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President sanctions broadcaster rather than media-abusing minister

(FMM/IFEX) - The following is an FMM press release:

FMM Statement on the continuing developments in the episode involving Minister Mervyn Silva at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation on 27th December 2007

FMM expresses its alarm at the incredible turn of events in the aftermath of the episode in which Minister Mervyn Silva attempted to intimidate officials of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) through physical violence and verbal abuse on 27 December 2007. On that occasion, Minister Silva's well-known proclivity to threaten media freedom through the use of thuggery was resisted by the journalists and staff of the SLRC, in a spontaneous demonstration of solidarity against, and resistance to, political violence against journalists and media personnel.

What has happened since is cause for grave disquiet in respect of the freedom of expression, media freedom and independence, and the integrity of democratic institutions and democracy in Sri Lanka. FMM believes that Minister Silva's behaviour, on well-documented previous occasions as well as the current instance, is prima facie cause for summary dismissal under any democratic dispensation, for which the responsibility lies squarely with the President. This is even more true given that, apart from Silva's ministerial office, he also sits in Parliament as a National List Member of Parliament appointed by the President in his capacity as the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

However, the President appears to have adopted an attitude wholly at odds with the public revulsion Minister Silva's conduct has provoked throughout Sri Lanka. According to news reports and reliable sources, the President has communicated his displeasure in very strong terms to the senior management of the SLRC for having telecast live the events of 27 December (leading to self-censorship by SLRC news management in reporting on the incident in subsequent SLRC news bulletins), and instigated an investigation by the Department of Criminal Investigation (CID) against the media personnel at SLRC. Astoundingly, the President has not shown the same commitment to accountability with regard to his own Minister, against whom no disciplinary action whatsoever has so far been taken, in a trend that would seem to indicate no action will be taken in the future.

FMM, together with all Sri Lankans committed to liberty, human rights and democratic institutions, is appalled by the course of conduct adopted by the President in which he has now become the focus of attention in respect of bad governance and defending the indefensible. We are at a loss to understand how the President can, with good conscience, persecute journalists of the SLRC whilst shielding his errant Minister, in blatant violation of every applicable democratic ethic. FMM emphatically calls upon the President to desist from the persecution of journalists and instead devote his efforts to disciplining Minister Silva forthwith, in the discharge of his constitutional duty to uphold fundamental rights and the democratic way of life of all Sri Lankans. FMM hopes that disciplinary action against Minister Silva will accompany the necessary criminal investigations and prosecutions that must ensue from his behaviour, if the integrity of the rule of law and public confidence in democratic institutions are to be upheld.

In a broader policy context, FMM notes that this episode has once again shown in stark terms the wholly unacceptable level of politicisation that afflicts state-owned public media institutions. FMM strongly believes that neither the President nor indeed Minister Silva would have adopted the attitudes they have, had the independence and autonomy of the principal public television broadcaster in Sri Lanka been legally assured and guaranteed.

FMM is firmly of the view that even the current statutory scheme governing the SLRC contemplates a public service broadcaster, not an instrument of propaganda for the government in power for the time being. Unfortunately, the SLRC and other state-owned and operated media institutions have been, since their inception, consistently abused for partisan advantage by all political parties holding power. This episode, therefore, reinforces the calls made by FMM and partner organisations on the critical need for fundamental legal and constitutional reforms so as to divest state ownership of print media institutions and to re-establish state broadcasting institutions as truly public service broadcasters. FMM also notes that the President himself has acknowledged the need for reforms in these directions in discussions with FMM in August 2007, and calls upon him to implement the same. We are ready to assist the government with these reforms if the government is serious and sincere about undertaking them.

FMM calls upon all concerned here and abroad to stand in solidarity with the media personnel of the SLRC, and against the anti-democratic and unconscionable behaviour of politicians abusing public-owned and taxpayer-funded institutions for illegitimate ends.

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