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Sri Lanka: Colours Of Change

Lewis Garland

Lewis Garland

Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London – Colours of Change: Stephen Champion 

Colours of Change‘ is  a retrospective of  the  photographer Stephen Champion’s work in Sri Lanka  over the past 28 years.  It is immediately clear that this exhibition is not the work  of a shoot and run fly-by, but of an artist intensely dedicated to his muse, the island and its peoples,  in all of  its contradictions.  In his own words,  his long-standing relationship with Sri Lanka  has taught him to  “love the plastic as much as  sea”.  Champion’s work not only displays a great passion for the country but an acute understanding of  its diversity and nuance: geographical, historical, political and cultural.

Champion’s depth of knowledge, combined with his ability to  ask questions and  allude to wider  narratives within a single frame, has  some fascinating results.  One photograph that particularly stands out in this regard, pictures a  group of young  Buddhist monks  strolling, seemingly unnoticed, past sun-soaked western tourists.  What makes this composition  clever is that, through a simple,  understated comical  juxtaposition of characters, volumes are spoken about the uneasy relationship between  Sri Lanka’s rapidly growing tourist industry and its  traditions.

As with the above mentioned photograph, Champion’s eye for capturing the island’s idiosyncrasies and the subtle  absurdities of the day-to-day  is present throughout much of this exhibition: The young man posing  like an 80′s pop-icon  beside a ramshackle  bus stand; the auto rickshaw emblazoned with  London’s East end colloquialisms-”Lovely Jubbly, Del boy, Geezer”; The charming grin of a Nuwara Eliyan worker, clad in a lilac suit jacket and sarong with a chemical sprayer tucked under his arm.

68a Vavuniya farmer, 1994 006

Vavuniya farmer

Another common Motif in Champion’s work is the placement of solitary human figures within landscapes, often silhouetted or turned away from camera and  frequently involved in agricultural activities- Fishermen  in Jaffna and Puttalam Lagoons, a farmer gazing across his land in Meddawachchiya. This device provides these picturesque, catalogue-friendly landscapes with a human context, not only breathing  life into the images but also providing us with a glimpse into the particular  regional relationships between  the  people/s and their natural surroundings, soil or sea.

A reality that cannot be ignored about this retrospective is that the period it covers aligns closely with  Sri Lanka’s civil war. Unsurprisingly therefore, the spectre of war and  of the country’s   fragile post-war peace loom large. At times war and its impacts are inferred to rather than approached directly-war is treated as an ever-present rather than a subject in itself.  This is particularly true of many of the images from Jaffna, from the razor-wire fence that cuts across our view of Jaffna Lagoon to the uncomfortable emptiness of the city after curfew. At other times  Champion deals directly with the conflict, both in its corporeal brutality and its wider costs. This area of his work undoubtedly includes the  most immediately evocative imagery in the exhibition: a  child tagged with the words ‘wounded calamity’; the trickle of blood emerging from beneath a closed door; the twisted, blackened carnage of war.  One  inspired piece of curatorship  is the pairing of two images.  In the  first, a young female LTTE (Tamil Tiger) cadre struggles to hold up her rocket launcher as if dragging around an unwanted extra-limb; in the second a young women with a prosthetic limb glares directly into the lens. This is a story in need of no further explanation.

Given the scope of this exhibition, both in terms of time scale and subject matter, there are moments when one yearns  for a  more contextualisation. Having said this, Sri Lanka is not a country lacking in polemicists and perhaps, in allowing the  space for interpretation, Champion has purposefully sought to avoid becoming embroiled too closely in the island’s politics-to remain the artist-observer.

‘Colour of Change’, taken as a whole, provides a compelling visual record of a tumultuous period in Sri Lankan history, an insight into the essence of  everyday life within the country, and, more than anything, the story of an artist’s ever changing relationship with his muse.

56a A former female LTTE cadre, Killinochchi 2006 009

A former female LTTE cadre

13a Tourists and monks on the beach, Mihiripenne 2010

Tourists and monks on the beach

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Concerns On The Draft Code Of Media Ethics

Mug shot

Harith de Mel

The Ministry of Mass Media and Information has recently proposed a Draft ‘Code of Media Ethics’. Upon reading the preliminary draft which has been made available selectively, the writer would like to highlight certain immediate concerns about this step by the Ministry. These concerns are primarily made for the preservation of an essential element of democracy; the freedom of the Media. There shall be no specific comment on the content of the Draft Code at this juncture as it would be premature even though on a perusal of the same it is much warranted.

The first concern is a matter of Professions and Ethical guidelines. Professions require and do have ethical guidelines. Ideally such is created and regulated by the profession itself. Therefore the propriety of a Ministry or Government to pass by regulation a Code of Ethics applicable to a profession must be questioned. It brings up the wider question whether any other profession can be subject to similar governmental actions. The Minister does have the power to pass regulations subject to approval by Parliament under S.30(2) of the Press Council Act of 1973 however the question remains whether the content of such regulation can ever be a code of ethics and even so a code of ethics formulated by the Ministry.

