30th April 2000
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Rights violating: putting the public in the picture

Final part of the paper presented by the writer at a 
Seminar organized by the Asian Mass Media & 
Communications Centre (AMIC) in Bangkok on 
Human Rights Reporting & Rural Pass. The paper is 
reproduced here subsequent to a discussion on 
Human Disaster Management at Hotel Galadari
under the auspices of the Presidential Task Force on
Human Disaster Mangement. The paper is titled 
"Human Rights Aspects of War Reporting".
By Rajpal Abeynayake
Continued from last week

But, though this may be so due to the searing nature of the conflict, at least the message that things should be different and should "by right'' be different for the victims of these social upheavals, needs to be conveyed to the poor and the illiterate who are often the victims of these upheavals. 

But, this sensitization cannot be easily brought about by a society that has been increasingly disrupted by violence. 

The fact that economic and social rights are also human rights, is moreover not easily learned by the sections of the society targeted, if these messages are sought to be conveyed academically in the newspapers by way of information on universally recognized declaration rights for instance. 

The sensitization in Sri Lanka that a person who is illegally detained could invoke fundamental rights legislation and get redress from the Supreme Court, was established due to the fact that the media reported cases in which persons went to courts and availed themselves of certain redress. But, economic and social rights are not justifiable, in either the prevailing constitution or the one that is proposed. 

Alternative for the press

Therefore, the alternative for the press is to perhaps, ambitious though it may be, hold the intellectual community and the activist sections of society accountable for agitating towards getting basic economic and social rights written into the constitution, so that they too may be enforceable at least in a very basic and fundamental way that would affect society positively on the long run. 

In other words, the onus is probably on the press to get these issues into "the public discourse''. Once there is serious public concern about these issues, at least it will be apparent that refugee communities for instance will not be "forgotten communities''— or communities in a peripheral limbo.

These realities however should apply for simple peace time violations of human rights, as much as they do for violations of human rights during times of instability and general unrest. Peacetime violations of human rights might include illegal arrests, illegal detention, or cruel inhuman and degrading treatment, or unequal treatment before the law, for instance. Whatever the transgression, there are impediments that apply towards the reportage of peacetime violations, and the publicity and public sensitization that should follow thereof. 

The impediments might be unintentional; but the fact that legal aid cases for instance attract little attention among the press, compared to other cases, is also a relevant factor for example when considering the coverage of human rights violations. This may be because of the way in which the system of legal reporting operates; there is often some sort of liaison between the lawyers and the reporters, and there is a tendency for the senior lawyers, who generally do not take legal aid cases, to attract more publicity due to name recognition and other factors . 

These may be incidental matters, but they in many ways underline the fact that reporting of human rights violations of the underprivileged is not as frequent or as proportional to the violations as they should be. All of this could contribute to the feeling that human rights litigation is a costly process, perhaps more accessible to the wealthier or even the middle classes than the underprivileged classes who sometimes have to find recourse in legal aid. 

In this respect, it needs to be stated that the sensitization on human rights violations and the ability to litigate may not necessarily mean that violations are now more the exception than the rule; for one case which reaches court, there may be ten which have not reached court due to the lack of knowledge or the lack of wherewithal of victims to peruse the matter in court. 

The crime rate

But perhaps, even though human rights litigation may be few and far between , it appears that it has had a deterrent effect on police excesses for instance, at least judging by the way in which some establishment figures have complained that human rights legislation has had a detrimental effect on combating the crime rate. 

There have been complaints, from some of the highest quarters of the land, reported in the newspapers that " some lawyers are making human rights legislation an industry''; and this particularly after the government lost some prominent cases in which private individuals filed cases against Executive and Administrative actions that were violative of their fundamental rights.

These complaints, though they have to be further probed, probably indicate that human rights legislation and the public awareness of human rights litigation has been effective, which only means that the public should guard against any assaults aimed by interested parties against their effectiveness. 


Foot notes
1 Scared minds, the Psychological impact on War in Sri Lanka; Daya Somasunderam. 
2 C. A. Chandraprema, " Sri Lanka : Years of Terror, P 305.
3 The Daily News 23/11/1998.
4 Refugee and Rehabilitation Organisation. ( TRRO)
5 Reported F R D 2 529
6 Deepika Udugama, in "The Draft Constitution of Sri Lanka Critical Aspects,'' ; Law And Society Trust, Colombo. 

