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FMM protests abuse of journalists by police, civil defense committees

(FMM/IFEX) - The following is a 13 February 2008 FMM letter to Sri Lankan Inspector General of Police Victor Perera:

Inspector General of Police
Police Headquarters
Colombo 1

Dear Sir,

A note alerting you to harassment faced by journalists in Sri Lanka by Civil Defense Committees and members of the Police

The Free Media Movement (FMM) would like to bring to your attention significant problems faced by journalists and media workers in Sri Lanka in carrying out their duties. We firmly recognize the need to take into account the prevailing security situation in the country in your deliberations on the protection of all civilians from violence and harm. At the same time, we stress that security measures thus taken must not impinge on and severely undermine fundamental constitutional rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of movement and other rights that have a bearing on media freedom.

We wish to bring to your attention several cases in this regard. On 12 February 2008, Gemunu Amarasinghe, a well known photojournalist working for Associated Press (AP), was arrested by Civil Defense Committee members while he was covering students entering Isipathana College, Colombo. He was doing a photo story on the reopening of schools after their being closed for a week. He was handed over to the police by members of the Civil Defense Committee and taken to the Narahenpita police station. He was released nearly two hours later after intervention by media institutions and organizations. His arrest and detention meant that he could not carry out his duty as a journalist.

On 23 January, freelance TV journalist Aravinda Sri Nissanka was arrested by Civil Defense Committee members in Ratmalana, South of Colombo, who threatened to assault him before handing him over to the Mount Lavinia police station. He was covering pedestrians who were crossing the road without any consideration for the traffic lights. Police officers verbally abused Aravinda, saying journalists were the cause for all the troubles in Sri Lanka, and detained him for more than two hours without any reason.

In both cases, the journalists had due media accreditation that those who detained them did not accept as professional identification. It is very clear that Civil Defense Committees organized by the police do not have any understanding of the rights of media workers or knowledge of media accreditation cards and show a disturbing tendency to resort to verbal abuse and mob violence. What is even more disturbing is the fact that the even the police do not accept, or even seem to know the existence of, journalist accreditation cards.

We firmly assert that journalists and media workers have a right to gather and disseminate information in the public interest. Any means that deliberately or inadvertently curtails the rights journalists is tantamount to censorship. We believe the duty of the police is to protect these rights that are the foundation of democracy. Sadly, in the two cases noted above, the actions of the police were inimical to their role as defenders of rule of law, giving in, as they did, to the arbitrary actions of essentially over-enthusiastic vigilantes.

More cases brought to the attention of the FMM over the course of this year alone prove this point further. On 12 February in Galle, the police kept eight journalists in custody for two hours merely because they were covering an unruly incident in a Southern Provincial Council meeting. On the same day policemen posted at the entrance of the Government Secretariat in Batticaloa stopped two Muslim journalists - M.S.M. Noordeen and S.M.M. Mustafa - from entering the Secretariat premises. The policemen went on to verbally abuse the journalists.

We urge you to recall and adhere to the final verdict of the court in a case lodged by the journalist, William Fernando of Mannar, in January 2008, in which the court warned police to not harass journalists nor delete their photographs without due legal process. According to the verdict, only a court of law has the jurisdiction to confiscate or destroy photographs taken by journalists and media workers.

We urgently and firmly request you to:
- advise all police personnel on the rights and duties of media workers and journalists
- alert them to the fact that media accreditation cards exist and are valid identification for all media workers and journalists
- be sensitive to the threats against media workers and journalists in Sri Lanka at a time of unprecedented censorship and violence directed against them
- advise members of all Civil Defense Committees that they should not impede and debar lawful activities of media workers and journalists.

We strongly believe that official communication from your office on these matters will create an enabling environment for journalists to carry out their duties in gathering and dissemination information to report in the public interest, including capturing photographs, videos and audio.

We thank you in advance for your urgent attention to the important matters noted in this letter.

Sincerely,
Sunanda Deshapriya
Free Media Movement

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