Further it must be noted that it is not in the absence of a code of ethics from the Media Profession the Government has taken this step. There is currently a ‘Code of Professional Practice (Code of Ethics)’ of The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka and Free Media Movement adopted by the Sri Lanka Press Institute which is quite comprehensive, and up to date has maintained a Press Complaints Commission for the implementation of such. Interestingly several elements of the same code has been extracted verbatim to the proposed code as well; however some of the additional ‘ethics’ proposed (especially in clause 1) cannot be said to be of a nature that any professional body would pass or that would be reasonably acceptable from the perspective of the Media Profession as it embodies very little professional insight on the workings of Media.   Thus the propriety of the Government to pass it own set of ethics and superimpose such on the Media profession is clearly questionable.

The 2nd issue that arises is as to one aspect of the content of the Draft Code which is one of the graver concerns. Clause 1 contains several grounds from (a) to (m) on which ‘No Publication should be published…’  for example ‘containing material against the integrity of the executive , judiciary and legislative’. The question that arises here is can a code of ethics for media set out a restriction on content or subject matter that the media may deal with? Ethics being primarily related to the conduct of the media should if at all regulate the ‘means by which the media acts’. These restrictions do not regulate the means. They regulate the ‘end’ or the end product that is the publication itself. There is a flaw in a code of ethics regulating the end and not the means to an end. From Clause 2 onwards there are considerations of these means. For example accuracy, standards of reporting, means of investigating, confidentiality and so on are matters within an ethical code which are the means by which the media should work. If at all any restriction on the content should not be other than that which is not allowed ‘by law’ which need not be stated and is implied and is further strengthened under The Press Council Act itself and by other laws. Certain elements of Clause 1 do not carry out that objective either. Interestingly the Code adopted by the Sri Lanka Press Institute does not at any juncture have any such restrictions either, as it is itself a proper code of ethics standing within the purpose of a code of ethics.

The 3rd concern is that this particular draft code of ethics cannot be set out as regulations under the existing Law.  Due to the inaction of several governments over time it has been seen that the Media is subject to Laws in a haphazard manner. The Press Council Act of 1973 deals with print media such as in the form of newspapers. However the draft code attempts to herd in Electronic Media and Websites. The only form of Law currently applicable to these forms of media are the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act No. 25 of 1991 which by its provisions do not provide for regulations of this nature and by its preamble does not suggest any such. Therefore the Government as a first step will have to consider legislative amendments to the Press Council Act or additional legislation before it can come up with these regulations. This would make it a further issue as currently existing media forms which have been allowed to so exist will be subsequently subject to new laws and regulations. Given this clear retrospective effect this lacuna in law should not be unilaterally imposed by the government but done with extensive dialogue and consultation with the Media Profession.

The final issue is then what would be the effect if these legislative amendments are made and the draft code of ethics is passed by regulation and made applicable to all the said media above.  The code uses the words ‘shall adhere’ which in law usually suggests a mandatory provision. The code however does not suggest the method of implementation and as at current there have been suggestions from the Ministry that this code of ethics will only have an effect as such and no effect whatsoever as Law. To determine the truth of this one must read the Code of Ethics along with the existing Press Council Act of 1973 which is the Core Law according to sources that will be amended to facilitate these regulations.

S.2 of the said Act creates the body called ‘The Press Council’ which has the capacity to sue. Under S.3 it is constituted of 7 members who include 6 members appointed by the President and 1 person called the ‘Director of Information’. Out of these 6 members appointed only 2 members are selected by the president from a nominated panel respectively from working journalists nominated by the Journalists Associations and a person to represent the interests of employees of newspaper businesses from such employee unions thus leaving 4 others to be selected by the President in addition to the appointee as Director of Information. Interestingly a quorum of 5 suffices for the Council functions. Therefore there is grave concern as to the independence of this Council with respect to appointment, remuneration, removal, functioning quorum and so on.

Under S.9 the council may take action by way of Inquiry. This can be done where there is ‘complaint made to it or otherwise’ and this includes inquiry by the Council of its own initiative. The reason for such inquiry can be a publication by an editor or a working journalist which commits a breach of professional misconduct or breach of the code of journalistic ethics. Therefore the proposed Code of Ethics by regulation shall clearly fall under the criteria for instigating an inquiry.

Under S.11 the Council has the powers of a District Court to summon persons, compel the production of documents and administer and subject person to an oath. Further under S.12 refusal or failure to comply with the Councils abovementioned powers amount to ‘contempt of the Council’ of which a certificate may be submitted to the Court of Appeal by the Council Chairman and can be punishable under Article 105 of the Constitution as if it were contempt of the Court itself. Any orders of the Council are also final and cannot be questioned in any court of Law and further disobeying any order made by the Council amounts to summarily triable offence at the Magistrate Court with possible fines and imprisonment.

There is therefore no doubt as to the extreme powers that might be with the Press Council and the heavy blow to be dealt to the freedom of the media with the addition of this Code of Ethics. It could be suggested that the constitution, powers and functions of such a Council be reviewed and amended. Whilst regulation of Media is also a necessary component of government it should not be done without proper checks and balances. Having a ‘Code of Ethics’ and the adjudicative powers one on the side of government would amount to a serious concentration of powers which will seriously hinder against the freedom of the media.

