Sri Lankan Criminal Law and the Media

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Sri Lankan Criminal Law and the Media

Criminal law in Sri Lanka is governed by the Penal Code and it was first enacted in 1833 under British Rule when Sri Lanka was still known as Ceylon[1].  The function of the Penal Code is to ‘govern all offences whether created by the Penal code or not[2], and various individual provisions were amended to suit changing social conditions in 1988[3]. As per many criminal law systems – punishments and defenses are also governed under the Penal Code with procedure being governed by the Code of Criminal Procedure (1979) and other specific crime-related legislation also exists including the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance of 1935, The Offensive Weapons Act (No 18. of 1966), and the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979.

Mass media sharing of information in Sri Lanka is just beginning to reach the levels existent in UK and USA. Newspapers are still the primary source of information – but many of these also publish online copies to allow for easy sharing and later access. For years the primary problem with traditional channels of media was that there was little opportunity for immediate widespread public discussion. This gap is being closed with the increased usage of online blogs, where readers can comment, and social media sites. Almost every paper has an online version and website where readers can share the links to various social networking sites and comment – often creating heated debates. This article looks at famous Sri Lankan murder cases to illustrate the issue.

In Sri Lanka, murder cases that have received media attention and have been sensationalized in print media, are often cases involving members of the higher echelons of society with social implications to the events. This is further compounded by the relatively small numbers in these circles giving those cases that gain attention an added shine. The societal standing of the parties involved isn’t the only factor that serves to bring these cases to the public’s interest – as mentioned previously their social implications hold power as well. It is interesting to note older cases – such as the Kularatne murder trial, Pope Murder case, and the Whitehouse case share an interesting characteristic in their fame. Coming from an era where the face of media and sharing information was completely different – now the facts of these cases are embedded in urban legend and books written by respected academics and members of the legal profession. This is especially true of Pope Murder Case which is chronicled in W magazine. Thalgodapitiya’s writings – in a careful systematic fashion with very little deviation from the facts[4] – These re-tellings lack the sensationalized tabloid feel of the re-telling of modern cases but the principles and ideals that they espouse have nonetheless in their own way come to have a great influence on criminal law. This article will look at 2 different cases from different time periods namely the Sathasivam Murder Trial (The Queen v M. Sathasivam) and the Royal Park Murder (still unreported as the case is waiting to be heard on appeal at the Supreme Court)

It is important to note that both the cases referenced hold common characteristics i.e. they involved prominent members from the upper echelons of society; they took place in a pre-social media era thus limiting media reports primarily newspapers; and all sentences that ended in a conviction were appealed against.

Sri Lankan print media noticeably lacks the existence of tabloid newspapers that are popular in the UK and USA. Thus this often results in the ‘opinion’ pieces and various editorials appearing in papers are often tinged with this ‘gossip’ flavor to compensate. In all the cases discussed – the media have extensively and widely reported the cases – indeed to a large extend coloring and representing public opinion.

While ethical journalism does take place – often speculations and added flavor given by journalists, compounded with gossip that ranges in the small society has the ‘innocent before proven guilty’ doctrine being dismissed. The Sathasivam murder trial rivals modern Sri Lankan cases for notoriety and fame – involving a famous cricketer standing trial for the murder of his wife. With a unanimous verdict passed by the special jury, the defendant walked out a free man after a flawless and watertight appeal by the famous Dr. Colvin R. De Silva and the defense flying down a forensics expert from England[5].  Dr. De Silva made an argument that lawyers for generations would admire for its technical skill – but would lose him his seat when he contested in the country’s general elections a few months after the acquittal[6].

As the famous lawyer Lakshman Kadirgamar stated of the Sathasivam murder case, even before the trial – “high society gossip had him hanged from every lamppost in the city”[7]. The defense lawyer’s daughter echoed this view when she stated in an interview about her father that, “in Sathasivam case, a trial by the media took place!”[8]

Perhaps the clearest example of how this has not changed over decades is the portrayal of the Royal Park murder case in the media. Described in newspaper headlines as “Royal Park killing: A case of cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy and fast life”[9], the case of the murder of 19 year old Yvonne Jonsson by her sister’s boyfriend was sensationalized by reporters and society gossip for months. The murder took place at the Royal Park luxury condominiums where the victim lived, after the defendant; victim and her sister had spent an evening clubbing; allegedly while the defendant was under the heavy influence of narcotics. The defendant was arrested two days after the discovery of the body the next morning, and convicted for the crime of manslaughter (the court ruling that he lacked the pre-mediation to be convicted of murder) and receiving 12 years imprisonment[10]. The sentence was increased to the death penalty in 2012 after an appeal by the Attorney General[11].

