The speech of Information and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera on the demise of the late journalist Sivaram Dharmaratnam, made on the occasion of Adjournment Debate on May 06, 2005.Jul 17, 2015 (LBT) - Honourable Mr. Speaker, We strongly believe that the people's right of access to information, free from any hindrance, must be secured by any Government. The basic foundation of building up good governance is the media freedom.
That is the sustainable democratic fundamentality of our Government. History testifies that the People's Alliance or the present Freedom Alliance Government is sincerely dedicated to that cause. Our Government which inherits such a prestigious history has an inalienable moral right to react whenever there is a threat or an influence against the media freedom.
Under this political backdrop, we unreservedly condemn the assassination of Sivaram Dharmaratnam, a senior member of the "TamilNet" editorial staff. Sivaram was abducted away by a gang of thugs on April 28 and was brutally killed.
As soon as this information reached the President, the Police initiated a far-flung investigation on the orders of the President. Investigations are proceeding at the moment. We will not hide any evidence that the investigations will reveal. We are active to bring the culprits to books and deal with them according to the law, irrespective of their positions. I make this announcement on the floor of this august assembly with profound sense of responsibility as the Media Minister.
Sivaram Dharmaratnam was not only the editorial staffer of the "TamilNet" web site but he was also a veteran war analyst and a political critic who wrote to the "Sunday Times" and the "Daily Mirror" newspapers under the pseudonym "Tharaki". He contributed controversial political columns in favour of the LTTE organization in large numbers.
Do not forget that Sivaram also criticised certain LTTE activities in his articles some time back. Facts pertaining to the cause of assassination of Sivaram have not been ascertained fully yet. If he was killed because of his journalistic involvement, that has to be condemned by everybody with utmost aversion.
Honourable Mr. Speaker, The Freedom Alliance Government, which upholds the people's inalienable right of access to information will not condone acts of this nature at any cost. Such acts will not be sponsored or encouraged by any means.
We have, in the past, dealt with individuals who have pressurised journalists ignoring their positions. When there were threats to Iqbal Athas because of his engagement as a journalist, we took steps to investigate and punish the offenders. We did so because of our appreciation of media freedom as a sustainable political principle.
At this moment of dialogue on the assassination of a media personnel, I think it appropriate to recall in brief the way the Media and Media personnel were pressurised during the previous regimes. Both the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party held the reins of Government from time to time in this country. No Government brought pressure to bear upon the media in this country prior to 1977, as a matter of principle. The UNP regimes since coming in to power in 1977 considered influencing the media as a matter of state policy.
As soon as the UNP gained power in 1977, state owned media institutions, Lake House and the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation were brought under the control of the Sirikotha. The staunch UNP member Ranapala Bodhinagoda was appointed as the Chairman of the Lake House. Ranjan Wijeratne, who subsequently became a strong Minister was appointed as a Working Director.
They started their control over the Lake House by harassing the SLFP and other leftist employees in various ways. Senior journalists such as Silumina Chief Editor Wimalasiri Perera, Dinamina Chief Editor Peramunethileka, Daily News Chief Editor S. Pathiravithana, Silumina Deputy Editor Nimal Horana, Dinamina Deputy Editor Poojitha Wijetunga, Dinamina News Editor Dayananda Kumaradasa, Dinamina Sub-editor Wimalaweera Perera, Daily News News Editor Nihal Ratnayaka and Dinamina Staff Reporters Upali Rupasinghe, Yapa Karunaratne and Kulatunga Somaratne were dismissed by way of political victimization.
SLBC leading media person, Sinhala services Director H. M. Gunasekera, Amarabandu Rupasinghe, Premakeerthi de Alwis, and Newton Gunaratne were interdicted. The "Times"Company which published the leading newspaper "Lankadeepa" continuously over decades was taken over by the Government and was closed down.
When Lankadeepa reappeared in circulation under the Vijaya newspaper group, President Premadasa pressurised it at length and at a certain stage, being annoyed by a news item appeared in the Lankadeepa, went to the extent of threatening its owner Ranjith Wijewardena in public saying "Ranjith, be aware of what is going to happen to you".
He held out threats of murder in Parliament against Upali Group newspaper owner Upali Wijayawardena who defied UNP commands. By and large the private media were totally denied the media right of criticising the Government. Competent authorities were appointed to control the media that worked independently without holding a brief by the UNP.
The newspapers "Attha", "Janadina", and "Sirilaka" were sealed over and over again. They were subjected to many harassments and the transport of their newspapers by bus was prohibited. Government advertisements were denied to them.
Private institutions which gave advertisements to these papers were influenced. Such influence was exerted not only to political papers but also to independent newspapers. The raid of "Attha" press and taking its editor to the 4th floor became a daily routine.
As far as the Lake House papers were concerned, not only the lead news, but also the headlines, pictures, captions and even page settings were the decisions taken by the Presidential Secretariat. Taking the pages of the Lake House papers to the President or their approval by the Information Officer was the general order of the day during that period.
