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In Sri Lanka, “Media Dogs” Should Not Report Protests

The Sri Lanka Army opened fire at villagers protesting contaminated groundwater, killing at least three persons and injuring 15 others, including two journalists covering the incident. One journalist reported his camera was smashed, while the other said that she could not seek medical attention despite her injuries due to a lockdown of the area.
The demonstrations began on August 1, when authorities refused to heed repeated representations by residents of Weliweriya, a village northeast of Colombo, against a glove manufacturing factory discharging effluents. Residents said the effluents contaminated groundwater, thereby polluting water wells. The demonstrators, said to number between 4000 and 6000, were first asked to disperse by the police and army. When the crowd grew restive and began pelting stones, the army opened fine with live ammunition. The dead includes a 17-year-old boy.
The Paris-based international media freedom monitor Reporters without Borders (RSF) commenting on the incident placed it in the context of deteriorating standards of media freedom in Sri Lanka.
“We are very disturbed by the repeated use of violence against journalists in Sri Lanka,” RSF said. “At best, the police take no action when journalists report that they have been the targets of violence. At worst, the army itself, equipped with lethal weapons, organizes and executes these attacks, as it did in Weliweriya.”
Sri Lankais placed in the162nd position of 179 countries in RSF’s Press Freedom Index.
Meanwhile, there appears to have been a plan to block media coverage of the attack beforehand. Associated Press (August 1) reported, “Kanchana Dissanayake, editor of Sinhala-language ‘Ada’ (Today) newspaper, said that his photographer was admitted to a hospital after being beaten by soldiers. He claimed the soldiers said that ‘media dogs’ should not cover the protest and smashed his camera. Another female reporter said on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals that soldiers first targeted journalists because they wanted the media away before turning on the protesters. Many reporters were hiding for many hours into the night, she said.”
The female reporter referred to in the AP story, Deepika Adikari of the daily Lankadeepa, in an account to Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times (August 4) said, “‘One of the soldiers said it was the media that aggravates everything. Saying this we were taken to a side… I suffered an injury to my forehead. As a soldier attempted to grab my camera I dropped it on the ground so that a villager could take it and escape,’ she said.”
The Sri Lanka Journalists’ Trade Union in a statement on August 3 said, “She (Adikari) was assaulted by a soldier with a pole when she was on a roof trying to escape the onslaught. Despite her injuries, Adhikari was unable to receive any medical attention until around 9.30 p.m. She had to stay from 6 p.m. till around 9.30 p.m. to escape from the military attack.”
The SLJTU statement went on to say, “The journalists who were attacked last evening claim that they were subjected to such harassment even when they have identified themselves as media personnel covering the event. The military personnel have at the time referred to the media personnel as ‘dogs in the media.'”
Following the incident, the US embassy in Sri Lanka issued a one-line statement: “The U.S. Embassy is concerned about the violence in yesterday’s protest in Weliweriya, and urges the Government of Sri Lanka to respect the rights of people to protest peacefully, and urges restraint from all sides.”
Sri Lanka‘s Daily Mirror said on August 2, the Sri Lanka Army announced an internal inquiry would be launch on the incident: “Army Commander Daya Ratnayake has appointed a Board of Inquiry headed by Adjutant General of the Sri Lanka Army Major General Jagath Dias to inquire into the allegations levelled against the army during the  Weliweriya incident.”
Sri Lanka‘s military enjoys high levels impunity that has shielded it in the past. The military is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the war against Tamil rebels that ended in 2009. But fearing that the military would escape blame in a domestic inquiry, human rights observers have asked for an international investigation into the incidents. Similarly, the military was largely exonerated in the brutal crushing of a rebellion in southern Sri Lank that killed more 60,000 Sinhala youth between 1987 and 1990. Therefore it is unlikely the army inquiry will conducted justly.
Meanwhile, in a swift if clumsy move to escape censure, the Director of Government Information (the body tasked with providing State policy on the media) Ariyaratne Athugala said, “all media institutions should take the responsibility for the assault on journalists during yesterday’s incident in Weliweriya and said the government could not be held responsible for it,” reported the Daily Mirror on August 3.