Orders only for lapdogs please!

Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has recently become the champion of media freedom. In fact, he has taken up the cause of the ‘people’s right to know’ very enthusiastically indeed. Mr. Wickremesinghe, in response to criticism levelled by the Free Media Movement regarding his controversial statements in parliament, accused certain editors of supporting the emerging tyranny of the executive.
In what appears to be a sudden awakening from long and deep slumber, the UNP Leader last week demanded that the Speaker summon newspaper editors to the House to call for explanation as to why certain statements made by a government MP were not published. Quoting from the Parliamentary Privileges Act, Wickremesinghe stated that the House could not only inquire into why the statement was not published, but could also direct the editors to publish the same.
While Mr. Wickremesinghe is protected by the right of parliamentary privilege, sections of the media and media watchdogs have taken issue with the remarks made, and not without good reason.
Parliamentary reporters, have since time immemorial, submitted lobby copy using their own discretion about events in the House that week. To our knowledge, it remains the prerogative of the editor to pick and choose the items they wish to publish. It is sacrosanct territory and until and unless a politician is in a position to dictate terms to a newspaper editor, the right to make publishing decisions remains wholly and only with the editor.
We hold with the adage that parliament is supreme and has to right to summon anyone – even the Chief Justice of the land. In fact,
as Mr. Wickremesinghe pointed out in his scathing reply to the FMM, this has been the tradition of the British parliament since time immemorial, as witness the summoning and execution of Charles I in 1649 after the monarch’s struggle for power with the House.
Consider this argument – there is provision for the government to impose press censorship – legally at that. We, the media, could, no matter what the circumstances, condone censorship. Similarly, provision for summoning and ‘directing’ editors for nothing more than exercising their right to decide what to publish, cannot be condoned by any upstanding journalist either. In fact, like the law of contempt, which is considered archaic and a means by which to repress the media, many argue that the parliamentary privileges act too was obsolete and a hindrance to media freedom.
Mr. Wickremesinghe, if his memory serves him, will recall that during his tenure as Prime Minister of the country, the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka lobbied for the repeal of the parliamentary privileges act, a move which he then broadly supported. His government also won bouquets from the media for repealing the criminal defamation law and mooting the freedom of information act, between 2001-2004.
Today, as Opposition Leader Mr. Wickremesinghe sings a different tune. Is he is a proponent of media freedom only as long as the media is willing to publish the information he deems worthy? The Opposition Leader would do well to bear this in mind: the media may be beset on all sides, struggling to overcome pressure and influence from the powers that be and fighting tooth and nail for the public’s right to know; we might be down, but we are certainly not out yet. We are still a long way off from bowing our heads to the dictates of any politician – in government or opposition — when it comes to deciding what will be published in the free and independent press.


Crime upon crime

The hideous Delgoda massacre and its aftermath were chilling indicators of two crucial issues facing the country – the criminalisation of society and the prevalence of the law of the jungle.
The gruesome murders of five members of the same family over a land dispute sent shockwaves through the nation and proved a fitting reminder of the famous Hokandara killings some years ago. Like in the Hokandara case, this too was a classic example of brutal animal instinct overriding all that is humane in our people and it is tragic that such a heinous crime was committed over a small piece of land.
Almost as bad, was the behaviour of the law enforcement authorities once two suspects had been arrested in connection with the murders. One day after they were arrested, they were shot and killed in police custody, allegedly after lobbing a grenade at the officers. The story is history, but the incident, like the incidents that have gone before sets an incredibly unhealthy precedent.
In the first place, why were the suspects being ushered along without handcuffs? Why were they allowed to roam so free and far as to find a grenade and lob at the officers? The law of the land stipulates that suspects in custody must be afforded maximum protection. Instead, in Sri Lanka, remand is pretty much the most unsafe place to be.
As per the usual, the police claim that they shot the suspects in self-defence. A shoddy excuse if any, since the suspects should never have been in a position to ‘offend’ in the first place – could the police perhaps define the reasoning behind allowing the killers of five people in one fell swoop being allowed to wander freely in a property that they were intimately acquainted with? In the end, this is just another case of the police taking the law into their own hands. We cannot forget the innocent man from Kuruwita, Sunil Perera, who was tortured to death by police officials just last year, on a case of mistaken identity.
And while the Delgoda suspects may well have deserved ‘capital’ punishment, that was a matter to be decided by the courts. It was a classic case again, of the police circumventing due process and taking the law into their own hands. The way the errant police officers are reprimanded will be the interesting thing to watch – if they are idolised and made heroes, then make no mistake, their next victim might very well be you. And the real tragedy would be if you were not guilty – nobody would ever know.
The law enforcement arm of the state is exactly that – the implementers of legislation and judgements passed by higher authorities. If the police could decide what was to be done with a murderer, this country would not require courts of law or for that matter, law-makers. The licence to kill is not vested with the police – and they have taken this liberty far too many times.
Something is very rotten here, and it reeks of brutality not altogether dissimilar to what the Delgoda suspects perpetrated on their own victims one week ago. When the law-enforcer becomes someone to be feared, then as far as the victim is concerned, all hope is lost.