Marking Black January:The Sri Lankan media’s cry for justice | Sunday Observer

Marking Black January:The Sri Lankan media’s cry for justice

Clamour for justice
Clamour for justice

The word ‘Freedom’ seems to be illusive. It is definitely relative.

And now, ‘Black January’ has come upon us. Journalists of Sri Lanka commemorate it year after year, just as the country’s citizenry celebrate independence, or their illusion of freedom.

Ten journalists were murdered between 2000 and 2009. Aiyathurai Nadesan, Bala Nadarajah Iyer, Dharmeratnam Sivaram, Lasantha Wickrametunge, Mylvaganam Nimalarajan, Paranirupasingham Devakumar, Relangi Selvarajah, Selvarajah Rajeewarnam, Subash Chandraboas and Subramaniyam Sugitharajah.

Then there are dozens of others- according to the President of the Sri Lanka Chapter of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) Lakshman Gunasekara, nearly 70 journalists were killed during the past 35 years and many others maimed and injured. Some, lucky enough to have left the country heeding warnings of the threat against them still live in exile.

Peaceful protests

Reminding the relevant authorities and the public, in a bid to demand justice and to end impunity for crimes against journalists and media organisations, a number of peaceful protests were held in different parts of the country during January.

Spearheaded by the Free Media Movement (FMM), members of the Working Journalists’ Association (WJA); Media Workers Trade Union Collective (MWTUC); Sri Lanka Young Journalists’ Association (SLYJA); Tamil Media Collective (TMC); Muslim Media Collective (MMC); Online Media Activists’ Collective (OMAC); and the Media Movement for Democracy (MMD) participated in these events. It is the ninth protest since the FMM started it in 2011.

Marking Black January

Bearing photographs of slain journalists and media personnel who had disappeared, the gathering at the Lipton Circus in Colombo marked ‘Black January’ on Tuesday (29) evening. Later, a candlelight vigil was held reminding everyone that the media does not forget any of the crimes conducted against journalists and justice needs to be served- soon.

Earlier in the day, they also petitioned the National Police Commission (NPC), the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), and the UN office in Colombo calling upon them to intervene to hasten the legal process.

“Every January is designated as Black January,” said Gunasekara of SAFMA, “January because it is the first month of the year and we can remind the public that all these crimes have occurred, and nothing have been done about them.”

As many of the crimes against journalists have taken place in January, the month was dubbed ‘Black January’ It was in January 2009 that Lasantha Wickrametunge, the Editor of the Sunday Leader was murdered.

The year after, again in January, political analyst and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda was abducted.

Gunasekara said journalists were killed, injured, disappeared and traumatised but, to date, none of the perpetrators have been caught and prosecuted.

“ The majority of these journalists are those who have been critical of the Government in power at the time and critical of politicians then in power. So, when governments fail to prosecute, we can only presume that they have some involvement in the crimes themselves,” and he challenged the current government to disprove those suspiciouns by investigating without delay, identifying and prosecuting these perpetrators of crimes against journalists.

“The current government was voted into power on the mandate of accountability for the crimes against journalists and media organisations. It was a key promise in the ‘Yahapalana’ manifesto during the current President Maithripala Sirisena’s run for Presidency in January 2015.

However, after four years, there is no progress,” said Chairperson of the Working Journalists Association, Duminda Sampath. Instead, the President treads a dubious path of protecting and vindicating the very criminals who have planned and carried out these brutal acts, claim the media organisations.

Terror

The time prior to 2015 was a time of terror where murder, abduction, assault and intimidation of journalists and attacks on media organisations including setting them on fire, was a common occurrence. “Time and again, we call upon the Government to speed up the process of investigation and prosecution of perpetrators,” said Sampath. However, progress was not to see the light of day.

According to Sampath, that’s the reason they had resorted to petitioning the NPC and the UN’s intervention. P.H. Manatunga, President, NPC and S. Vikinda, Security Consultant of the UN office in Colombo accepted the two petitions.

Sampath Amarakoon, President, OMAC requested the President of the NPC, to reveal the current status of the investigations into the killings, abductions and assaults of journalists to the public. “We have a right to know the truth,” he said.

The FMM in a statement about the petition to HRCSL, noted Dr. Deepika Udugama’s statement that in the event of presenting the Commission with details of those murdered, abducted or assaulted journalists, t the HRCSL would commence investigations.

Members of the FMM Executive Committee also handed over a detailed report on the lack of legal action for the perpetrators of crimes against journalists and media organisations, to the HRCSL.

The hindrance to progressive legal action, problems within the legal system, lack of political will connections within the defence and civil forces, the interventions of media institution owners, readers, listeners and viewers of varied media being insufficient and insignificant had been identified as the key obstacles to bringing the perpetrators before the legal system.

Governmental responsibility

“This time we are asking not to leave space to hold another Black January,” says FMM’s Seetha Ranjanee. She said that the Government has the responsibility to expedite the investigations on such crimes and take necessary action against the perpetrators, especially because the Yahapalana Government came into power with the key slogan of promising to serve justice to the slain, disappeared and the injured.

Ranjanee said most of the investigations into the cases of Lasantha Wickramatunga, Prageeth Ekneligoda and Keith Noyahr have revealed who the people behind these incidents could be. According to her the lack of political commitment has left such cases still ongoing.

Freelance journalist KathyanaAmarasinghe who has worked in the industry for the past two decades said when one thinks about justice one needs to think about the families, especially the women.

Wives

“The wives or the partners of the affected journalists suffer a lot. No one really talks about them. We need to listen to their voices as well,” Amarasinghe said as she held a candle shedding a little light on that dark evening.

More candles were placed around a statue of a pen tip- indicating that the only crime the slain, maimed and disappeared journalists ever did was to take up a pen to inform the public of the corruption taking place in the island. Decades later the impunity for crimes against journalists remains a front-line issue here. Fervently hoping that the candles burnt that evening would shed light on these crimes the media personnel dispersed.

(Pix: Ranjith Asanka)

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