The Freedom Chat Transcripts: Sri Lankan Human Rights Defender Ruki Fernando
The newly-elected Sri Lankan government has made announcements stating its intent to alleviate human rights restrictions and cooperate with a UN investigation of war crimes committed during the Sri Lankan Civil War of 1983-2009. However, in the wake of the presidential election of January 8th, 2015, Sri Lanka’s citizens still struggle with impunity in the face of enforced disappearances and kidnappings, militant Buddhist attacks, and arrests of journalists under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, while the government obstructs the UN’s investigation.
Editorial intern Emily Durham spoke with Ruki Fernando, a Sri Lankan human rights defender currently living in Sri Lanka. His expository journalism and advocacy for Tamil human rights and religious freedom have led to his arrest and a subsequent gag order which—still today—restricts him from traveling outside of the country.
Can you describe the current free expression conditions in Sri Lanka?
Since the last presidential elections on 8th of January, I think that free expression has improved, and there was much more freedom than in the last ten years. There are still problems, but by and large, we are more hopeful of having an environment where free expression is possible. On recent occasions, people have been questioned and detained for trying to express themselves on certain issues.
What are the improvements you’ve seen since the presidential election that give you hope for Sri Lanka’s freedom of expression?
We have seen the arrest, detention, threats and intimidation of journalists even after electing the new government, especially of Tamil journalists in the north. A restriction imposed on my own freedom of expression in March 2014 still remains in force even under this new government. The new government announced that exiled journalists can return to Sri Lanka, but nothing concrete has been done after three months to enable their return, despite repeated requests by exiled journalists and media freedom organizations. But there is less fear, and state media is allowing human rights defenders like me, who they had branded as traitors and terrorist supporters, to express ourselves. Websites that had been blocked under the previous government have been unblocked. There have been some consultations regarding a Right to Information Act that is expected to pass soon.
What do you believe are the biggest problems concerning free expression today?
I think the main challenge is getting over the kind of self-censorship that we got used to when we lived under very authoritarian rule. I think it will take time for us to feel that we can express ourselves freely, and that it is an inherent right to express ourselves freely, that it’s not privileged. But I think that’s more of a self-reflection that we need to have. I think the second challenge is that, like many other things, freedom of expression is also context-dependent in Sri Lanka, so there are certain things that people are free to express themselves about, but for certain other things, people may, for political reasons or for reasons of convenience or fear, not want to express themselves. I think we need to get over this bias, especially the ethnic bias. And when it comes to issues like politically settling the ethnic conflict, some people feel reluctance and a greater fear to express yourself than you normally would about other issues. Then you also have issues related to accountability for allegations of very serious violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law during the last phase of the war. Again, expressing opinions on those issues, which are seen as very controversial, does not happen so freely. Also, I think we have the challenge of more structural, institutional, legal aspects, because for far too long we’ve gotten used to the idea that state media necessarily means the propaganda of the government in power. We’ve not gotten used to the idea of a public service media. So I think that in itself is a challenge, although we have a new government that appears to be more sensitive to issues of free expression. But a large problem that we’re faced with right now is the issue of impunity from past violations against freedom of expression. We’ve had large numbers of journalists who have been killed, who have been disappeared, who have been assaulted. Despite statements to re-open investigations, I have not heard of any progress made in the last 100 days.
Can you tell me about your personal experience in Sri Lanka?
I’ve been writing primarily on websites and blogs, while also writing for newspapers in Sri Lanka and occasionally for journals, magazines, and newspapers in foreign countries. I also give interviews to various journalists, and I have given talks. I’ve written and spoken mainly about human rights-related issues. I’ve always had a sense of fear that I might get into trouble, and indeed, I have gotten into trouble several times. I have tried to access areas that were affected by the war, often inaccessible to even most NGOs and journalists, and I was stopped, restricted, and threatened, along with colleagues. I have written and talked about the challenges I’ve faced. But more recently, last year, I was arrested on charges of supporting terrorism along with another colleague, and then I was released because of international and national outrage. After being released, a fresh investigation was launched against me with the suspicion that I was supporting terrorism, and as part of that investigation, there was a gag order placed on me. The gag order restricted my freedom of expression on certain issues, and also there was a travel restriction placed on me, which indirectly restricts my freedom of expression. I used to travel very often; traveling was an important and regular part of my advocacy, where I used to give talks to people. I used to give interviews to various people. The gag order is still upon me today; it has been in effect for more than one year.
Sri Lanka has been recently described as having a “culture of impunity.” Why do you think it’s so difficult for journalists to pursue justice?
Well, it’s not only an issue of journalists pursuing justice. We’ve had issues on very large scales: thousands of people disappearing, thousands of executions, allegations of war crimes, for which we are facing impunity. So impunity for freedom of expression and violations against journalists is just one dimension of the impunity. Impunity is a larger structural problem about human rights and democracy and rule of law in Sri Lanka.
Is this “culture of impunity” still in effect, or are any of those responsible for violence being charged for their crimes since the 8th of January election?
Even under the new government, there is impunity. Even when there is clear video and photographic evidence, those responsible have not been arrested. On several occasions, the police themselves have been eyewitnesses, standing by and watching as Buddhist groups engaged in violence against Christians, Muslims, and even a fellow Buddhist monk from another sect. Even in terms of disappearances, extrajudicial executions, attacks, and threats on media institutions, journalists, human rights defenders, and lawyers, there is still impunity, even in last three months of new government. Again, clear evidence is available against certain police and military personnel. Some announcements have been made by the new government, but I don’t know of any steps that have been taken. Even in terms of grave allegations of war crimes and possibly genocide and crimes against humanity, there seems to be complete impunity. The new government doesn’t seem to want to cooperate with the UN investigation.
