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Sri Lanka's Genocidal War - '95 to '01
Article 19 fears for Sri Lanka democracy...
ARTICLE 19, an international organisation against censorship, wrote on 3 February 1999 to Sri Lankan Minister Mangala Samaraweera concerning recent threats by Sri Lanka government ministers to the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence:
Hon. Mangala Samaraweera
Minister of Media, Colombo, Sri Lanka
ARTICLE 19, the International Centre against Censorship, is greatly concerned by reports that two government ministers - Internal and International Commerce and Food Minister Kingsley T. Wickremaratne and D.M. Jayaratne, Minister of Agriculture and Lands, who is also PA General Secretary - have threatened to bring charges of criminal defamation against the widely respected Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), and against the three individuals whose names appear on some of its statements: Dr. P Saravanamuttu, Mr. Waruna Karunatilake and Mr. Sunanda Deshapriya.
We would view such legal action as a most ominous development, with grave implications for freedom of expression and the future of Sri Lanka's democracy.
We note that these threatened prosecutions arise from the CMEV's public documentation and reporting of numerous instances of violence and violations of election law during the recent elections to the North Western Provincial Council. Indeed, the CMEV - together with other election monitors - has concluded that this election was fundamentally marred by a significant rise in the number of such violations. Such allegations are not made lightly.
It is clearly in the public interest that allegations of election-related violence and other malpractice should be brought into the light, and should be promptly and fully investigated by the relevant authorities in order both to bring those responsible to justice and to uphold public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process in Sri Lanka. In this case, however, it appears that the CMEV is being targeted because of its work as a watchdog of the public interest. Having been subjected to a barrage of vilification for publishing the findings of its election monitors, it is now threatened with criminal prosecutions and the prospect that three of its office-holders could be imprisoned.
This is a most disturbing turn of events. We believe that such actions against the CMEV have implications which extend beyond the work of that organization alone and will have an ominous, "chilling" impact. They threaten the ability of any independent organization to monitor and report publicly on the conduct of elections in Sri Lanka. Indeed, they attack the very heart of democracy in Sri Lanka.
With five more provincial council elections due in the next three months, the government must now ensure that potential election monitors will not be silenced in this way, and that all allegations of violations of electoral law are fully investigated. Firm action must be taken promptly against any person, of whatever party, who is found to have committed such violations and every possible action must be taken to prevent election violence in the future.
You will be aware that ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly expressed concern about reports of political thuggery and intimidation over the years, under both the previous UNP administration and under the present PA government. We noted an increase in reports of clashes between supporters of the main political parties in 1996, and - in the context of the local government elections of March 1997, during which Nalanda Ellawala MP and his bodyguard were killed - noted the "urgent need for political violence and thuggery to be eradicated in all parties if democratic institutions are to be allowed to function and flourish in Sri Lanka." This need is all the more urgent now.
We have noted that two of the individuals who have now been threatened with criminal defamation suits, recently won a fundamental rights case against the government which was itself concerned with the holding of provincial council elections. After elections to five provincial councils were postponed by use of emergency regulations in August 1998, two members of the Free Media Movement - Mr. Waruna Karunatilake and Mr. Sunanda Deshapriya - argued that such action was unconstitutional. The court found in their favour, deciding that the franchise was integral to freedom of expression, and ruled that the elections must be held within three months of the judgment. This judgment was handed down the day after the North Western Provincial Council election.
These two journalists - who have just won a case concerning electoral practice against the government - now risk imprisonment for having reported on electoral malpractice.
We have noted statements in the media that the government will take action against those who have violated election law. We wait now to see these statements translated into swift and firm action, for without it - and without immediate lifting of the threat against the CMEV and its office-holders - we fear for the future of Sri Lanka's democracy.
For further information, contact ARTICLE 19, 33 Islington High St., London 19LH, U.K. tel: +44 1 71 278 9292, fax: +44 1 71 713 1356, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org websitet: http://www.gn.apc.org/article19/