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Home > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle > > International Conference on Tamil Nationhood, Canada 1999 > Media Bias and Censorship in Conflict Reporting in Sri Lanka
|Proceedings of International Conference On Tamil Nationhood
& Search for Peace in Sri Lanka, Ottawa, Canada 1999
Media Bias and Censorship
Dharmaretnam Sivaram, Writer-Journalist, Colombo, Sri Lanka
The bases for repressing the media and restricting the freedom of expression in Sri Lankan are ensconced in the country's constitution itself.
Needless to say the same constitutional instruments have been liberally applied and extensively abused to oppress the Tamil population in the northern and eastern parts of the island and also to trample on the rights of Sinhala civilians during the leftist insurrections in 1971 and 1988.
Let me first set out briefly the effects of these two constitutional tools.
Censorship has been imposed many times and in many forms in Sri Lanka under the emergency regulations.
It has been exercised both selectively and comprehensively. Under what I have termed comprehensive censorship, it was possible in theory for the government censor to delete anything from a paper and to totally ban publications and seal printing presses. The Saturday Review, the English paper published in Jaffna and the Aththa, the Communist Sinhala language daily were banned in the early eighties under the PSO. When the Aththa was banned its press was also sealed. In the seventies the government sealed the printing press of the Independent Newspapers Ltd. (Davasa Group) using the emergency regulations.
The selective imposition of the censorship under the Emergency Regulations (E.R): All material relating to a subject specified in a gazetted presidential proclamation has to be submitted for perusal and censoring by a 'competent authority'. Normally the so-called 'competent authority' (a preposterous euphemism) is a politically favoured civil servant. The PA regime made history by appointing a military officer as the government censor last year.
Between 1977 and 1989 the UNP regime imposed selective censorship on subjects such as the proceedings of the all party conference in 1984, protests against the establishment of an Israeli interest section in Colombo, "the actions of or actions relating to students of Universities".
It is in principle possible under the ER to subject any topic deemed an anathema by a Sri Lankan regime to censorship by a competent authority.
The ER provides the legal foundation for the arbitrariness that has invariably characterised censorship in Sri Lanka. The committee appointed by the PA to 'Advise on the Reform of Laws Affecting Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression' comprising eminent lawyers and legal experts, including R.K.W Goonesekere (chairman), Dr.Shirani Banadaranayake (supreme court judge), Dr. Rohan Edirisinha, Suriya Wickeremasinghe and Dr. Jayampathi Wickramaratne, says in its report
The report further observes that
Setting out the terms of reference of the 'Committee to Advise on the Reform of Laws Affecting Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression', in the letter of its appointment dated 5 January, 1995, the PA government's Minister of Media, Tourism and Aviation directed the committee to:
The committee put out its report on May 27, 1996 (it was published by the government printer). In its recommendations it states, among other things,
No sooner had it mandated the committee to examine restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression and recommend changes, the PA, in an act that can only be described as unabashed hypocrisy, introduced a total prohibition on the publication of material relating to the official conduct of the armed forces or the Police. And then the ink was hardly dry on the committee's report when the PA clamped down censorship on reporting the activities of the military in the north and east and appointed a 'competent authority' to 'axe' news copies and articles sent in by news papers and other publications. The incomparably ludicrous manner in which the 'competent authority' has used his power to chop and mangle reports has been exposed in the Sri Lankan press time and again.
But out of fear or a sense of loyalty to the army's cause, there was a patent tendency in some newspapers to send all copies that even slightly smacked of the military situation in the north and east, including what the Tigers were doing or were saying, copies that said absolutely nothing about procurements or operations intended by the army. This flows from a very fundamental tendency among some Sinhala journalists to tacitly, and sometimes openly, accept the operations of the Public Security Ordinance and the sixth amendment.
Herein lies a pointer to understanding the silences in sections of the Sri Lankan free media and those organisations that were established to protect it at times when Tamil journalists fell victim to the ER.
Mr.B.Sivakumar, the editor of Sarinihar, the respected Tamil paper published by the Movement for Inter Racial Justice and Equality, says
The gist of what the editor of
Sarinihar says constitutes a fundamental contradiction which in my view,
perpetuates, and perhaps multiplies, the general condition for oppressing the
free media in Sri Lanka.
One instance would suffice to illustrate my point. All members of the committee appointed by the PA to 'Advise on the Reform of Laws Affecting Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression' except held the view that the Sixth Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution "prohibits even the peaceful advocacy of separatism, and furthermore provides the most draconian penalties. It is a limitation on the freedom of expression" The committee with one dissent recommended that the Sixth Amendment should be repealed.
It also urged that no prohibition of the peaceful advocacy of separatism should be included in the new constitutional provisions proposed by the PA government. The committee member who opposed this was Mr. Victor Gunawardena, a veteran English language journalist in Sri Lanka who is currently the course director for journalism at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute. Mr. A. Sivanesachelvan one of Sri Lanka's senior Tamil news paper editors and the only active Tamil member of the Editor's Guild of Sri Lanka described the condition of journalism in the island aptly:
Problems faced by Tamil journalists in media unions such as the Working Journalist's Association led to an attempt in the early nineties to the formation Thesiya Thamizh Pathirihaialar Sangam (National Tamil Journalists' Association). Proceedings in the media unions are generally in Sinhala which is inevitable given the preponderance of Sinhala language journalists in them. Younger generation Tamil journalists from the north and east have little or no knowledge of the Sinhala language.
It was also felt that these unions scarcely took note of the problems faced by Tamil journalists. Senior Tamil journalists such as long time editor of R. Sivagurunathan who were active in Sri Lankan media unions in the early eighties had to leave due to rising Sinhala chauvinism in the ranks.
Does this mean that the blame for the problems faced by Sri Lankan Tamil journalists be placed squarely at the door step of Sinhala nationalism? No.
As I said at the outset it has become
an ingrained habit among Tamil journalists to take for granted the
potential and traditional inclination of the Sri Lankan security forces and
Police to oppress. This naturally gave rise to fear and self-censorship.
The despicably shameful manner in which the Virakesari management completely shirked its responsibility when Mr.Manickawasagam was arrested and detained by the Terrorism Investigation Unit of the Sri Lankan Police is a case in point.
This state of affairs in the Tamil media has created a situation where journalists are not aware of their fundamental rights or that they should and can take action either individually or collectively against the arbitrary violation of these rights as very basic means of ensuring their security and carrying out their duties as professionals.
The manner in which Tamil journalists submit to army restrictions on travel to certain areas in the north and east, including the home villages of some of these, is a consequence of this.
The army has banned journalists from entering areas held in the Vanni region in the northern province and in the Mutur area in the eastern province of the island. Journalists who want to visit other areas here have to obtain special permission from the Ministry of Defence.
Permitting local Tamil journalists to enter areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers in the Batticaloa district is sole at the discretion of the army. (Foreign reporters have to obtain clearance from the MOD in Colombo.) The freedom of movement within Sri Lanka is a fundamental right of a Sri Lankan citizen entrenched in country's constitution as set out in Article 14.1 (h). Tamil journalists are scarcely aware of this.
This right, like many others, is but a travesty of justice and equality. It's been a long time since they had stopped taking note of such rights promised to Sri Lankan citizens. Such is the nature of the ethnic polarisation in Sri Lanka.