Feature Article

Journalists dismayed over Sivaram debate

[TamilNet, Saturday, 07 May 2005, 18:24 GMT]
The lack of a quorum in Sri Lanka’s Parliament and the subsequent lacklustre debate when the abduction and brutal murder of Tamil political columnist and military analyst, Dharmeratnam Sivaram, was taken up Friday dismayed journalists who three days earlier had taken to the streets in a major protest over the brazen killing in Colombo.

Marking the World Press Freedom day, hundreds of journalists demonstrated carrying placards with photos of Mr Sivaram and shouting slogans demanding freedom of expression, in front of the Fort railway station in Colombo last Tuesday.

Mr. Sivaram was seized by four men in an unmarked 4x4 vehicle on April 28. His body was found dumped close to the Parliament a few hours later. He had been shot in the head.

Koďchiro Matsuura
UNESCO Director-General Koďchiro Matsuura
Mr. Sivaram’s killing shocked Sri Lankans and was widely condemned both locally and internationally. “This shameful crime has led to a great loss for Sri Lankan journalism and for UNESCO,” UNESCO Director-General Koďchiro Matsuura, said.

The complicity of military intelligence and anti-LTTE paramilitaries working with is widely suspected in Mr. Sivaram’s abduction and execution, just as it is in the killing in October 2000 of BBC correspondent Mylvaganam Nimalarajan, who was shot dead at his home in Army-controlled Jaffna town.

On Wednesday, the leaders of the political parties represented in the Parliament decided to hold a special debate on Mr. Sivaram’s killing.

But on Friday, very few MPs attended the special session.

“The debate lacked the expected heated exchanges and there was no quorum in the house,” journalist Daya Lankapura told the BBC Sandeshaya (BBC’s Sinhala service).

Although the debate continued as the party leaders agreed to go ahead without the quorum, journalists were dismayed at the Parliamentary opposition’s refusal to push for action over the “brazen abduction and execution” as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) described the killing of Mr. Sivaram, one of Sri Lanka’s best known journalists and columnists.

“That a Tamil journalist whose writing was seen as sympathetic to the LTTE has been killed is undoubtedly a factor in the [main opposition United National Party] UNP’s indifference,” a political columnist with a leading Tamil daily said Saturday.

“The failure to muster a quorum for such an important debate shows the extent of ethnic polarisation in Sri Lanka,” he said.

“Imagine if it had been Lasantha [who had been killed],” he asked, referring to Lasantha Wickramatunga, the Sinhalese editor of pro-UNP weekly, The Sunday Leader.

Mr. Wickramatunga wrote to Sri Lanka’s Inspector General of Police last week, saying he feared a “grave and imminent risk” from the security forces.

In a survey conducted last year on ethnic relations and opinions on the peace process, Social Indicator, a subsidiary of the Colombo based Centre for Policy Alternatives noted: “ethnic cleavages in Sri Lanka are palpable and permeate virtually all aspects of politics, the economy and society.”

Moreover, the reluctance of the UNP to take up the case of a Tamil journalist who has been vehemently criticised by Sinhala nationalists as pro-LTTE reflects a central thrust of Sri Lankan politics.

Analyst Neil De Votta, in his book ‘Blowback’ published last year, which looks at Sri Lanka’s descent from a model of multi-ethnic harmony to vicious racial conflict, blamed a culture of ‘outbidding’ - in which the government and opposition at any time seek to outbid each other in being more stridently Sinhala nationalist – for past failures to share power and make peace with the Tamils.

However, Mr. Sivaram’s nocturnal abduction and murder, which revived fearful memories amongst Sri Lankans of the 1988-89 reign of state-terror did bring outraged journalists from all ethnic communities together at the World Press Freedom day rally – though some Sinhala correspondents reportedly refused to attend an event at which Mr. Sivaram’s killing was the focus of protest.

Meanwhile, some Tamil journalists also criticised the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) for not doing more within the debate to take the government to task, particularly when the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP), which is part of the ruling coalition, had openly urged violence against Mr. Sivaram in the past.

“Asking for an international probe is all well and good. But the government was obviously going to refuse. Was that all the debate was going to be about. What about the JVP’s threats [against Mr. Sivaram]?” a Colombo-based correspondent asked.

“If this is the extent of what happens when Taraki is killed, what will happen if any of us get picked up and bumped off?” he asked, referring to Mr. Sivaram’s nom de plume.

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06.05.05   TNA demands international commission to probe Sivaram murder
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