Almost every article that discussed the case painted a sordid picture of rick-freewheeling teenagers who ‘had it coming’. Much focus was given to the lifestyle of the parties involved – “The CID said that wealthy parents should be careful of what their children wear. Yvonne was wearing a black strap top with a silver tie-on accessory stretch pants[12] and “The quarrel began after several Cognacs and Tequilas during the bar hop of the city night spots that fateful Thursday (June 30) night[13] being commonplace in every report. The victim’s sister’s (Caroline Jonsson) testimony was pounced upon by reporters, with statements like: “This was a society in which the youth, like the “Blue Black White Society”, had no compunction over the manner in which they broke the laws of the land. Five star hotels and specially assigned night clubs readily provided rooms for the teenagers to consume liquor, drugs and engage in extra marital or pre-marital sex. Caroline Jonnson’s evidence in Court was sensational and sparked a probe into the manner in which business was carried out in these exclusive dens[14]. It is arguable that media in Sri Lanka in the case of sensational cases oft choose to judge and vilify as opposed to presenting an unbiased and ethical view point from which the public draw their own conclusions.

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[1]–, ‘The Criminal Justice System of Sri Lanka’ (The Lectric Law Library 1995-2013) <http://www.lectlaw.com/files/int20.htm> accessed 2nd November 2013

[2]G.L. Peiris, Offences Under The Penal Code of Sri Lanka (4th, Stamford Lake (Pvt) Ltd., Colombo 2009) p. 1

[3] http://www.mongabay.com/history/sri_lanka/sri_lanka-the_criminal_justice_system.html

[4] W. Thalgodapitiya, Studies of Some Famous Cases of Ceylon (1st, M. D. Gunasena, Ceylon 1963) p. 148

[5] K.K.S. Perera, ‘How Famous cricketer Sathasivam was charged, Tried and Acquitted of murdering his wife 60 years ago’ (TransCurrents 2011) <http://transcurrents.com/news-views/archives/4913> accessed 3rd October 2013

[6] K.K.S. Perera, ‘How Famous cricketer Sathasivam was charged, Tried and Acquitted of murdering his wife 60 years ago’ (TransCurrents 2011) <http://transcurrents.com/news-views/archives/4913> accessed 3rd October 2013

[7] Lakshman Kadirgamar, ‘Daily Mirror Opinion: A legend in the making ‘ (Daily Mirror E-Edition 2003) <http://archives.dailymirror.lk/2003/07/10/opinion/1.html> accessed 3rd October 2013

[8] Randima Attygalle, ‘Dr. Colvin R. de Silva: One of Lankas finest sons’ (The Nation 2008) <http://www.nation.lk/2008/02/17/eyefea3.htm> accessed 17th November 2012

[9] Shamindra Ferdinando, ‘Royal Park killing: A case of cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy and fast life’ (The Island 2006) <http://www.island.lk/2005/07/17/news16.html> accessed 16th December 2012

[10] Ayesha R. Rafiq, ‘Royal Park killing: AG seeks stiffer sentence’ (Sunday Times 2006) <http://www.sundaytimes.lk/060730/news/3-2.html> accessed 25th January 2013

[11]–, ’12 year sentence turned to death penalty on Royal Park murder’ (Adaderana.lk 2012) <http://www.adaderana.lk/news.php?nid=18778> accessed 15th January 2013

[12] Shamindra Ferdinando, ‘Royal Park killing: A case of cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy and fast life’ (The Island 2006) <http://www.island.lk/2005/07/17/news16.html> accessed 16th December 2012

[13] Marisa de Silva and Asif Fuard, ‘Night of clubbing ends in brutal killing’ (Sunday Times 2006) <http://sundaytimes.lk/050710/news/22.html> accessed 25th January 2013

[14] Shamindra Ferdinando, ‘Midweek Review: Royal Park stirs up a hornets’ nest’ (The Island 2006) <http://www.island.lk/2006/03/15/midweek4.html> accessed 11th December 2013

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which she might be associated.

Sharanya Sekaram

The writer is an LL.B (Hons) graduate from Staffordshire University and is pursuing Masters in Conflict and Peace Studies from University of Colombo. She is a Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum and the Sri Lanka correspondent for CourtingTheLaw. She is an independent consultant and blogs about her work and experiences on sharanya-sekaram.blogspot.com and tweets as @SharaSekaram



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