World Press Freedom Day is May 3

Stress on responsibility than freedom

Murdered Lankan messengers
By Lukas Luwarso 
South-East Asia is a paradoxical region. Democratic, communist, feudalist and authoritarian states co-exist and have come to form ASEAN. The Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia all enjoy freedom of the press, whilst at the other end of the spectrum Burma imposes total control on its media, with even the ownership of computers, facsimiles and modems contingent upon permission from the regime. 

The countries of Indo-china - Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos - are emerging from three decades of socialism, and are yet to free themselves from international isolation, despite their adoption of a free market. 

Meanwhile, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei frequently resort to "Asian values", where press freedom and political activity are controlled in order to "guarantee economic growth" - a thinly veiled pretext for authoritarianism.

South-East Asia envisages its press as a government tool, a "free and responsible" press. Of course, it is the "responsibility" rather than the "freedom" that is emphasised. 

The press here is constantly asked to account for itself, even before any notion of freedom is granted. Nowhere is the argument of "development journalism" articulated more vociferously than in South-East Asia. Licensing, legal threats and intimidation directed at journalists all fetter press freedom. Heads of government in the region maintain that journalists must be silenced, because freedom will result in anarchy, conflict and instability. To South-East Asians, press freedom is an idea imported from the West. In reality, press independence only started to develop in the region in the mid-1980s.

In the 1980s and 90s, South-East Asian journalists felt the need to involve the society they wrote for, rather than to just report on what other people did and said. They began to set the political agenda and to play a significant role in freeing several South-East Asian nations from the stranglehold of authoritarianism: first in the Philippines, after the fall of Marcos in 1986; then in Thailand, following the 1992 coup; then in Indonesia, after Suharto was forced to resign in 1998.

Malaysian journalists continue to wage war on the regime that has held power for more than 17 years. Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, has often launched out against the liberal press in his sermons about the 'social role of the media'. 

To quote Mahathir at the World Press Convention in Kuala Lumpur in 1985: "The press is... run by men who are moved, like other men, not only by high ideals, but also by base needs and feelings. The ability of the journalists to influence the course of events is out of all proportion to his individual right as a citizen of democratic society. He is neither especially chosen for his moral superiority nor elected to his post. A free press is as prone to corruption as are the other institutions of democracy. Is this then to be the only institution of democracy to be completely unfettered?" 

Since his election victory in November 1999, Mahathir has tightened his stronghold on the media that had begun to criticise his leadership. 

Burma is still one of the most closed countries in the world: it does not possess an independent media and foreign journalists have very little chance of being allowed to enter the country. To date, seven journalists have been jailed on account of their affiliation with Aung San Suu Kyi. Burmese citizens in practice rely upon radio transmissions from the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. 

The Minister of Information, Major General Kyi Aung, had this to say of such outlets: "The Western Bloc and their media are trying to disrupt stability, the economy and unity, and incite unrest in countries which do not accept their influence."

The Indonesian press is struggling to establish self-regulation after three decades of repression by the Suharto government. But they confront an unstable political situation, and mass demonstrations opposing their own freedom. In addition, the credibility of the mass media is being undermined by sensationalism. 

The Philippines, the country with the longest history of press freedom in the region, has had the highest number of journalists murdered on account of their profession and to date 32 journalists' murders remain unsolved.

In Singapore, there is more infotainment available than information. All forms of imported material, including newspapers, films, magazines, videos and computer graphics, must first pass the censors of the Films and Publications Department. All compact discs and electronic mail are censored. Singapore only possesses three internet service providers and one cable television operation, all of which have links to the government. The ruling party, the People's Action Party, dominates ownership of the mass media through the state enterprise Singapore Press Holdings. Foreign media are threatened with legal sanctions if they are too critical of Singapore. The impression given is that Singapore's citizens are largely unconcerned with freedom of the press - as long as they can still enjoy economic prosperity.

With the notable exception of Burma, the region has begun to gain greater access to information, through satellite and cable television, newspapers, magazines and the internet. Technology has helped free the media in nations under the stranglehold of authoritarianism. 