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An Open Letter To IGP On Brual Torture Practices By Police

Bijo Francis

Bijo Francis

Mr. N K Illangakoon

Inspector General of Police
New Secretariat
Colombo 1
SRI LANKA

Fax: +94 11 2 440440 / 327877
E-mail: [email protected]

Dear Mr. Illangakoon,

Re: Cases of torture perpetrated by officers of the Sri Lankan Police

I am writing to bring to your notice a letter the Asian Human Rights Commission wrote to His Excellency the President of Sri Lanka on the use of chilli by police officers for torturing suspects they are interrogating. I am also bringing to your notice three extremely brutal cases of torture reported from Sri Lanka recently: Madawala Maddumage Don Aruna Nilupul Indika, a reputed interior decorator was arrested on the basis of a false complaint and subjected to severe torture by way of the application of the juice of chillies which was forced into his eyes, penis and anus. The second case was that of Mr. Chandila Padmakumara Gurusinghe who was also tortured with chilli and threatened with sodomy. The third was that of Kopiya Waththage Don Chaminda Priyantha Kumara who was tortured by the use of a wooden mallet on his testicles.

In all these three cases there are the following features.

  1. There were no reasonable grounds for the arrest of these persons.
  2. At the moment of arrest they were not informed of the reason for their arrest, thus violating the Constitutional guarantee of the right to be informed of the reason for attest.
  3. There was no reasonable questioning at the time of arrest or after they were brought to the police station.
  4. The beginning of the interaction with the suspects was by torture. While the torture was ongoing they were asked about information on what the police suspected them of with the view to obtain information from the suspects themselves about what they might have done.
  5. The methods of torture were inhumane such as forcing the suspects to remove their clothes, the application of chilli and/or the beating of the testicles with blunt instruments and suspending them by the wrists from the ceiling and the use of extremely filthy language.
  6. At the end of the ordeals what the police found was that the persons were completely innocent of the crimes that the police suspected them of having committed.
  7. Despite of all this in two instances fabricated charges were filed.

I am attaching the letter written to His Excellency the President as well as the reports of complaints made by the persons who were subjected to these ordeals.

As you are well aware the practice of torture and the use of extremely brutal methods are a common factor in police interrogations in Sri Lanka. This is despite of the constitutional provisions guaranteeing citizens protection against torture and the provision of the law under the CAT Act, No. 22 of 1994 which criminalised torture and prescribes 7 years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 10.000/= against any offender.

One of the main reasons for the widespread use of torture is the stopping of investigations under the CAT Act and the prosecutions on the basis of that law. At present Act No. 22 of 1994 is a law that is deliberately not implemented in Sri Lanka.

You will also admit that without the acquiescence of high ranking police officers from the OIC’s up to ASPs, SSPs and DIGs this widespread practice cannot take place. Therefore it is a valid assumption that as a matter of policy torture is allowed and encouraged to be done by police officers despite of constitutional provisions and criminal law provision prohibiting torture. When the highest ranking police officers are complicit in the violation of the constitution and the criminal law what hope can there be for the protection of the citizens and the enforcement of the rule of law.

The common excuse seems to be that the policing establishment believes that it is not equipped with the necessary resources, including adequate financial resources, for the proper enforcement of their duties and therefore resorting to barbaric and illegal methods is justified as the overall aim is the prevention of crime. An important institution such as the police, if it assumes that it cannot abide by the law which it is supposed to enforce, is a manifestation of an extraordinary crisis in the country.

As the highest ranking police officer in Sri Lanka it is your duty, together with other high ranking officers, to bring to the notice of the executive and the legislature the inadequacies of resources and financial allocations you suffer from, if such is the case. However, this should not be used as an excuse to violate the constitution, the criminal law of the country and to expose the citizens to such extraordinary cruel and illegal behaviour on the part of the country’s law enforcement officers.

We earnestly urge you to take this matter seriously and:

  1. Take steps to ensure investigations under the CAT Act, No. 22 of 1994 into the complaints of torture and ill-treatment through a special unit of inquiry of the Criminal Investigation Division as this used to be done before it was deliberately discontinued.
  2. To discuss with the highest ranking officers of the police the nature of command responsibility they owe within the policing system and the consequences of the failure to carry out such responsibility.
  3. Issue written instructions to reinforce the constitutional criminal law provisions against torture.
  4. Take disciplinary action including the dismissal of officers who have practiced such brutal actions.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Bijo Francis

Executive Director

Asian Human Rights Commission

Attached:      Letter to His Excellency, President Mahinda Rajapaksa

SRI LANKA: A reputed Interior Decorator is severely tortured by officers of  Matugama Police at the instigation of a lawyer and her husband

SRI LANKA: Officers of the Karandeniya police torture and threaten to sodomize businessman, insulting him about his ‘low’ caste origin

SRI LANKA: Officers of the Kalutara South Police Station beat a man’s  testicles with a wooden mallet

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