Brief Chronology of Events Surrounding Attacks by Sri Lankan Government

A brief chronology of events surrounding the attacks on journalists and subsequent attempts by the Sri Lankan government to suppress media freedom and quell dissent using intimidation tactics and State instruments

1.   Brief Summary

1.1       At present, Sri Lanka is going through its worst economic crisis yet. It reached its peak a few months ago, with the country officially defaulting on its international debts, recording dangerously low foreign reserves, no dollars to purchase fuel resulting in a transportation crisis with petrol queues which went on for several days, a shortage in several essential medicines, a cooking gas shortage, a milk powder shortage, inflation of over 80%, islandwide protests leading up to the storming of the Presidential Secretariat and the President’s House by large crowds – resulting in, among other things, the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the dissolution of Cabinet, and the subsequent resignation of the 8th executive President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Due to the public outcry over gross financial mismanagement, corruption and indebtedness of the country, G. Rajapaksa had to flee to the Maldives and subsequently to Singapore for safety reasons.

1.2       Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed as the Acting President, thereafter and then President.

2.  International Condemnation

2.1      Due to the inhumane and brutal manner in which tear gas and violence was used on journalists to quell the peaceful protests, several journalists, including a BBC journalist, and an NDTV journalist, were affected, which was also reported by local and international media outlets.

2.2       The government’s use of force, and executive powers to arbitrarily and disproportionately silence and intimidate those who were protesting peacefully was condemned by several international agencies such as the United Nations, Amnesty International, and by a large number of diplomats.

3.   Incidents that transpired on 9th July 2022 after 7:15 pm

Several journalists from our company “News1st” who were legitimately covering the protests outside Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s private residence were brutally attacked by police and Special Task Force officers by violent means using batons and the blunt end of weapons – most of the footage was caught on live television as it was on live news coverage at that time.

Seeing their colleagues being assaulted in this manner on live TV, another team of journalists rushed to the location of the Prime Minister’s residence to expeditiously provide urgent medical care – and take them to National Hospital but they too were targeted and attacked in a similar inhumane manner. The injured journalists were immediately rushed to hospital. The injuries were documented by the Judicial Medical Officer. Most are still traumatised and are undergoing trauma counselling.

There were key 02 commanding officers at the scene at the time – SSP Romesh Liyanage (who came before the Human Rights Commission, statement can be read here) and SSP Nizam Jamaldeen – who watched on whilst the journalists were brutally assaulted. Fundamental Rights Action has been filed at the Supreme Court, and the Human Rights Commission in Sri Lanka is probing into this action. However, both commanding officers of the President remain in their positions of power – in flagrant disregard of the recommendation of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to transfer them pending the conclusion of an impartial inquiry into the incident.

Later in the evening, the private residence of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe was set on fire.

4.    Moves afoot to discredit MTV Channel (Private) Limited

4.1       There are moves afoot to discredit MTV Channel (Private) Limited and its operations by once again targeting and harassing its senior management, directors and journalists. Four members of our senior management had to give statements to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) over our reportage of the protest. We have officially written to Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka.

4.2       When such sinister and surreptitious attempts emanate from the highest echelons of power, misusing the very resources of the State which are bound to uphold and protect the citizenry, it creates a deep fear in the system of justice itself.  All this is happening whilst directions to the Inspector General of Police with regard to transferring SSP Romesh Liyanage out of Colombo have been flagrantly disregarded. SSP Nizam Jamaldeen is still working in the Colombo Police area as the Director of the President’s Security Division.

5.    An attempt to shift blame ahead of the upcoming 51st regular session of Human Rights Council in Geneva

5.1      Whilst we still search for answers from the law enforcement agencies as to when the perpetrators will be brought before the law – even in a backdrop where many of the perpetrators are known individuals – it is deeply regrettable that the Inspector General of Police is not acting expeditiously to conduct and conclude these assault investigations. However, our Senior Management and Chairman/Managing Director are being summoned to the CID to give statements about their role in setting fire to Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s house. We see this as a weak attempt to justify the violence perpetrated, to shift the blame, and for the government and law enforcement agencies to absolve themselves of their responsibility for the attack and to re-direct the attention another way. We state that if the truth comes to light, it will look deeply problematic for Sri Lanka at the HRC sessions in Geneva, coupled with all the other complexities resulting from the protest movements in Sri Lanka.

6.    Protecting the people’s right to know is our duty

6.1      Whilst MTV Channel (Private) Limited has, even in the past, and on numerous occasions, received threats, and been subjected to attacks, we have continuously strived to reprise our role as part of the Fourth Estate – reporting on news stories that impact the lives of people, hosting informative and engaging commentary and political debate programmes to discuss current affairs, investing in investigative journalists in terms of training and development and researching on groundbreaking news stories which reveal bribery and corruption at the highest levels of office in successive governments. Our objective has been to create awareness in the minds of the citizens by making them an active participant in governance and holding to account political leaders who are in public service, holding office in trust for the people.

6.2      We state that as a company that has been recognised as The People’s Channel, and the Number 1 news provider in Sri Lanka, we are currently undergoing a fear psychosis that has been created by the arbitrary manner in which legal processes are at times being misused to harass and intimidate. We note that this sets a dangerous precedent and results in curtailing the freedom of the media, which is a cornerstone of democracy.

6.3      Freedom of Speech in Sri Lanka, is a fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution, read in conjunction with the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to freedom of thought and conscience. The right of the media and journalists to cover the protest is a constitutionally enshrined right, specifically in terms of:

  1. Article 12(1) – All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law.
  2. Article 14(1)(a) – Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech and expression including publication. This right includes the right of every citizen to receive such information published.
  3. Article 14(1)(g) – Every citizen is entitled to the freedom to engage by himself or in association with others in any lawful occupation, profession.

The freedom of expression and publication, and the right to information are subjected to restrictions, which are imposed with a view to protecting and safeguarding the rights of the citizen, as a bulwark of insulation and protection against administrative excess or abuse, and such legal provisions are necessarily construed at all times, in order to keep administrative excess in check. We state that we have at all times acted within these parameters set out in law. As a news media organisation, we have strived to act at all times in the public interest, and in pursuance of the people’s right to information which is constitutionally enshrined.

In these circumstances, we most categorically wish to place on record that the aforementioned surreptitious and discriminatory actions by the executive/ administrative arm of the State are tantamount to a direct or systematic attempt to undermine free media, an act of intimidation, and an undue aggression on media freedom. Any regressive act of the State or an instrumentality of the State, to curb or undermine media freedom, is a clear intrusion of freedom of speech as well as the freedom of thought and conscience, which is an entrenched provision of the Constitution.

**Background information provided MTV Channel (Private) Limited**