What are the most censored topics right now in Sri Lanka, whether self-censored or censored by someone else, and why do you think this is?
I think there are two most sensitive topics: one is the question of the political solution to the ethnic conflict. There’s a great reluctance, a great fear to express oneself freely about different options for a political solution, particularly involving the right to self-determination. It’s a very taboo subject. Number two is also related to ethnic relations, in terms of allegations of war crimes, allegations of genocide, allegations of crimes against humanity. So this again is a topic that is very taboo. Many people are scared to write about it, because it is seen as something very controversial, seen as something that might get yourself into a lot of trouble.
Article 14(1)(a) of the Sri Lankan constitution guarantees “freedom of speech and expression, including publication.” Are these rights being upheld by the government?
Until the 8th of January, 2015, which was the day we had the presidential elections, these rights were frequently violated. There was very little space for freedom of expression, and even when there was some space for freedom of expression, there was fear that there would be no freedom after expression. But I think things have gotten a little bit better, and many people are feeling more free to express themselves after the presidential election.
Are there any specific laws outside of the constitution that restrict freedom of speech or freedom of press?
Yes, we have a particular law that is very problematic, called the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This has clauses restricting freedom of expression, but more than those short clauses, the law itself has made people very scared of expressing themselves. This law has been used against journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians who have been arrested, detained, convicted, and given sentences of up to 20 years. I was also personally detained undert this law. I am still under investigation and my freedom of expression and travel are restricted. Many fear that if they express themselves freely, that they will be arrested under this law. The Prevention of Terrorism Act is truly a draconian law that makes people very scared to express themselves freely.
Can you address the enforced disappearances and kidnappings that have been occurring?
Families of disappeared people have been very courageous, very brave, and very committed. A few people like us have supported them; I have been personally very involved in campaigning against enforced disappearances to find truth, justice, and reparations for people who have disappeared. This fight has been very difficult and has been one of the topics that is also sort of taboo to write about, to talk about.
How do you think the 25-year civil war in Sri Lanka has affected how the government treats journalists?
Well, it depends on the minds of the journalists. Those who are critical of the government that has been in power over a particular period are erroneously considered terrorist supporters or terrorist suspects. So that can make freedom of expression a very difficult thing and a very dangerous reality, despite our constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression, and despite Sri Lanka being part of international treaties that guarantee freedom of expression.
After the civil war ended in 2009, the government announced that it was “the first country in the modern world to eradicate terrorism on its own soil.” What do you think of this statement?
Well, certainly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) engaged in acts of terrorism, but so has the Sri Lankan government. Both have engaged in acts of terrorism. So the Sri Lankan government militarily defeated the LTTE, which is a good thing, but the way the LTTE was defeated creates a huge amount of problems. And to our knowledge, the way the LTTE was defeated was in total disregard to international human rights law and to international humanitarian law, causing huge amounts of suffering to a large amount of people. We still don’t know how many people have been killed, how many people they injured, and the extent of the damage that was done.
Are there any other groups, religious or cultural, that enforce censorship or are a threat to journalists and writers?
In the last two or three years, there have been groups of people who identify themselves as Buddhists—some in robes, claiming to be Buddhist monks—who have broken into meetings and tried to scare people out of speaking about the subjects they believe in. For example, last year, a Buddhist monk, together with some Muslim clerics, was at a press conference in a hotel in Colombo about religious freedom speaking about challenges he was facing. Another group of Buddhist monks broke into the hotel and stopped the press conference in the presence of the police, and the police did nothing to ensure that the press conference could go on and to stop the intruding militant Buddhist monks. So there is one example. And then last year also, at a meeting about disappearances at which I was in attendance, families of disappeared peoples had come to share about their experiences and their struggles, and this meeting was also disrupted by a group of people who called themselves Buddhist monks and Buddhists. These groups, which are technically non-state, appear to be functioning with the full operation and support of the state, and that is how they can get away with it.
Why do these militant Buddhists feel that Sri Lankans should restrict freedom of expression? What are the motivations behind these attacks and disruptions?
Militant Buddhist groups seem to think that Sri Lanka should be a Buddhist country and that it belongs to Buddhists, even though Buddhism—like Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and other religions—was spread into Sri Lanka from other places. They seem to think Buddhism is superior to other religions, and that people should not have the freedom to convert from one religion to another if they feel like it. Buddhist places of worship were attacked by the LTTE during the war, and Buddhists monks and pilgrims were killed, so they may feel resentment for these injustices. But Muslim and Christian places of worship were also attacked during the war: many destroyed, and clergy and worshippers killed inside these places. Hindu Kovils also were destroyed, and Hindu priests were killed and detained. Christian clergy have been killed and disappeared. There have admittedly been some aggressive attempts by some Christian groups to go from house to house and convert Buddhists, Catholics. But to my knowledge, no force or illegal means or violence has been used. Widespread Christian conversion in the country may be a fear for some Buddhists. But the reaction by some of these Buddhists has clearly been very violent and illegal.
Do you have any last comments for us?
I think it is important for the Sri Lankan population at large to recognize the importance of free expression, so that it is not only something to do with journalists, but that it is something to do with the whole country. I really expect everyone—all Sri Lankans, not just journalists—to appreciate the importance of freedom of expression: we should have the right to read, listen to, and see different news reports, different opinions. We should be free to express ourselves without having to fear for our lives.