There was a habit of the President's Information Officer visiting the News Unit of the SLBC at 3.30 a.m. everyday during that time. Ignoring all other important information, the News Broadcast had to begin with some news to bolster the President's image. Each media institution had a Special Presidential Unit.
The UNP, soon after coming into power in 1977 completely prohibited publication of Cabinet secrets in violation of the people's right to be aware of information. The first action was filed in court under the State Secrets Act by former Minister Ronie de Mel against journalist Prasad Gunawardena of the "Island" newspaper. For the first time in history, newspaper editors were summoned to Parliament and tried under Parliamentary Privileges Act and were punished.
On one occasion the "Observer" editor was summoned to Parliament for inadvertently inter-changing captions of two pictures.
The Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act was passed in Parliament within three days on January 30, 1978 as an act of urgent national importance.
On February 02,the two medieman Philip Cooray and Herald Peiris were summoned to Parliament functioning as a Court of Law and they were punished. On that occasion Prime Minister J. R. Jayewardene in his address threatened that "In future offenders will not escape this place with a punishment of this leniency".
Honourable Mr. Speaker, The then Justice Minister Nissanka Wijeratne misused the law in an attempt to control the media. An attempt was made in 1984 to amend the Press Council Act to prohibit writing articles in newspapers under pseudonyms.
The UNP influenced not only the media institutions. They harassed mediamen endlessly. Richard de Soyza, the mediaman of international repute was abducted in the night of February 18, 1990, and was brutally killed and his body was thrown into the sea.
All media personalities and civil organizations clamoured in chorus demanding a fair inquiry into this murder. UNP regime only lingered on a mild form of investigation while ignoring our cry as the Opposition in Parliament for a parliamentary debate on this murder. Following Richard de Soyza's assassination, his contemporary colleagues Amal Jayasinghe, Arjuna Ranawana, Varuna Karunatilleke and Aruna Kulatunga fled away from the country to save their lives.
The "Divaina" newspaper photographer Wimal S. Surendra who took a photograph of a powerful UNP female activist in 1983 was mysteriously murdered on the road right opposite the house of former Minister John Amaratunga.
That was a death that remains a mystery to date. H. E. Dayananda who serialized "Wame Kathawa" in the Wednesday supplement of "Divaina" newspaper was murdered.
The script writer of "Kavuda Me, Monawada Karanne" drama, Dehiwala MMC of the UNP itself disappeared mysteriously. Kithsiri Samaranayaka, the Lankadeepa journalist who at times criticised the Government severely, was stabbed to death at the bus halt opposite the mosque of eye hospital junction.
The Dickwella area correspondent Gunasena Kasturiarachchi was murdered mysteriously.Apart from this, the Government never bothered to hold a formal inquiry in respect of the murders of veteran journalists of high esteem like Premakeerthi de Alwis, Thevis Guruge and Kulasiri Amaratunga.
The Bomiriya residence of the "Divaina" newspaper was attacked with bombs. Journalistic activities of veteran journalist Dayasena Gunasinghe were subjected to injunctions for the sin of writing an editorial in the "Divaina"criticising President J. R. Jayawardene's public announcement that "each person must look after his own security".
"Attha" cartoonist Yoonus' mouth was cut by employing thugs. The doors of the SLBC were closed to artistes of the highest national fame like Premasiri Khemadasa, Pandit W. D. Amaradeva, Nanda Malani, Vijaya Kumaranatunga, Sugathapala de Silva, Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra and R. R. Samarakone because they demanded the withdrawal of a proposal to abolish former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike's civil rights.
Piyadasa Malalgoda who wrote and published the poem "Devadattha of the modern era" was taken to the dubious 4th floor on 12 occasions for interrogation and he was prosecuted.
That was an era, the private electronic media had no chance to announce news. Unlike today, political dialogues were not known over the electronic media those days. Announcement of news was a Government monopoly.
The resignation of Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayaka from their portfolios over the impeachment issue was prohibited to be published. This prohibition on the SLBC and the Rupavahini applied even to the news of impeachment against Russian President Yeltsin. The expulsion of the President of Argentina following an impeachment was banned to be announced over the radio and the television.
The UNP which did not tolerate workers' agitations over their 17 year rule completely banned publication of news relating to workers' strikes through the State media. The State radio and television left no room for publication of news pertaining to the opposition and completely banned showing opposition members on the television.
Under such circumstances a mass cry developed among the public to re-establish the lost media freedom. The People's Alliance took over the reins of Government under this back drop. The People's Alliance Government under the leadership of President Kumaratunga acknowledged the people's right of access to information as a matter of Government Policy.
Soon after the People's Alliance formed the Government, steps were taken to implement a media procedure ensuring the independence of the media. A Parliamentary Select Committee was established to formulate a State Media Policy.
A surrounding was brought about for the media institutions and media personnel to act freely. The Act empowering Parliament to summon journalists before Parliament for the purpose of trial and punishment was removed from the legal system.
Publication of News was freed from State influence. Private Sector media institutions were allowed to publish news. Opposition members too were accommodated in political dialogues in State media institutions. The Government gave approval to open a number of private television channels to compete with State media.
