Government should mete out justice to perpetrators

In recent times, it has become the norm for media personnel to become newsmakers themselves – for all the wrong reasons. The latest attack was on a journalist of the Sri Lanka Press Institute, who was brutally assaulted on a crowded highway in the heart of the city. The attack was followed by a successful getaway by the assailants through a myriad of checkpoints and roadblocks.

The media is understandably aghast. It appears that the culture of impunity propagated by some government politicians such as maverick Minister Mervyn Silva has spread its cancerous tentacles to other organs of the state too.

This spate of attacks on journalists stands unequivocally condemned, and rightly so. That is not what we wish to dwell on in this column. What is also interesting is the government’s response to these recent events.

On the one side we have President Mahinda Rajapaksa stating that the attacks could be a conspiracy to discredit the government. By repeatedly harassing journalists, there appears to be an organised attempt to blame the government for such acts, Rajapaksa argues. We agree that there is some merit in the President’s contention and if it is indeed so, then the burden of proof also must rest with the government.

And no less a person than Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said as much. The government will be suspect of orchestrating the attacks if the culprits are not apprehended, Minister Abeywardena said candidly, in the aftermath of the latest incident.

But then, there were other sentiments too. Government Defence Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella suggested that journalists who were attacked appeared to have discovered a pathway towards political asylum. We are not certain what Rambukwella was implying but the Minister seemed to suggest that journalists were getting themselves assaulted in order to seek greener pastures overseas!

If Rambukwella said so by innuendo, Police Spokesman Ranjith Gunasekera was not afraid to voice his opinion. Journalists get themselves assaulted so that they can get asylum in other countries, Gunasekera has allegedly said, drawing condemnation all round.

Obviously, the government is speaking with a forked tongue on this issue, which indicates that the many agencies of the government are also acting dichotomously. If the likes of President Rajapaksa and Minister Abeywardena want to put a stop to the attacks on media men, then Minister Rambukwella and Police Spokesman Gunasekera seem to view the matter rather lightly, proposing that the journalists themselves are to be blamed for getting beaten up.

As Minister Abeywardena rightly pointed out, the government is in the dock in this instance because those who obviously gain from silencing a critical and vocal media are those in the government itself. Therefore, when incidents such as what took place last week occur with unnerving regularity, the government is presumed guilty until it is proven innocent.

And for the government to do that, there is only one way: it needs to use all the powerful resources at its disposal to apprehend those who are responsible and bring them to justice. It is here that the past records of some connected to the government could be an embarrassment.

We recall how Minister Mervyn Silva entered the premises of a state-run television station and assaulted an employee in an incident that was telecast live to the entire nation. When the Minister escaped any kind of punishment, that for many signalled a tacit approval of his tactics from the powers that be. To date, nothing has been done to alter that perception.

The incidents involving this newspaper’s Associate Editor and many others only served to strengthen that belief. And the perpetrators of that incident too are still at large despite the unprecedented publicity the sordid event attracted.

The state media – especially the state-run television networks – have also been adding fuel to the fire over the past few days. They have been questioning how journalists organise well coordinated protests almost immediately after media men are attacked. The implication again is that journalists themselves are stage managing the attacks.

In that context, President Rajapaksa’s concerns regarding the recent attacks on media men are welcome, as are Minister Abeywardena’s. But equally disparaging and discouraging are Minister Rambukwella’s and Spokesman Gunasekera’s comments, which can only embarrass the government further and serve to confirm the worst suspicions regarding the state’s bona fides.
The role of the Police in this situation also must come under scrutiny. The force now has a new Inspector General of Police and it suffices to say that his predecessor will not be remembered as the best chief the force had.

But the new Inspector General, Jayantha Wikremeratne, dealing with the first challenge of his high office, showed himself in poor light when questioned about the ‘white van syndrome.’ The IGP dismissed the query with light-hearted banter, asking media men to help him find the dreaded white vans if they could.

At worst, it showed the sense of priority the Police accorded to the issue of men arriving in white vans, taking the law into their own hands, threatening, assaulting and abducting people. At best, it was a display of insensitive callousness to a matter which means life and death to many people.

Therefore, however noble the government’s intentions are in putting an end to the issue of media harassment, it has not got its act together. The harassment continues unabated and so do the idiotic pronouncements that emanate from the state’s numerous spokesmen.

The government’s priority – if it wants to resurrect its image in the eyes of the media as well as the rest of world – should be to find and mete out justice to those responsible for the heinous crimes against the media.