The case of Tharindu Jayawardhana – Groundviews
Photo courtesy of the IFJ
Tharindu Jayawardhana is one of Sri Lanka’s most remarkable and promising young journalists. His writings and MediaLK, the news site he founded in 2019, are known to highlight some of the most critical injustices and rights violations facing many of the country’s ethnic minorities, such as Tamils and Muslims. But worryingly, Sri Lanka’s media ministry is currently denying MediaLK’s registration due to lack of clearance from the Ministry of Defense and a formal complaint filed with the Human Rights Commission. which is pending.
The complaints are not only about a respected and courageous young journalist known to have uncovered important stories, but also in terms of greater implications for free speech when journalists may be intimidated and threatened (as Tharindu did ) for reporting in the public interest.
Tharindu began his career as a journalist for the popular daily Lankadeepa where he wrote detailed articles on the environment, corruption and human rights. Along with another colleague, he also wrote controversial papers in the Investigating the Truth column. He is well known for his intensive use of the Right to Information (RTI) and won a special award for the use of the RTI Act for public purposes and the welfare of society at an event celebrating the International RTI Day organized by the Ministry of Media and won an award for best feature film using RTI and Scoop of the Year at the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka awards. Author of a published book, Tharindu documented the community struggle for water in Rathupaswela and the murder of three people during a protest in 2013.
As a founding member, former secretary and currently member of the executive committee of the Association of Young Journalists, Tharindu has been at the forefront of issues related to freedom of expression, arbitrary detention, torture and the right to a fair trial, engaging regularly with statutory institutions such as the Human Rights Commission, including filing public interest complaints on matters where the police are accused of human rights violations the man.
Recent Threat Triggers
Tharindu began to face the first in a series of intimidation following his report on the Presidential Commission of Inquiry investigating the Easter Sunday attacks after the investigation found that a deputy inspector general Chief of Police (SDIG) Deshanbandu Tennakoon had failed to perform his duties during the attack and recommended a disciplinary investigation.
On June 29, MediaLK released its report that a special police investigative division appointed to investigate police negligence in connection with the bombings recommended that indictments be brought against several senior officers. police, including SDIG Tennakoon. The minister responsible for police confirmed at a press conference that the Public Services Commission had forwarded the indictments. The MediaLK report also mentioned that Tennakoon was among those Cabinet had approved for a special pay rise despite disciplinary action recommended against him by the Presidential Commission and Special Investigations Division of the police. The report was based on responses to questions posed by Tharindu at a press conference on June 18 and 29.
It is believed that some of Tharindu’s early reporting this month may have been the catalyst for the threats that were to follow. Weeks earlier, on June 9, Tharindu posted photos on Facebook of a rally, which included the Prime Minister, at the funeral of a family member of a prominent Buddhist monk at a time when Covid-19 was linked to restrictions on travel and gatherings. were in place. As happened in Western Province run by SDIG Tennakoon, the reporter tagged SDIG’s Facebook page and asked a series of questions. While the SDIG did not answer questions on the platform, it asked Tharindu to call it with a cell phone number. But despite repeated attempts to connect with the SDIG, he got no response.
On July 1, MediaLK released another investigative report on a senior police officer who had retired after a 35-year career. The officer had been in detention for about ten months and had been released on bail a few days earlier. The arrest and detention gave rise to numerous convictions and expressions of concern, including from the Court of Appeal, the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission and the European Parliament. The arrest was carried out by the Colombo Crime Division (CCD) police, overseen by SDIG Tennakoon.
Tharindu shared the report on Facebook the same day and within about half an hour a comment tirade from SDIG Tennakoon began on the post. Most of the SDIG’s comments accused Tharindu of writing and publishing fake news. The reporter repeatedly responded to the comments, requesting information about the lies and offering corrections if necessary. Other journalists and lawyers have also asked the SDIG to provide information on the written lies. No specific case has been reported.
Among the threats were that Tharindu would be punished by “natural justice”. In another, the SDIG referred to Velupillai Prabakaran and criminals. This is a serious threat, given that Prabakaran was killed by the military at the end of the war and two suspected criminals were killed in police custody in May this year. At least 10 other people have reportedly been killed in police custody over the past 12 months.
After the incident, Tharindu wrote a letter to the Inspector General of Police (IGP), asking him to prevent any harm to him, his family or relatives and to ensure their safety. He also called on the IGP to guarantee his freedom to exercise his professional activity as a journalist and to investigate the threats made in the online comments. The Collective of Media Organizations (six media freedom organizations) also wrote to the IGP to request guarantees for the safety of Tharindu and to conduct a formal investigation. Opposition political parties, including the Leader of the Opposition, have also expressed concern through public statements and interventions in parliament.
Fears of self-censorship
It is important to note that the SDIG is the second highest post in the police force. As such, an SDIG publicly making threatening remarks against a respected, award-winning and well-known freelance journalist and getting away with it likely has a chilling effect on many lesser-known journalists.
If SDIG Tennakoon is not held accountable, it will only encourage more predators of free speech. For other journalists, it could lead to more self-censorship. The journalistic community and all those whose right to information is at stake must join Tharindu and others who face retaliation for exercising the right to freedom of expression.