In Indonesia and Malaysia journalists use the internet to write reports which cannot be published by the mainstream media. The economic crisis that hit the region has made its citizens aware of the need for transparency, and the urgency of access to information. 

After all, it was on account of the tamed press that Suharto and his cronies were able to run rampant, accumulating vast private fortunes and destroying the Indonesian economy. The same applies to Malaysia, where PM Mahathir Mohammad is free to indulge his ambition to develop luxurious projects and decimate the opposition

Journalists and the media in ASEAN, particularly in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia (and, now, Malaysia), have played an important role in the democratisation process. Those journalists and media with the courage to oppose threats, pressure and censorship, to cover anti-government demonstrations and expose the misuse of power, have galvanised the pro-democracy movement in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Once democratic governments have formed as a result of this resistance, it is the media which safeguards this new freedom by aggressive reporting on corruption and misuse of authority. The transition period from authoritarianism to democracy is a period of struggle between power and freedom. 

The Prime Minister of Thailand,Chavalit Yongchaiyud, who was removed in 1997, referred to The Nation, as "my biggest enemy". President Habibie in Indonesia, not long after rising to power in 1998, claimed that the Indonesian press was conducting a "tyranny of freedom". The Malaysian Deputy PM, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, at the beginning of 1999 judged that the Malaysian press was unhealthily using press freedom as a tool to "accuse and slander". It is difficult to imagine how a government would function without the presence of a sparring partner in the form of the press. Journalists shake the carpet that covers up economic and political practice, allowing the public to take a look and a stance. 

The role of the press as a watchdog is gaining recognition and replacing the notion of a "responsible" press. In November 1998, journalists from Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines combined to form the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), which will monitor, protect and enhance press independence. The main threat to press freedom is no longer the government, but the tightness of competition, sensationalism and a low level of professional ethics.

The situation of press freedom in South-East Asia remains uncertain on all fronts. Both the freest presses, such as those of the Philippines and Indonesia, and the most "docile" in Burma or Singapore, are found in the region. And we cannot forget the emergence of a new nation in the region - East Timor, which separated from Indonesia, as a free country. This new found freedom in Indonesia, some say, has jeopardized the unity of Indonesia. Many Southeast Asians go on fearing what they interpret as excessive freedom. 

The writer is Director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and former Chairperson, The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Indonesia.


Murdered Lankan messengers

Five Sri Lankan journalists were killed while going about their work last year. They were:

Rohana Kumara- September 7

Rohana Kumara, editor of the pro-UNP opposition tabloid, Satana (Battle), was shot dead by unidentified assailants in a suburb of Colombo. He was travelling home from his office in a taxi late on September 7, after his wife telephoned to tell him that their house was being attacked. Kumara was known for his exposes of government corruption.

Atputharajah Nadarajah-November 2.

Atputharajah Nadarajah, Chief Editor of the Tamil language tabloid weekly, Thinamurasu, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Colombo. His driver was also killed. Nadarajah, an MP for the Jaffna district and representative of the Eelam People's Democratic Party, had in the past year allegedly veered his paper towards support of the Tamil Tigers.

Indika Pathinivasan, Maharaja Television Network and Anura Priyantha, Independent Television Network-December 18

At an election rally in Colombo, shrapnel from a suicide bomb aimed at President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga fatally wounded Pathinivasan of the privately-owned MTV and Priyantha of the state-owned ITN, both camera assistants. 

Five other journalists were injured by the blast, along with Kumaratunga and scores of onlookers. The bomb exploded at around 22.00hrs near a barrier separating journalists, including Pathinivasan and Priyantha, from Kumaratunga and a car that had arrived to pick her up. At least 22 people were killed in the assassination attempt. Pathinivasan died instantly from shrapnel wounds. Priyantha died later at a Colombo hospital. 

Anthony Mariyadasan, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation–December 18. 

Mariyadasan, a journalist working for the state-run SLBC, was shot by a group of armed people in Vavuniya when covering a church ceremony for a local broadcast. Some witnesses have claimed the gunmen could be guerrillas from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the same group that is suspected to be behind the election rally bombings of December 18.

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