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Threats to journalists at police stations must end, says Sri Lankan media group

The following statement was issued by FMM on 30 September 2016.

The Free Media Movement (FMM) requests the Inspector General of Police to take action to end the practice of threatening journalists within police stations by complainers or petitioners. A journalist of Hiru TV in Mahiyanganaya, Ranjith Karunaweera, faced threats from petitioners inside the Hasalaka Police station when he went to give a statement after a petition was submitted to the police over one of his recent news stories. The FMM wishes to express their displeasure over the actions of the police officers at the Hasalaka police station for not taking any appropriate action against the violent behaviour of a group of sand miners and for acting in their favour.

With this the FMM requests the Inspector General of Police to order an unbiased investigation into the incident and to take the necessary action to ensure the personal safety of the journalist.

The FMM regrets to inform that instead of inquiring from the relevant media institute the Police helped create a threatening environment for the journalist. Reporting an inaccurate news story cannot be categorized as a crime. Hence, the question is what role can the police play in such instances? Can they take action against an inaccurate news report that was published or broadcast?

The story that was telecast on Hiru TV had revealed illegal sand mining in Mahaweli river near the Weraganthota bridge in Mahiyanganaya, which is threatening the environment and the stability of the bridge. The news footage clearly showed the use of backhoes and tractors to dig out the sand despite the fact that the law clearly prohibits the use of heavy machinery for sand mining. The footage included comments from two local persons in the affected area.

Following the news telecast, a local collective of sand miners forwarded a petition to the Hasalaka Police alleging the news to be at fault. Based on the petition, journalist Karunaweera was informed by a Sub Inspector of the police station that he should appear at the Police station to give a statement over the dispute. Karunaweera arrived at the Hasalaka police station on September 27 accompanied by a few other fellow journalists. Only Karunaweera was taken inside by the police along with a petitioning group which comprised of over 20 sand miners. Once inside, the group of men started berating the journalist with abusive words and death threats. Neither the Sub Inspector nor any of the police officers present at the location intervened to stop the violence. The other journalists who had accompanied Karunaweera but were not allowed to enter, forced their way into the police station and took Karunaweera to safety.

Following the incident, the journalist made a complaint at the Mahiyanganaya police station against the Hasalaka police for acting in a biased manner and in connection with the death threats issued by the group of sand miners. The local persons who had appeared in Karunaweera's news footage and commented on the situation faced threats and damage to their property. A brick work place owned by one of them was burned down during the night of the incident. According to reports from the locality, the other person has fled the village.

This clearly indicates the biased action of the police officers in the area, who are apparently under the influence of the powerful businessmen in the sand mining industry. This incident shows that the police need to be more aware of the appropriate action that they are supposed to take in cases where the media is concerned.

FMM reiterates the need for an immediate fair inquiry into the biased actions of the police officers and strongly requests from the Inspector General of the Police to take nthe ecessary action with a special consideration of the personal safety of the journalist and the two local persons who were the journalist's sources and helped to shed light on the illegal activities.

Seetha Ranjanee, Convener

C. Dodawaththa, Secretary

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