Freedom of expression and fundamental rights

The Conflict in Mahara Prison and the Role of Media

Dhanushka Silva

There had been a conflict situation in Mahara prison on 30th of November. 11 prisoners had been killed and 71 had been hospitalized with injuries. More injured prisoners might be in the prison. There are no clear statistics about the numbers. The police media spokesman revealed that the situation of one of the injured policemen is critical. Four committees are appointed to investigate the incident. These are few surface factors related to the incident. Even though the real information regarding the incident is not revealed yet, these factors would definitely help to imagine a picture of it. 

The responsibility of protecting all the prisoners is on the hands of the government. The security of prisoners is ensured in both local and international laws. But Sri Lanka owns an unpleasant history of torturing and murdering the prisoners in prisons and rehabilitation centers. In the year 1983, 53 prisoners were murdered. On 25th October in 2000, 25 prisoners were murdered in Bindunuwewa rehabilitation center. In 2012, another 27 prisoners were murdered and many more were injured in Walikada prison. The newest incident in that type is the above mentioned one happened in Mahara prison. 

When examining these unpleasant incidents, it is clear that many of the citizens in the country have reached an assumption that murdering the prisoners is a fair act. Therefore, this article will analyze the incident that took place in Mahara prison based on that assumption of the citizens. It will help to identify different roles played by the politicians, soldiers and victims.

The objective of this article is to analyze the Sinhalese news paper reports regarding the murders happened in Mahara. This also will analyze the role of a journalist at this situation through the editorials written about the incident. This conflict which happened on 30th November became the main heading in almost all the news papers on 1st of December.  Most of the editorials too were based on the same incident.

The editorial of the “Mawbima” news paper (Prisoners too are humans but…) and its description was pretty interesting. Some of the prisoners that the writer has identified are drug addicts, criminals, good for nothing people, wantons, thieves and perverts. The methodology that the writer has identified prisoners is more similar to the way how the general citizens identify prisoners. It directly suggests that some of the prisoners are identified as hooligans who should not be socialized. With that suggestion, the writer reaches a terrible pre-conclusion. 

Everyone is aware that the prison is not a place with good people by all means. But most of them are not thugs or criminals as suggested by the journalist in “Mawbima” news paper. For example, the suspects whose judicial decision is still pending cannot be considered as criminals. Therefore it is clear that the writer is trying to create a role of authority related to certain interpretations. Thus he has strengthened the idea that “the prisoners should be expelled from the society”. On the other hand, the writer seems to be in need of charging a role of authority to the government party.

The editorial in “Dinamina” news paper was as “the rebellion in prison”. The “Dinamina” journalist highlights that the country will face a huge havoc if the prisoners who are engaged in drug dealing come out of the prison. On one hand it challenges the authority of law in the country. On the other hand the program of drug trafficking and underworld suppression will be confused. The hidden meaning behind this is that the prisoners are murdered due to their own unnecessary, wanton activities. The article of “Dinamina” journalist is similar to the summary of popular action movie with case verbal information and false information.

According to the “Dinamina” journalist the incident that happened in Mahara is as follows;

  1. Drug traffickers have joined the conflict in Mahara prison. 
  2. They have come out breaking the cells.
  3. The authority of law has been broken by that
  4. The program of drug trafficking and underworld suppression had been disturbed by the conflict. 

This development of the article has taken the writer towards a crisis. His attempt is to hide the real reason of how the prisoners were murdered. The last part of the editorial is as follows;

“Sometimes criminals are dangerous than a virus. We need to analyze this incident with the belief that the prisoners are dangerous.”

According to the writer the whole incident should be analyzed with the belief that “all the prisoners are criminals”. Therefore “Dinamina” writer encourages the actions taken by the Sri Lankan government to physically destroy the criminals. 

“Aruna” news paper has titled their editorial as “Mahara problem should be beaten”. Media can make people political activists to give out the information that the society needs. But it is not easy to identify the role of politics fulfilled by media because it has the ability of modeling the incidents and situations according to their own political beliefs. 

The following sentences from the editorial should be paid special attention;

“Most of the prisoners in the prisons in Sri Lanka are charged for drug allegations. All the prisoners in prisons are somehow or the other connected to an illegal act. Lawful acts cannot be expected from them”. 

“The prisoners are culprits at this incident. There is no argument about it”.

When “Aruna” editorial is read with proper concentration, it is clearly shown that the writer is trying to create a clear division between good society and bad society. 

Good society – not charged for drug allegation, law abiding, can expect law abiding behavior.

Bad society – prisoners are charged for drug allegation, illegal, cannot expect law abiding behavior

“Aruna” editorial reveals a basic structure of a chronicle which was created by both government media and private media in Sri Lanka. In other words Sri Lanka has been originally introduced as a good society and that quality is destroyed by the drug traffickers, drug alligators and prisoners. Then the writer suggests what to do after building this concept. Therefore a project of repression comes out. Not only in the above mentioned news papers, this chronicle can also be seen in other news paper articles in Sri Lanka.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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