Freedom of Expression and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Article in Swisspeace newsletter on Press Freedom and Peacebuilding-Sept2014

On 4th August 2014, a mob led by Buddhist Monks invaded a Church-run institution in Colombo and forcibly stopped a private meeting that was being held where Tamil families of disappeared persons from the North were ‘listening and sharing’ their pain and struggles with civil society representatives, lawyers, religious clergy and diplomats. The police refused to disperse the mob and provide protection to the people attending the meeting. Instead, they stopped the meeting, sent people to the police station and sent families home. Ruki Fernando, a Sri Lankan human rights and press freedom activist, witnessed the mob. He accepted to share information about freedom of expression and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

Although the war ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the Sri Lankan government forces, challenges remain. Freedom of expression was particularly limited during the war with the two conflict parties heavily influencing the level of media coverage. The above case demonstrates

a recent example in which different groups of people in the country find it difficult to see eye to eye and have different views on what reconciliation is. Since the end of the war, families of those killed and disappeared, university students, religious clergy, human rights activists and opposition politicians have faced threats when they tried to publicly and collectively express grief for those lost in the war. In their view, the opportunity to demand truth and justice remains limited. The North of Sri Lanka is the area that was most affected by the war. For decades, people felt constrained in their ability to express themselves due to the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE. Today, people have expressed concern that the military is currently occupying vast swathes of land and that they tend to control many facets of life. There have been cases of many journalists from the North that have disappeared and allegedly killed, with some arguing that the number has increased over the last eight years.

Journalists all over the country feel that there is a lack of freedom of expression, with the highest intensity being in the North. Self-censorship is widespread, as parents, children and spouses often appeal to activists and journalists due to numerous fears. Moreover, reporters often doubt whether editors will publish critical content. Journalists have been confronted with a choice of being independent at their own risk or being subservient to other powers. Due to this challenging environment, many investigative journalists and press freedom activists have gone into exile. Mobs have disrupted meetings of civil society and journalists, raising questions of justice and security for all.

This is the challenging context in which Sri Lankans seek reconciliation, five years after the end of the war. The Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the Sri Lankan President had stated that it was “deeply disturbed by persistent reports concerning attacks and obstacles placed on journalists and media institutions including news websites and killing of journalists and the fact that these incidents remain to be conclusively investigated and perpetrators brought to justice. […] Any failure to investigate and prosecute offenders would undermine the process of reconciliation and the Rule of Law.” (section 5. 155, Pg. 197). Truth seeking and opportunities for people to share what they went through and still going through, without fear, is essential for genuine reconciliation. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission of South Africa provided a platform for victims and perpetrators to express themselves freely. This also appears to be the case with various other Truth Commissions across the world. But in Sri Lanka, there continues to be a fear of whether both victims and perpetrators have the opportunity to share their experiences and struggles. There has been resistance to allow public remembrances of those dead and disappeared. There are restrictions on fact finding and reporting of issues central to peacebuilding and reconciliation process.

Although prospects for free expression and reconciliation are bleak, there are signs of hope. Some journalists both inside and outside the country are dedicated to supporting free expression and promoting diverse perspectives on the situation. Despite a challenging context, people are courageous to speak out against ongoing difficulties and share their experiences. Social media is emerging as an important space to publish alternative news and views that mainstream media does not carry. However, they too often face challenges such as the blocking of websites and threats. It remains imperative, particularly now, to support journalists that take risks in order to ensure that independent reports and opinions are being published both in the country and externally. A small number of Sri Lankans continue to write and speak what they think and what they see and hear. Support and encouragement from fellow Sri Lankans and across the world will be what will sustain them and promote free expression and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

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