Thu. Dec 2nd, 2021

Statement by Sri Lanka young journalists association

Protect Freedom of Expression and Vulnerable groups in dealing with the Pandemic 

We, the undersigned organizations and trade unions from across Sri Lanka express serious concern  about the escalating pandemic and continuing rights violations and deterioration of rule of law,  while appreciating the efforts of the health sector and many others who have been taking risks and  trying to prevent the spread of the virus and care for those affected.  

We regret that lack of clear prioritization and disorganized process to conduct vaccinations,  reducing the number of PCR tests that may artificially reduce the number of reported COVID-19  positive cases and reports that healthcare workers have not been receiving adequate support. We  are also concerned about the lack of attention to vaccinate and conduct PCR tests to most  vulnerable groups. These should include prisoners in overcrowded spaces with minimum facilities  and workers in garment factories, some of whom have been compelled to work despite being  unwell, pregnancies and lack of health precautions at the workplace. We also note that food and  essential items have not been adequately provided to those who are compelled to quarantine  themselves in small and crowded homes, hostels and those who lose their incomes due to  quarantine and lockdowns. We are also shocked to hear of discriminatory application of quarantine  regulations, especially in relation to arrests.  

The last few weeks, which was the worst month in terms of COVID-19 positive cases and deaths in Sri Lanka, was also a time where we witnessed widespread repression of freedom of expression  and dissent. The Secretary to the Ministry of Health had issued a circular threatening to take action  against health staff who may speak to the media. The President is reported to have said that health  personnel must share information and suggestions with him rather than sharing with the public  through the media. Dr. Chamila Sanjaya, a medical doctor, is facing imminent disciplinary inquiry at  the Ministry of Health and he fears this is due to his articles and interviews to the media. Mr.  Chamila Jayasinghe, a senior government official was arrested in relation to a Facebook post about  environmental destruction. A youth was arrested in Colombo for urging motorists to honk their  vehicle horns in protest after being stranded due to an unannounced roadblock to facilitate VVIP  travel. A journalist from the hill country and his family members faced intimidation in relation to  a memorial event that had been held earlier this year.  

In the highly militarized Mullaitheevu district, Army personnel at a roadside checkpoint attempted  to stop a journalist from travelling for his professional duties, despite confirmation from the Officer  in Charge of the local police station that journalists are allowed to travel. A new memorial plaque  to remember the war dead disappeared overnight before it could be erected in the Mullivaikkal  village in the Mullaitheevu district amidst heavy military presence. An existing memorial at the  same place was damaged the same night. Tamil politicians, religious clergy, activists and  community leaders from the North and East faced intimidation and court orders as they attempted  to conduct memorials for war dead adhering to health guidelines. A Tamil journalist has been in  detention for more than 6 months, allegedly based on a Facebook post expressing opinions  about commemorating dead LTTE cadres. 

Ahnaf Jazeem, a 26 year old Muslim poet from the Northern town of Chilawathurai, remains  imprisoned for more than a year without charges, without being produced before a Magistrate to  review legality of his detention. He has been denied meaningful and regular access to his lawyers  and has not had adequate opportunities to be visited or call his family members. He has not been  provided adequate food and health care and subjected to discriminatory, cruel, inhumane and  degrading treatment. His family and lawyers suspect these are reprisals against their efforts to  secure his release and part of police attempts to compel him to make a self-incriminating statement.  Media reports have alleged that his arrest is an attempt to incriminate Muslim Attorney-at-Law  Hejaaz Hizbullah, an outspoken minority rights activist and human rights lawyer who has been in  detention for more than a year. Hejaaz has been indicted after about 11 months in detention, but  his lawyers are not informed about the details beyond media reports. Several children and two  teachers have filed fundamental rights cases saying they were intimidated into making statements  to implicate Hejaaz and media reports indicate the indictment against him may be based on testimony of one child. Last year, the Colombo Fort Magistrate had cancelled a flawed identity  parade orchestrated by the police and also ordered an investigation into how confidential testimonies  given to him (the Magistrate) were leaked to the media. Both Ahnaf and Hejaaz are well known critiques of Islamic extremism, and had strongly condemned the Easter bombings. We are also  concerned about the approximately 300 Muslims who have been in detention after the Easter  attacks without having been formally charged. We insist on justice for Easter bombings, including those masterminds and those who aided and abetted, but it must be through a process that respects  rule of law, fair trials and rights of suspects and accused.  

In conclusion, we remind the government that vulnerable populations such as prisoners, factory workers, daily wage owners must be accorded due priority in terms of vaccines, PCR tests and  health measures as well as humanitarian support. The rights to health, food etc. must be treated as  entitlements of peoples and duties of the government, not privileges bestowed by the rulers at their  whim and fancy. During a time of emergency such as this, the public must be able to receive  maximum information and opinions about the pandemic, including through print, electronic and  web media. There must be no reprisals against medical personnel, government officials,  journalists, online commentators, environmentalists and others who share alternative information  and opinions, question, criticize and challenge the government. A rights-based approach to deal  with the pandemic is essential and any restrictions on rights must not be discriminatory towards  any person or communities, be proportionate to the need, time bound and as per the constitution,  be prescribed by law.

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