There were some media institutions and personnel who misused the freedom afforded by us. Often they produced news insulting the President. Yet, in contrast with the previous regime, no threats of murder was held out against such people. Even under unfortunate circumstances at times, the Government applied the law impartially. The people behind such incidents are no more a secret today.
The media freedom and the freedom of the individual media personnel are intertwined. We are aware that no journalist can act independently in the absence of a sustainable economic strength of his own.
In view of this situation, the People's Alliance Government implemented a number of welfare projects to uplift the standard of living and dignity of journalists. An insurance scheme was introduced for them. A housing scheme was inaugurated for them. A training programme was initiated. Their salaries were increased. Journalists who were politically victimised were relieved.
4 committees were appointed to ascertain and report on welfare amenities to journalists. Provision of computer, e-mail and various modern facilities were ensured through the Department of Government Information.
Honourable Mr. Speaker, The UNP who toppled the Freedom Alliance and regained power in 2001 resumed their usual media policy which they pursued throughout their 17 year rule since 1977.
They dissolved the Information Department. A separate media unit was established under the Prime Minister's Office. All the State media institutions were brought under the control of UNP henchmen within that unit.
The decisive posts of private media institutions were filled by appointing their henchmen. It was these henchmen who were necessarily participated in the foreign tours and discussions abroad attended by the Prime Minister.
The international sojourns by these groups at the expense of public funds became the order of the day. The selected crowd of journalists obedient to Government received highest perks. An invisible mechanism of horror was in motion against independent journalists. The victims of this mechanism included not only the local journalists but also the foreign journalists. The deportation of the internationally renowned journalist Paul Harris is the best example in this regard.
While Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister, the doors of State media institutions were completely closed to the opposition. The journalists who were deemed not loyal to the Government were deprived of their employment. Some were transferred.
Some were intimidated. Opponents were tortured mentally and physically. Live political debates participated by politicians of the opposition were completely barred from telecast.
Even in case of dialogues among the ruling party members, if a listener were to express opinion, it had to be approved in advance before the programme is telecast. The State media was used perennially to slander and unease organisations and individuals not supportive of the Government.
It was on such a background that the Freedom Alliance Government came into power. In our election manifesto we assured the people that the mentality of imposing Government official opinion on the people will be eliminated and that the media will be made open institutions to debate open views freely.
We have fulfilled that pledge even by now. We were pledged to expose the Government to open criticism, irrespective of the status or position of the individual concerned, if the criticisms were in the common interest of the people. Today, a journalist is at liberty to criticise any member of the Freedom Alliance Government without any hindrance.
We assured the people to protect their right of access to information without any barriers under whatever the circumstances. That promise has been fulfilled to the very letter by now.
It is imperative to establish within our society an environment where a journalist could practice his profession free from occupational hazards whatever the political ideologies he held. The Freedom Alliance Government guarantee the people that it will take every step towards this end fearlessly.
Honourable Mr. Speaker, The torments coming on the way of a journalist cannot be checked by Government action alone. Everybody who respects democracy should cooperate in this regard.
There must exist a consensus among all for that purpose. A number of North East journalists came to be brutally murdered even while a ceasefire was in force. "Dinamurusu" newspaper Editor Ramesh Nadarajah belonging to the EPDP was murdered. Aiyadurei Nadesan, the "Weerakesari" reporter was killed on May 31, 2004.
Kandasamy Aiyar Balanadarajah (Sinnabala), another journalist was murdered on August 16, 2004. On July 26, 2004, "Dinamurusu" newspaper free lance reporter S. Kamaladasan was shot at on his legs. On March 06,2005, "Dinamurusu" reporter Sathasivam Kamalanathan was shot at causing him fatal injuries. This murder was clearly a result of the power struggle among armed groups in the North East. We have to severely condemn these killings, whoever the perpetrators were.
So far, we are not in a position to conclude definitely that the assassination of Sivaram is a result of the conflict among armed groups in the North East. Nevertheless, certain political parties, indiscriminately point the accusing finger at their opponents in respect of this murder, make announcements in order to gain petty political mileage.
Certain political parties attempt to take advantage of this situation in order to build up animosity between the LTTE organisation and the Government in order to demolish the growing good-will between the two parties.
We vehemently condemn such attempts of self-motivated political propaganda made in the name of media freedom. Announcements of this nature may preclude the possibility of eliciting the reality behind the assassination of Sivaram.
Honourable Mr. Speaker, All of us, ignoring our party affiliations should join hands to build up a political environment that will leave no room for this kind of brutal murders in the future. We believe that we will be able to ascertain the motive of this murder and discover the people responsible for this crime before long. We will leave no loopholes to suppress evidence pertaining to this crime. I give that assurance to this House in my capacity as the Media Minister.
In conclusion I reiterate that we unreservedly condemn this brutal murder. We extend our deep sympathies and sorrow to Sivaram's wife and children.
Courtesy - Daily News - http://archives.dailynews.lk/2005/05/17/fea01.htm
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