The past few days have seen developments in trade union protests against the threats and violence directed at employees of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, the country’s state television channel. Ever since the incident that was provoked by Minister Mervyn Silva’s assault on some SLRC employees, many attacks have been made on people who participated in the protests against the minister’s actions.
Now it has come to the point where the trade unions feel that any further harassment must be dealt with through trade union action. The stabbing of some SLRC employees, attempted kidnappings and threats to people’s lives that forced some senior media employees to resign from their positions, all indicate the level of intimidation that now exists.
What is even more surprising is that, although the dispute has dragged on for several months, the government has not proved capable of arranging effective negotiations to regain the confidence of the employees. Instead, the government’s actions have only aggravated the crisis. The government seems to have no policy of appeasement. Rather, it follows a provocative approach that virtually leaves no alternative but for the employees to retaliate.
For example, in the midst of threats of trade union action, the government has taken steps to prepare the armed forces to intervene. The unions have been threatened that the armed forces will take over the duties of the media staff if there is any action by them. It was reported that even mobile media units have been prepared in order that they might operate from various places in the event that trade union action makes it difficult to maintain SLRC’s usual programming. The message created by such moves is that the government deals with any dispute, including even one involving its own corporations, as if it were a war.
With an increase in the prices of food items and other important commodities, the people are facing more and more difficulties in the country. In the midst of these difficulties, it is only natural for the people to expect that the government will take steps to address their grievances. Instead of approaching these problems through negotiation and dialogue and trying to find ways to reduce their hardships, the message that the government is conveying is one of threats and possible repressive action against anyone who protests.
The targeting of media personnel also came into sharp focus with the arrest of a number of people associated with the web site outreachsl.com. These arrests drew reactions locally as well as internationally. There were allegations that some of the arrestees had been tortured and that the arrests were based on baseless suspicions. However, until now, these people have not been released.
It is in this context that the following observations of the bishop of Colombo, Duleep de Chickera, are relevant:
“The current trend of attacks against the Rupavahini staff in the absence of any arrests of the perpetrators is an indictment against the entire police force. The inspector general of police — the country’s highest police officer, must explain why the quality of intelligence leading to prompt arrests and investigations of those considered enemies of the state is so clearly lacking in instances when certain media personnel are harassed and attacked by supposedly small-time criminals. This disparity in the seriousness of the state law enforcement and protection mechanisms raises questions of professional bias and political obstruction and is totally unacceptable. . . . Consequently, all those media persons arrested on suspicion of terrorist involvement and their families must know why they have been taken in. They must also have immediate access to their lawyers and the assurance of a fair judicial investigation. If found guilty, these persons must face the consequences under the law. If innocent, they must be exonerated.”
Throughout the country, a psychosis of fear is being created and the people are forced into a situation in which they have to take enormous precautions in exercising their basic democratic freedoms and living their lives in a normal manner. The mentality that is being created is that of a police state and not of a liberal democracy. The basic safeguards to which all people are entitled have eroded, and individuals are reminded of various threats they have to face. The average Sri Lankan citizen is now faced with a Kafkan or metamorphosed situation.
Sri Lanka had a strong trade union tradition; and because of it, it was not possible in the past to harm trade union leaders and their members with impunity in the manner that is occurring today. Perhaps at this time the trade unions alone can fight against the type of conditions that have arisen economically, socially and politically in Sri Lanka. Initiatives taken by the SLRC trade unions deserve the support of the human rights movement so that peaceful dialogue can be developed in order to restore normalcy to the country.