Fundamental Rights of Non-State Media Violated at “Temple of Justice”when Mohan Peiris took over as Chief Justice

By Stanley Samarasinghe

The ceremonial sitting on 23 January to welcome the newly appointed Chief Justice, Mohan Peiris, began on an inauspicious note, which along with 2,000 odd lawyers of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka boycotting the sittings also saw the fundamental rights of the Fourth Estate, being violated.

More than 30 journalists from the private media, both print and electronic, who arrived in Hulftsdorp to cover the event, were prevented from entering the Supreme Court premises. The police, standing sentinel at the main gate, ensured photojournalists and TV camerapersons did not pass the main portal until such time the ceremonial sitting was concluded.

Several senior government members attending the ceremony volunteered to give voice cuts describing the ceremonial sitting. Perhaps, this was their way of making amends for the action of the organizers. Or maybe this was the plan all along to ensure only the positive aspect of the ceremony got relayed in the private media. But the barred journalists stood their grounds, refused the offer and said the organizers had kept them away from the court premises and deprived them of covering the event.

Later, journalists from the State media, who had access to the event anyway, were seen interviewing the benevolent government officials about the event.

Heavy security

The ceremonial sitting to welcome the new Chief Justice was held under heavy security with a large number of police officers deployed around the Court building.

It would not be an exaggeration to say the Ceremonial Hall was packed to the rafters and that all the seats were occupied by pro-government lawyers who hold key posts in corporations, boards and departments. Among them were lawyers from the outstations and the three forces, all of who ensured the occasion was well attended.

The reason for denying access to journalists, photojournalists and camera crew not affiliated to the State media, or who was responsible for the decision is not known and has not been revealed so far. However, police and the security personnel claimed the decision had come from someone high in the hierarchy.

Irrespective of who made the decision or who gave the order, the fact remains that in a democracy, everyone is equal before the law, and favouring some while denying others, is a breach of that right. The infringement is all the more serious as it happened, not in a political office but at the very temple of justice, the Supreme Court premises.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, just one day after the removal of Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake from the Chief Justice post, said the Court premises is the temple of justice, and therefore is a sacred place. Regrettably, the President’s avowal was blatantly violated a few days later, with the decision to bar the private media personnel and allow only the State media to cover an event that is of significance to the public on 23 January.

According to the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), a ceremonial sitting of the Supreme Court is traditionally organized after it makes an official request for the ceremonial welcome of a Judge who is appointed to the Supreme Court. That has been the tradition followed for more than a 100 years. But in this instance, the BASL had not made such a request.

The BASL, in an extraordinary meeting in which well over 3,000 members participated, passed a resolution unanimously that it will not participate in any ceremonial sitting held after the removal of Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, without giving her a fair inquiry in a competent Court. In keeping with that resolution BASL members, including President’s Counsels, did not participate in the ceremonial sitting.

According to tradition followed for more than 100 years, two addresses are made in a ceremonial sitting to welcome a Judge – one by the President of BASL and the other by the Head of the Official Bar, namely the Attorney General.

However, breaking with tradition, President’s Counsel, Razeek Zarook, the newly appointed Chairman of the Bank of Ceylon, made a welcome speech instead of the BASL President. Many President’s Counsels including Senior Lawyer S.L. Gunasekara and Silva did not participate in the ceremonial sitting to grace the occasion.

Hope in the Judiciary

Considering the conflict between the Judiciary and Legislature, and the Executive, based on the impeachment motion against Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, which became the subject of discussion to an unprecedented degree, Attorney General, Palitha Fernando, made a welcome address quoting illustrious persons of the world.

He said members of the official and unofficial bar fortify themselves with optimism and hope, that the independence of the Judiciary and rule of law would be upheld to the optimum degree during the tenure of office of the Chief Justice.

He also said as the CJ assumes duties, it is common knowledge that the Judiciary in recent times has been the subject of discussion and focus of attention to a degree unprecedented and that the independence of Judiciary and the rule of law are so closely interwoven that they form the structure upon which the democratic system is sustained.

The AG quoting from the address made by Australian Chief Justice, Sir Gerard Brennan to newly appointed judges, said, “It is only when the community has confidence in the integrity and capacity of the Judiciary that the community is governed by rule of law.” Quoting the former President of India, Fernando added, “If you salute your duty, you need not salute any one. If however you pollute your duty you will have to salute everyone.”

The Attorney General concluded his speech with a quote from the former President of the USA, Richard Nixon: “Each moment in history is fleeting time, precious and unique. But some stand out as moments of beginning in which courses are set that shape decades.”COURTESY:CEYLON TODAY