Dismay over journalist discrediting remarks by Sri Lanka Army Chief

The Free Media Movement (FMM) is deeply disturbed over the remarks attributed to the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka in recent interviews he has granted, a statement from the organisation said today.

“One such interview appeared in the state-run Sunday Observer newspaper of July 20, 2008. The contents were later posted on the website of the Ministry of Defence thus giving it official credence. Another interview was published in the Sunday Sinhala weekly Lakbima and was posted thereafter on their website.

The Free Media Movement evolved out of the Standing Committee of Journalists, which was formed in late 1991, as a collective enterprise of journalists and media personnel to critique and respond to moves by then government of the time to introduce a Media Commission to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe , left, holds the hand of media rights activist Sunanda Deshapriya as he expresses his support for media rights during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, July 2, 2008: AP Photo via Yahoo! News, Eranga Jayawardena

The full text of the FMM statement:

We reproduce below relevant excerpts of the interviews where Lt. Gen. Fonseka is quoted as justifying the recent attacks, intimidation and harassment of journalists.

“If Keith Noyahr has not done anything wrong, he does not have to live in fear. If he has done some damage to our organisation or to a person, especially when he has done something which he is not supposed to do, then it is natural he must be living in fear. If they think that they have done something of that nature the best thing for them is to correct themselves and rectify the mistake.”

“We know that journalists are being bribed, given ‘drinks,’ treated in restaurants and they have their own vested interests… We know very well about those media people who take bribes, write and voice their opinion for some personal gains.

These so called media guys are not responsible to the people and they are not entitled to such media freedom.

That Keith Noyahr, who was assaulted, was returning from a restaurant with his friends and they were drunk. We do not know that somebody in the restaurant had got annoyed with them, followed him and assaulted.

So, especially the media people should behave well and set an example to others. To me, those who stage protests with unshaven beards, long hair and wearing costumes like in fancy dress competitions are not scribes who are clamouring for media freedom but a gang of thugs.” (Interview with the Observer, reproduced in www.defense.lk )

In another interview with Sinhala language weekly Lakbima the Commander had said the attacks on Keith Noyahr, Iqbal Atthas and Namal Perera could be the consequences of their “misdeeds.”

If indeed Lt. Gen. Fonseka has made the remarks attributed to him, the FMM is of the view, that it is unbecoming conduct of a highest military officer. At a time when he is spearheading a war against Tiger rebels, it is unfortunate that he has chosen it fit to justify indirectly the recent attacks on journalists. (The FMM waited for a week before making this statement to see if there would be any corrections to the interviews form the Commander).

In reporting any public interest issue, no doubt, independent journalists may express dissenting views. Such views may sometimes be uncomfortable to various persons in the echelons of power. The time honoured tradition under successive governments have been for those concerned to counter those views, correct the facts if they are known or state their own.

If they violated the laws of the land, they would also have recourse to courts. However, if the remarks of Lt. Gen. Fonseka are in fact correct, it clearly leaves an indelible impression that the might of the military is being brought to bear on unarmed and unprotected journalists. This in the form of a hate campaign to threaten, harasses, intimidate and force them into silence. This is an extremely disturbing trend and is unprecedented in Sri Lanka.

Making this even more disconcerting, the FMM strongly believes, is the deafening silence of the government. Not so long ago, they announced the appointment of a Ministerial Committee to alleviate the problems faced by journalists. Several Ministers made pledges to protect them and ensure media freedom.

FMM believes that it would be the responsibility of the government to make its position clear. Otherwise, FMM fears, their silence or indifference would only pave the way for more journalists to be killed, brutally assaulted, intimidated and harassed.

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