Can the Navy justify the Hambantota assault?

Daily Mirror Editorial

Navy Commander Vice Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne was caught on camera assaulting a journalist assisted by an armed group of Navy personnel on Saturday while they were attempting to disperse a group of demonstrating port workers. The demonstrators are said to have taken control of two foreign ships during their agitation, demanding permanency in their jobs. Since everything that happened including what was said by the people concerned had been electronically-recorded and were seen and heard by the entire country, it would be very difficult for the authorities to justify the attack on the journalist.

The Navy was seen in action, in TV news bulletins on Saturday, dispersing the demonstrating harbour workers. They were seen encountering a person who did not run away and identified himself as a journalist, that’s it, a fat person in shorts pounces on him followed by a group of Navy personnel. Some apparent filthy words uttered by somebody were suppressed by the television channels with a beep. The entire country was able to see the journalist who did not provoke the Navy personnel or obstruct them from performing their duties being manhandled. What went wrong and where?    

 It is true that journalists should be concerned about their safety while attempting to capture the total picture of an incident or an event they are supposed to cover. During a dispersal of a demonstration by the armed forces or the police, they have to expect teargasing or even shooting. But, why should they expect intentional attacks by any party who thus far during the event had showed a friendly attitude?    

The Navy can justify the attack at least within themselves, if they had something to hide. But here they were said to have been deployed to release two foreign ships from the captivity of the demonstrators which was their legitimate duty. Also, they might have compelled even to use force to release the ships, had the demonstrators stood in their way. Had everything been done by them within the perimeters of the law, what aspect of the journalists’ coverage provoked the navy commander? On the other hand, the scene was not prohibited to the journalists. Nor had they disguised themselves as demonstrators. The entire country heard them identifying themselves.    

We are living under a government which boasts of pursuing good governance which includes media freedom as well. In fact, the current government had included people’s right to information in the country’s basic law through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that was adopted in April last year. Also, the government recently passed the Right to Information Act in order to streamline the implementation of the people’s right to information. The government seems to take a great effort to educate the officials and the general public on the right to information, spending a lot of money from the public coffers. If the authorities are serious and genuine in their efforts to promote the right to information, they cannot justify any attack on the journalists who are implementing what they attempt to promote, the right to information.    

The government is striving to regain the GSP+ concessions from the European Union (EU), giving assurances to the world that it upheld the democratic values. It has to be recalled that the concessions were annulled by the EU in 2010, imposing fifteen conditions including “taking steps to ensure journalists can exercise their professional duties without harassment” to be fulfilled by the government. The attack on the journalists at the Hambantota harbour runs counter to these assurances.    The government would not be able to absolve itself from taking moral responsibility for the ugly scene staged at the Hambantota Magampura harbour on Saturday. It must be recalled that the gradual accumulation of attacks on the media during the past regime took a horrendous toll on that regime.