Attacks on the Press   |   Sri Lanka

Attacks on the Press 2004: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

The fragile cease-fire between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) deteriorated in 2004, heightening tensions and challenges for the nation and its media. Even after a devastating tsunami in late December killed more than 30,000 people, the divisions held fast and hampered initial relief efforts. Tamil areas of the country, some of the hardest hit, were also among the most difficult for journalists to cover.

Talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to end the 20-year civil war have been deadlocked since April 2003, when the rebels, known as the Tamil Tigers, walked out over key issues, including their demand for interim ruling authority over areas in the north and east of the country. Last-minute efforts by Norwegian negotiators to break the impasse in November were unsuccessful.

Throughout 2004, both sides feuded bitterly among themselves, sometimes putting journalists in the middle. Two Tamil journalists were gunned down in retaliation for their work this year—the first killed in the line of duty in Sri Lanka since 2000, according to CPJ research. A third journalist died in a December grenade attack at a controversial music concert.

In March, the LTTE split into two factions after a rebel leader known as Colonel Karuna formed his own rival army in eastern Sri Lanka. The Tigers crushed his forces in April, but Karuna himself escaped. The Tigers accuse the Sri Lankan army of supporting Karuna's rebellion. Both warring Tamil factions went on extrajudicial killing sprees, targeting each other's alleged supporters.

On May 31, unidentified assailants ambushed, shot, and killed veteran Tamil journalist Aiyuthurai Nadesan in Batticaloa District, on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, while he was on his way to work. Nadesan, an award-winning reporter who worked for the Tamil-language daily Virakesari for 20 years, was sympathetic to the LTTE, according to local journalists. In 2001, government security forces harassed and threatened him because of his critical reporting, according to CPJ research. The LTTE blamed Nadesan's murder on the Sri Lankan army and members of the Karuna faction. At year's end, no arrests had been made, adding to the fears of local journalists, exiled sources told CPJ.

In July, a suicide bombing in the capital, Colombo, further threatened the cease-fire and highlighted the mounting tensions between Tamil groups. Tamil politician Douglas Devananda, a leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and a government minister, was targeted by the bomber but survived the attack. The LTTE denied responsibility for the explosion, but Devananda told the BBC Tamil service that the bombing bore the hallmark of the Tigers, who have frequently used suicide attacks in the last 20 years. The EPDP had supported the breakaway Karuna faction.

Bala Nadarajah Iyer, a veteran EPDP activist, writer, and editor, was shot dead outside his house in Colombo just weeks later, according to international reports and local sources. Iyer was a media officer and senior member of the EPDP who worked on the editorial board of the Tamil-language weekly Thinamurasu and wrote a political column for the state-run Tamil daily Thinakaran. The EPDP's official news Web site reported that the LTTE had threatened Iyer before his murder. No arrests in the killing had been reported by year's end.

Local and exiled journalists say the two murders had an extremely chilling effect on the ethnic Tamil media, both inside Sri Lanka and abroad, particularly ahead of the April 2 national elections. Journalists at the London-based Tamil Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) received numerous death threats in March after it began broad-casting in the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka. In the run-up to the poll, the radio service interviewed both pro- and anti-Tamil candidates and politicians. The LTTE's official radio station, the Voice of the Tigers, aired a report that was carried in Sri Lanka and in the U.K. condemning the TBC and its journalists as "traitors."

Uthayam, a Tamil-language monthly newspaper based in Australia, also came under attack after running articles that criticized the LTTE's human rights record, including the use of child soldiers, according to the newspaper's publisher. A pro-LTTE radio station aired attacks on the newspaper in April, and LTTE supporters forcibly removed copies of Uthayam from shops in Sydney, Australia, and threatened the shop owners, according to the human rights organization Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.

In March, unidentified assailants stole several thousand copies of the Tamil-language newspapers Thinakkural and Virakesari and burned them while the papers were being delivered to the eastern Batticaloa District from Colombo. The group warned the delivery service not to bring any more copies of the newspapers to Batticaloa. Local journalists say supporters of breakaway Tamil leader Karuna were responsible for the attack.

The divide between Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and a former prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, polarized the media and hampered objectivity. Kumaratunga's coalition won national elections in April but failed to secure a majority. She called the snap elections due to her bitter rivalry with Wickremesinghe, who had negotiated the cease-fire to the civil war. Kumaratunga's critics blame her administration for the stalled peace process.

Opposition parties and local press freedom advocates accused the state media of acting as a propaganda organ for the president and her ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in 2004, particularly during the election campaign in the spring. The press freedom organization Free Media Movement (FMM) called repeatedly in 2004 for the reform of state media to promote greater balance and diversity in news coverage. UPFA leaders countered with accusations that private media slanted their election coverage in favor of opposition politicians and parties.

In December, photographer Lanka Jayasundara was killed when a grenade exploded at a Colombo music concert. No group took responsibility, but angry demonstrators had protested that the event coincided with the anniversary of a Buddhist cleric's death.

