sri Lanka, and globalisation. She has written extensively on these issues, her most recent book being Workers, Unions, and Global Capitalism: Lessons From India. Her publications include two novels)

Infochange News & Features, July 2011