Media and the Law (Sri Lanka): Thesis Extract I

(I have been tweeting and Facebooking endlessly about my undergraduate law thesis which is on media and criminal law. Essentially I look at how the media has influenced/reported upon famous cases in Sri Lanka, UK and USA and how this has affected developments in law. It's turning out to be fascination and I am really enjoying it - so I am sharing excerpts from each section as I go along, Enjoy! I cut out most of the boring technical bits - which means I skipped the introduction and went with Sri Lanka as the first part I shared) 

Sri Lankan Criminal Law and the Media

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.

What we will look at under the jurisdiction of Sri Lankan Criminal law are the following areas, how media has responded to them and the influence this has had.

  1. Famous Murder Cases
  2. Prostitution
  3. Abortion

(I've only shared the section about famous murder cases)

  1. Famous murder cases

In Sri Lanka – murder cases that have received media attention, and 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. Thalgodapitiya’s writings – in a careful systematic fashion with very little deviation from the facts#. These re-telling’s lack the sensationalized tabloid feel of the re-telling of modern cases but the principles and ideals that they espouse have none the less in their own way come to have a great influence on criminal law.

To further explore how the media has dealt with famous murder cases in Sri Lanka, we will embarked upon a closer study and analysis of the following cases and the last section will analyze how the media has reported the cases.

  1. Sathasivam Murder Trial: The Queen v M. Sathasivam#
  2. The Royal Park Murder:
  3. Media on the Murders.  

  1. Sathasivam Murder Trial: The Queen v M. Sathasivam

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#.  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#.

The reason for the trial receiving the fame and media attention it enjoyed were a combination of the two common reasons. One was that it involved two prominent, ‘high society’ personalities – the defendant being the captain of the national cricket team and a world-renowned batsman, and the victim the grand-daughter of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a famous Solicitor General and Tamil Political leader. The case was complex and fraught with contradictions – closely reported by the newspapers. The defense argued that it was the servant boy who had committed the murder, while the prosecution used the servant’s confession that he had assisted his master in committing the crime. The prosecution produced letters written by the victim that showed she had asked him for a divorce, which would greatly cripple him – being dependent on his wife’s financial worth for the maintenance of his lifestyle#. Finally the defendant was acquitted – but the negative publicity and went on to marry the woman he had allegedly been having an affair with during his first marriage#.

This case has spent nearly 60 years under the scrutiny of lawyers, journalists and writers alike – time has done little to tarnish its reputation as one of the most sensational cases in the history of the Sri Lankan legal system.  The forensics expert who was flown in by the defense - Sir Sydney Smith dedicated several pages in his book-cum-memoir to the case#, Justice A. C Alles has written about this case; Professor Ravindra Fernando wrote about the conflicting views and contradictions in the case#; and after 60 years the Island newspaper ran a special editorial recounting the facts and contradictions of the case#. The debate still runs hot to this very day – did Sathasivam kill his wife with the aid of the domestic and purchase justice? Or was it the servant boy who was guilty of the brutal murder? The case has become a standpoint over decades for questions on the purchase of justice, the rights of the lower-class and the administration of justice.  

  1. The Royal Park Murder

The Royal Park Murder is the most modern case to arguably reach the same levels of notoriety as the previously discussed cases. Described in newspaper headlines as “Royal Park killing: A case of cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy and fast life”#, 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#. The sentence was increased to the death penalty in 2012 after an appeal by the Attorney General#.

Newspapers exploded with reports of the murder – and the reason for the high level of interest was aptly described by a reporter in an article for The Island paper saying, “The Royal Park murder trial has aroused the interest of all segments of society due to the gruesome nature of the act and the involvement of elitist families. The suspect, the deceased and the main witness are teenagers, who lived life beyond the imagination of ordinary people”#. Similarly to the previously discussed cases – the societal standing of the parties involved, coupled with the nature of the crime resulted in fame being gained.  Every editorial ran features based on the issue – the case becoming an oft quoted example of the dangers of clubs, nightlife and young children being given freedom.

  1. Media on the Murders

It is important to note that all the discussed cases 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. 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”#. 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!”#  

Perhaps the clearest example of how this has not changed over decades is the portrayal of the Royal Park murder case in the media. 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”# and “The quarrel began after several Cognacs and Tequilas during the bar hop of the city night spots that fateful Thursday (June 30) night”# 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” # - was being made. 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.


Deborah Hamilton said…
I agree with your thesis that mass media have certainly plays a big role in providing people with information they want to find. And I think your thesis topic for education purposes can help a lot people to understand the role of media and law in certain country or place.

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