Kath Noble

And the beatings go on

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 17, 2013

On the upcoming election in the Northern Province and the violence associated with it

Fire at Uthayan officeThe Government is getting really good at denying responsibility for attacks on the media. Within hours of the incident at the Uthayan office in Jaffna on Saturday, its spokesman had issued a several hundred word statement claiming that it was an ‘inside job’. How’s that for efficiency? If only it put a fraction of that energy into finding proof of its imaginative theories, we might actually be convinced.

Unfortunately, it has not been able to identify the culprits in even one previous case, although there have been many.

That is what I would describe as an ‘interesting phenomenon’.

The statement claims to have spotted a rather different ‘interesting phenomenon’. It says that Uthayan is the only newspaper to have faced harassment in the ‘recent past’, which it suggests is odd because Uthayan is owned by a TNA parliamentarian who is ‘actively campaigning against the Government and the Military in the North and East’.

The first point to note is that unless one adopts a very narrow definition of the phrase ‘recent past’, this is simply not true. Faraz Shauketaly of The Sunday Leader was shot less than two months ago. Less than six months before that, the editor of the same newspaper, Frederica Jansz, left the country claiming that she was under threat, having had a run-in with the Defence Secretary. And before that, it was the turn of Lanka-e-News. Its office in Colombo was attacked by arsonists, and its news editor Bennet Rupasinghe and a journalist Shantha Wijesuriya were both jailed for a time. Its editor, Sandaruwan Senadheera, also fled the country. Cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance took place just three years ago. That all seems like ‘recent past’ to me.

But let’s concentrate on the last few weeks.

In that period, Uthayan has indeed suffered disproportionately ā€“ it has been attacked twice. On April 3rd, an armed gang trashed vehicles and computer equipment at its distribution centre in Kilinochchi, in the process injuring four members of staff. Then came the attack of April 13th at its Jaffna headquarters. This time the security guards fled and the armed gang set fire to the printing press and a stack of newspapers awaiting delivery.

That is certainly curious.

Even more peculiar is that it is not only the newspaper owned by a TNA parliamentarian that has suffered. The TNA itself has also come under attack. On March 30th, a mob of about 50 people threw stones at a public meeting organised by TNA MPs in Kilinochchi. Several participants were injured. However, they managed to capture one of the assailants and hand him over to the police, who were supposedly providing security for what was a pre-approved event. He was identified as a member of the CID. Photographs and even a video of the attack was made available to the authorities, but the man was released. No arrests have been made to date.

This was clearly no ‘inside job’.

In other words, while the TNA is ‘actively campaigning against the Government and the Military in the North and East’, somebody has been attacking the TNA. That is the second point to note.

Point number three concerns another ‘interesting phenomenon’. Until the last few weeks, Uthayan had not come under attack since the first half of 2011. On March 16th of that year, a police constable entered its premises and threatened the staff, saying that he would set fire to the building. On April 7th, the Jaffna Mayor declared that the newspaper would not be allowed within the confines of the municipal council and issued instructions not to give any advertisements or news to Uthayan. On April 29th, a reporter was beaten up on assignment at Jaffna University. On May 28th, another reporter was attacked on his way to work near the Jaffna Hindu College playgrounds. On June 16th, a photographer was attacked at a TNA meeting. On July 5th, the TNA parliamentarian owner of Uthayan received a death threat over the phone. On July 29th, the news editor was seriously injured in an assault on his way home near the Navalar Road Army camp. However, from then until the end of 2012, Uthayan was challenged only in court, according to a list that the newspaper has circulated.

And the last elections in the Northern Province were in July 2011.

Given that there is supposed to be a poll in September this year, the attacks on Uthayan would seem to be part of a very established pattern of election violence.

If the Government expects us to believe that it is not responsible, it has only to arrest the culprits and ensure that no further incidents take place. With thousands of soldiers roaming around the Northern Province, this really shouldn’t be too difficult.

The credibility of the election depends on it.

Of course, for that to be a problem for the Government, the poll must actually happen.

In the last few weeks, key personalities have been suggesting that it would be better not to have a provincial council in the Northern Province. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Island that a hostile administration could be ‘inimical to the post-war national reconciliation process’, and a whole lot of his hangers-on have been agreeing, in quite exhausting detail.

Bizarrely, their argument rests on the assumption that power should only be devolved to one’s supporters.

This may be a reasonable way to run an army, but we are of course talking about a democratic country. Democracy means that elections must be held even when the Government isn’t going to win!

Really ‘inimical to the post-war national reconciliation process’ would be for the Government to cancel the September poll on the basis that the people of the Northern Province want the TNA to form an administration.

To do so would be to justify continued support for Eelam.

What is needed is the exact opposite. The Government must focus its attention on undermining separatism, which means that it must work to show that Tamils can live in Sri Lanka. Fear of a TNA administration is understandable, since the TNA has not done enough to distance itself from the struggle for Eelam. However, even if the TNA wanted a separate state, it could not achieve it alone. It would need the very serious backing of the international community, including India, and while distrust of those countries is natural given their records, we should not forget that they all helped to defeat the LTTE. They know that a return to violence would be devastating, so convincing them that it is not necessary should be pretty easy.

Eelam will be a distant memory if the 13th Amendment is made to work, and letting the TNA run the provincial council would be a very good first step.

Unfortunately, the Government may be more interested in consolidating its own power. Indeed, it might actually be quite happy to see the pro-Eelam struggle reignite, in much the same way as it has directly or indirectly encouraged the anti-Muslim campaign. Neither is good for the country, but they may both help the Government to project itself as a necessary evil ā€“ the only administration capable of responding to such threats.

If that is the case, the media had better brace itself for much worse times to come.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 17th April 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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