Free expression at stake in critical Sri Lankan intimidation case18 Aug, 2021
A senior police officer threatening a highly respected journalist is likely to have a chilling effect on journalism if it goes unchecked, writes Ruki Fernando.
Tharindu Jayawardhana is one of Sri Lanka’s most outstanding and promising young journalists. His writings and MediaLK, the news website he founded in 2019, are noted for highlighting some of the most critical injustices and rights violations faced by numerous ethnic minorities in the country, such as Tamils and Muslims. But concerningly, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Mass Media is currently refusing the registration of MediaLK, due to lack of clearance from the Ministry of Defense and a formal complaint lodged with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka is pending.
The complaints are not only a concern for a respected and brave young journalist known for uncovering important stories, but also in terms of the greater implications for freedom of expression in Sri Lanka when journalists can be intimidated and threatened (as Tharindu has) for reporting in the public interest.
Tharindu started his journalistic career at popular daily newspaper Lankadeepa, where he wrote detailed features on the environment, corruption and human rights. Together with another colleague, he also wrote controversial exposés in the column Investigating the Truth. In his journalism, he is well known for his extensive use of the Right to Information (RTI) and won a special award for utilizing the RTI Act for public objectives and the wellbeing of society at an event celebrating international RTI day organized by the Ministry of Mass Media and earned an award for best feature using RTI and ‘Scoop of the Year’ at Editors Guild of Sri Lanka awards. A published book author, Tharindu has also documented the community struggle for water in Rathupaswela and the killing of three people during a protest in 2013.
As a founding member, former secretary and presently an executive committee member of the Young Journalists Association (YJA), Tharindu has been at the forefront of raising issues related to freedom of expression, arbitrary detention, torture and right to fair trial – regularly engaging with statutory institutions such as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, including lodging public interest complaints on matters where police stand accused of human rights violations.
Triggers to the recent threats
Tharindu began facing the first of a series of intimidations following his reporting on the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday bombings, after the inquiry found that a senior deputy inspector general of police (SDIG) Deshanbandu Tennakoon had not fulfilled his duties during the attack and was recommending a disciplinary inquiry.
On June 29, MediaLK published its report that a Special Police Investigative Division appointed to investigate police negligence in relation to the bombings had recommended to present charge sheets against several senior police officers, including Tennakoon. The minister in charge of police confirmed at a press conference that the Public Services Commission had forwarded the charge sheets. The MediaLK report also mentioned that Tennakoon was among those that the Sri Lankan Cabinet had approved for a special salary increase – despite disciplinary steps being recommended against him by the Presidential Commission and the Special Police Investigation Division. The report was based on responses to questions posed by Tharindu at a press conferences on June 18 and 29.
It is thought that some of Tharindu’s earlier reporting that month might have been the catalyst for threats that were to follow. Just a few weeks earlier, on June 9, Tharindu posted photos on Facebook of a gathering, which included the Prime Minister, at a funeral for a family member of a prominent Buddhist monk at a time when Covid-19-related restrictions on travelling and gatherings were in place. As this had happened in the Western province headed by SDIG Tennakoon, the journalist tagged the SDIG’s Facebook page and posed a series of questions. While the SDIG did not respond to the questions on the platform, he asked Tharindu to call him, providing a mobile number. But, despite repeated attempts to connect with the SDIG, he got no answer.
On July 1, MediaLK published another investigative report about a senior police officer who had retired after career of 35 years. The officer had been in detention for about ten months and had been released on bail few days before. The arrest and detention had led to widespread condemnation and expressions of concern, including by the Appeal Court, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the European Parliament. The arrest was made by the Colombo Crime Division (CCD) of the police, overseen by SDIG Tennakoon.
Tharindu shared the report on Facebook the same day and within about half an hour, a tirade of comments from SDIG Tennakoon started on the post. Most of the SDIG’s comments accused Tharindu of writing and publishing false news. The journalist, on several occasions, responded to the comments, requesting information about any falsehoods and offered corrections where needed. Other journalists and lawyers also requested the SDIG to provide information about any falsehoods written. No specific instances were pointed out.
Among the threats were that Tharindu would be punished by ‘natural justice’. In another, the SDIG referred to Prabakaran (the former leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – LTTE) and criminals.
This is a serious threat, considering that Prabakaran was killed by the Sri Lankan Army at the end of the war and two alleged criminals were killed in police custody in May this year. At least ten other people are reported to have been killed in police custody in the last 12 months.
After the incident, Tharindu wrote a letter to the Inspector General of Police (IGP), requesting to prevent any harm from coming to him, his family or those close to him and to ensure their security. He also requested the IGP guarantee his freedom to carry out his professional work as a journalist and to conduct an inquiry about the threats made in the online comments. The Media Organizations Collective (six media freedom organizations) has also written to the IGP demanding for guarantees for Tharindu’s safety and to conduct a formal inquiry. Opposition political parties, including the Opposition Leader also expressed concern through public statements and interventions in parliament.
Fears of self-censorship
It is important to note that the SDIG is the second most senior position in the police force. As such, an SDIG publicly making threatening remarks against a respected, award-winning and well-known independent journalist and getting away with it is likely have chilling effect on many lesser-known journalists.
If SDIG Tennakoon is not held accountable, it will only encourage more predators of free expression. For other journalists, it could lead to more self-censorship. The journalistic community and all those whose right to information is at stake must rally in solidarity with Tharindu and others who face reprisals for exercising the right to free expression.
Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan human rights activist and writer. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Free Media Movement (FMM). His writings are available at www.rukiiiii.wordpress.com.