The fragile cease-fire between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) deteriorated in 2004, heightening tensions and challenges for the nation and its media. Even after a devastating tsunami in late December killed more than 30,000 people, the divisions held fast and hampered initial relief efforts. Tamil areas of the country, some of the hardest hit, were also among the most difficult for journalists to cover.

Talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to end the 20-year civil war have been deadlocked since April 2003, when the rebels, known as the Tamil Tigers, walked out over key issues, including their demand for interim ruling authority over areas in the north and east of the country. Last-minute efforts by Norwegian negotiators to break the impasse in November were unsuccessful.

Throughout 2004, both sides feuded bitterly among themselves, sometimes putting journalists in the middle. Two Tamil journalists were gunned down in retaliation for their work this year—the first killed in the line of duty in Sri Lanka since 2000, according to CPJ research. A third journalist died in a December grenade attack at a controversial music concert.

In March, the LTTE split into two factions after a rebel leader known as Colonel Karuna formed his own rival army in eastern Sri Lanka. The Tigers crushed his forces in April, but Karuna himself escaped. The Tigers accuse the Sri Lankan army of supporting Karuna's rebellion. Both warring Tamil factions went on extrajudicial killing sprees, targeting each other's alleged supporters.

On May 31, unidentified assailants ambushed, shot, and killed veteran Tamil journalist Aiyuthurai Nadesan in Batticaloa District, on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, while he was on his way to work. Nadesan, an award-winning reporter who worked for the Tamil-language daily Virakesari for 20 years, was sympathetic to the LTTE, according to local journalists. In 2001, government security forces harassed and threatened him because of his critical reporting, according to CPJ research. The LTTE blamed Nadesan's murder on the Sri Lankan army and members of the Karuna faction. At year's end, no arrests had been made, adding to the fears of local journalists, exiled sources told CPJ.

In July, a suicide bombing in the capital, Colombo, further threatened the cease-fire and highlighted the mounting tensions between Tamil groups. Tamil politician Douglas Devananda, a leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and a government minister, was targeted by the bomber but survived the attack. The LTTE denied responsibility for the explosion, but Devananda told the BBC Tamil service that the bombing bore the hallmark of the Tigers, who have frequently used suicide attacks in the last 20 years. The EPDP had supported the breakaway Karuna faction.

Bala Nadarajah Iyer, a veteran EPDP activist, writer, and editor, was shot dead outside his house in Colombo just weeks later, according to international reports and local sources. Iyer was a media officer and senior member of the EPDP who worked on the editorial board of the Tamil-language weekly Thinamurasu and wrote a political column for the state-run Tamil daily Thinakaran. The EPDP's official news Web site reported that the LTTE had threatened Iyer before his murder. No arrests in the killing had been reported by year's end.

Local and exiled journalists say the two murders had an extremely chilling effect on the ethnic Tamil media, both inside Sri Lanka and abroad, particularly ahead of the April 2 national elections. Journalists at the London-based Tamil Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) received numerous death threats in March after it began broad-casting in the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka. In the run-up to the poll, the radio service interviewed both pro- and anti-Tamil candidates and politicians. The LTTE's official radio station, the Voice of the Tigers, aired a report that was carried in Sri Lanka and in the U.K. condemning the TBC and its journalists as "traitors."

Uthayam, a Tamil-language monthly newspaper based in Australia, also came under attack after running articles that criticized the LTTE's human rights record, including the use of child soldiers, according to the newspaper's publisher. A pro-LTTE radio station aired attacks on the newspaper in April, and LTTE supporters forcibly removed copies of Uthayam from shops in Sydney, Australia, and threatened the shop owners, according to the human rights organization Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.

In March, unidentified assailants stole several thousand copies of the Tamil-language newspapers Thinakkural and Virakesari and burned them while the papers were being delivered to the eastern Batticaloa District from Colombo. The group warned the delivery service not to bring any more copies of the newspapers to Batticaloa. Local journalists say supporters of breakaway Tamil leader Karuna were responsible for the attack.

The divide between Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and a former prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, polarized the media and hampered objectivity. Kumaratunga's coalition won national elections in April but failed to secure a majority. She called the snap elections due to her bitter rivalry with Wickremesinghe, who had negotiated the cease-fire to the civil war. Kumaratunga's critics blame her administration for the stalled peace process.

Opposition parties and local press freedom advocates accused the state media of acting as a propaganda organ for the president and her ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in 2004, particularly during the election campaign in the spring. The press freedom organization Free Media Movement (FMM) called repeatedly in 2004 for the reform of state media to promote greater balance and diversity in news coverage. UPFA leaders countered with accusations that private media slanted their election coverage in favor of opposition politicians and parties.

In December, photographer Lanka Jayasundara was killed when a grenade exploded at a Colombo music concert. No group took responsibility, but angry demonstrators had protested that the event coincided with the anniversary of a Buddhist cleric's death.


Published

Like this article? Support our work