VENDETTA OR ABUSE OF POWER?
by Dr. Tilak S. Fernando reporting from London
Whilst seeking solutions to eradicate terrorism from the Sri Lankan soil for good and taking the country on a progressive path with a forward planning scheme, President Mahinda Rajapakse appears to be evidently lumbered with additional burdens from certain quarters of Government Institutions and the Media alike in this country. The latest ill-mannered affray seen on television at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini offices in Colombo on Thursday, 27 December, no doubt has been viewed by millions around the world with contempt.
Prior to this, last week there was an official plea to the President by the London Correspondent of the Sunday Divayina, through his column (London Satahan) where the journalist posed a decisive question in asking the President whether 'journalists are a threat to the President's life'! This he based on a personal experience when he attempted to obtain security clearances from the British Navy to cover 'the passing out parade' of Royal Naval Cadets in Dartmouth, UK, where President Rajapakse was the guest of honour and his son Yositha was also taking part as a trained cadet, a significant newsworthy incident for Sri Lanka.
When both these incidents are equated, it leaves an independent observer to think twice and wonder whether some of the government institutions have failed in their function or has there been a case of personal vendetta, misuse of power or abused their supremacy in their official capacity!
There appears to be many views surrounding the Rupavahini debacle which escalated to such an appalling state of affairs and making Sri Lanka a laughing stock in the eyes of the international community.
The two thoughts of schools enfolding the Rupavahini episode are, on the one hand whether the decision taken by the director of news not to telecast a speech made by a government minister in the presence of the Executive President of the country was justifiable….! This is reinforced by the fact that Rupavahini, being a Sri Lanka Government Media Unit, was under obligation to a greater degree to broadcast at least one or two 'voice cuts' from the minister.
On the other hand the Director of news is solely responsible in authorizing what should and what should not be broadcast through Rupavahini which amounts to freedom of the media! Since the speech under question was not anti-government it could also be arguable that the Director should have at least used his six ounces of grey matter in his head as the Corporation he works for comes directly under the purview of the Sri Lanka Government, irrespective of his personal views of the Minister .
Characteristically, Minister Mervyn Silva overstepped his mark through anger in confronting the director as millions saw on live with unedited versions at first, including Sirasa TV, a private television, coincidently was on the spot, which is notorious being hostile towards the government! The Minister on his part too had allegedly manhandled the Director personally or allowed his body guards to get involved in the incident by misusing his 'super' powers which no one can condone.
Similarly, in the name of freedom of the media, it could not be admired or made allowances for the highhanded acts by the Rupavahini journalists, other staff including many outsiders who flocked to Rupavahini premises and marooned the Minister, apparently 'in a small glass cubicle, switching off air conditioning facilities in hot temperatures to let him suffocate and allegedly assaulting him by the angry mob, stoning him and causing head injury and covering him with red paint or dye until a team of Special Task Force arrived for minister's rescue. Hooray ! for free media campaigners in Sri Lanka !!
Acts of violence from both parties in this instance are disgraceful and condemnable and go well beyond the limits of freedom of speech or the freedom of the media. No one in the name of freedom of the press or media should be allowed to take the Law unto their own hands.
The six million dollar question that needs answers is how did so many outsiders and several private media units and cameramen managed to enter the Rupavahini premises which is under heavy security . Who allowed uncut live scenes within a government media unit? Rupavahini is one of the government institutions where one needs to go through rigorous security scanning to have access to the premises. The numbers seen on TV could not possibly be only the Rupavahini staff but many outsiders including anti-government media such as the Sirasa TV doing live broadcasts and making a meal out of it repeatedly. These are questions that remain to be answered in the up and coming enquiries. No matter what, this is certain to go down in history as one of the most unfortunate incidents or clashes in Sri Lanka in the name of press democracy. Now the danger lies whether this kind of boisterousness will create precedence in the future. Let's sincerely hope that this would only be a one off such isolated unfortunate incidents which will not become contagious and spread into other areas of unrest situations.
In the case of the complaint highlighted by the Sunday Divayina London Correspondent, Sujeeva Nuvenhella, through his Sunday column, he attempted to respectfully bring to the notice of the President an incident where he became embroiled in a sticky situation with the Sri Lanka High Commissioner in London. Under the caption 'Mr. President, are journalists a threat to your life' his request to the President was to instigate an enquiry to fathom whether the Sri Lanka High Commissioner in London had overstepped her mark and abused her diplomatic powers thus letting down not only the journalist but Sri Lanka as a country in the eyes of the Royal Navy in the UK. The incident may appear very much trivial on the surface but its repercussions and undercurrents are going to be refractive.
According to the London Correspondent, he had sought an official invitation from the Royal Navy to visit the Dartmouth Royal Naval College to officially cover the passing out ceremony of Naval Cadets where President Rajapakse was the guest of honour and his son Yositha was among the cadets who had completed a year's naval training.
To regularize his visit, Nuvenhella had contacted Commodore Martin Alasbester's Coordinating Secretary, Lieutinent Jerome Laihun to seek an official invitation to cover the event as a journalist. Consequently he had been advised by the British Naval authorities to arrive at the venue on 13th December before 10 a.m., and further informed that he had to be put through a security screening test before any authorization.
In response, the London Correspondent had informed the British authorities that he was an accredited journalist to Upali Newspapers Ltd in Sri Lanka , and moreover a member of the Commonwealth Press Union, as such, his name was already registered with the Metropolitan Police as well as with the Scotland Yard as an official news gatherer.
As there was nothing forthcoming, the journalist had telephoned Lieutinent Jerome once again to double check on the progress of the security clearance procedures. At that juncture he had been advised that initial clearance had to be given by the Sri Lanka High Commission, since he was a Sri Lankan journalist based in London.
In a follow up measure Nuvenhella had telephoned the Deputy High Commissioner at the Sri Lankan High Commission in London to be advised by his Secretary that the diplomat was too busy to come to the phone! When the journalist explained his urgent requirement he had been referred to Kapila Fonseka, the Information Officer attached to the High Commission. In his article in the Sunday Divayina the journalist stated clearly what the Information Officer at the High Commission told him - "it was in the hands of the High Commissioner and still waiting her approval." On the same evening, the journalist had received an official communiqué from Lieutinent Jerome rejecting his application and dashing all his hopes.
In his beseech to the President over this issue, Sujeeva Nuvenhella was elaborate in his column by stating: " Dear Mr. President, I did not have a special craving to participate in this ceremony but I believed, as an accredited journalist, I had a right to play a vital role officially on behalf of the newspaper, The Island,. I work for, where my President and his son participated"
" Being a resident in London, I felt I could not possibly ignore such an eventful moment which is not only newsworthy but as a great privilege. Yet, Dear President, I need to bring to your immediate attention about the response I received from the Executive Office in the UK that represents your and my country abroad. Dear President, it is my humble belief that it is not only a personal rebuff for me but even to the Executive President of Sri Lanka when a Sri Lankan Institution whose prime aim and duty should be to represent the country and assist her expatriates for which purpose they are being sent abroad at the expense of the Sri Lankan tax payer. I am driven to assume that it all boiled down to a personal vendetta against me by the High Commissioner considering my previous experiences for being critical at times of the lackadaisical activities of the London based Mission especially with regard to how and to what extent this office countered the LTTE propaganda against your and my country."
" Dear President, I am fully aware of your determined efforts to eradicate the parasitic terrorism that has become cancerous and fibrous over nearly thirty years in my country. In my position as a journalist working from London, I too have been contributing to that cause by feeding numerous vital information whenever terrorist websites disseminated distorted information or the terrorist outfit organized illegal events in London, which at times. I must admit, have managed to create an inferior sense of feeling or inadequacy in the Sri Lanka High Commission.
" I have been black listed by the supporters of the terrorist outfit in the UK. It is now crystal clear to me that this very dishonorable act by the High Commission will not only expose its low standard of service or having different agendas or illusions of grandeur. My presence at Dartmouth could not have been a threat to your life at all Sir, but it is with regret that I have to bring to your notice about the shameful, scandalous and outrageous treatment meted out to me by the High Commission in London which, in my eyes, is an infringement to the freedom of the press. I consider your personal investigation into this matter as a great honour to the freedom of the Press in Sri Lanka".
Should the powerful be allowed to steam roll the press and media as and when they fancy? Equally should the media personnel take law unto their own hands and be allowed to make a mockery of the very meaning of the word freedom. Where does one draw the line - Food for thought.