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State secrets, public denials in Sri Lanka

There's a familiar pattern emerging in Sri Lanka, one we've seen in many countries. When the government doesn't have a viable case against a critical journalist, prosecutors turn to state security laws to keep them in detention.

Nadesapillai Vidyatharan, editor of the Tamil daily Sudar Oli, was grabbed at a friend's funeral in a Colombo suburb on February 26. Since then, in an effort to charge the editor under antiterrorism laws, police have been scouring phone records to try to establish a tie between Vidyatharan and the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamal Eelam. Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapkasa has already linked Vidyatharan to a February 20 suicide air attack on Colombo in which two LTTE planes were shot down, the two pilots were killed, and more than 45 people were injured. When Vidyatharan's case came up this morning in Colombo, the magistrate gave police permission to hold him without charge as they continue to trace his calls.

Another case, this one involving editor and columnist J. S.Tissainayagam, has been dragging on for a year. Tissa, as he is known, was detained without charge on March 7, 2008, and held without explanation for more than three months. In August, he was formally indicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency Regulations. When he was detained, he was the editor of a news Web site OutreachSL. But he is being held for articles he wrote in the North Eastern Monthly in 2006 and 2007--two years before he was grabbed. Tissa's case was the first time Sri Lanka used this law against a journalist explicitly for published work. His next court date is set for March 20. Trial dates and the appearance schedules of witnesses have changed frequently, possibly at the hands of the judge hearing the case, but it's difficult to tell who is causing the delays.

In February, CPJ documented a shocking wave of violence against the Sri Lankan press in a special report, "Failure to Investigate." That report, coupled with CPJ's appearance before Senate Foreign Relations Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee on February 24 brought us to the attention of the Sri Lankan embassy. When we were doing research in Colombo early this year it was impossible to get an interview with a government official. Only after the embassy in Washington realized that we would be testifying before a Senate subcommittee did we get interviews with Attorney General Mohan Peiris and Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama. Both men asserted that authorities had no involvement in attacks on journalists and that the cases are being thoroughly investigated--responses that we noted in our report. (Our research shows that authorities have failed to solve the murders of at least nine Sri Lankan journalists in the past decade.)

This month, we were invited to a meeting with Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya in Washington. Our six-person delegation sat across the table from the embassy's six- person team and there was, as they say, a frank exchange of views, but really it was like two airplanes traveling in different directions at altitudes several thousand feet apart. The ambassador professed anger at recent attacks on journalists, and he promised full investigations. But another government official, Dhilip Nawaz, claimed that all cases are being fully investigated and that there are no significant media problems in Sri Lanka. Board member David Marash captured the tenor of the meeting in a post on the CPJ Blog. The embassy's response came in a news story the next day headlined, "Sri Lankan ambassador invites journalist delegation to Sri Lanka to observe firsthand freedom enjoyed by journalists."

On Tuesday, I was on a panel discussing Sri Lankan media rights at the National Endowment for Democracy's Center for International Media Assistance in Washington. CPJ Washington Representative Frank Smyth noted that Sri Lankan government representatives were on hand and suggested that they be given an opportunity to respond to criticism. A reasoned response and expression of concern came from Yasoja Gunesekera, who has served in Sri Lanka's foreign service for more than a decade. Then (toward the end of the video linked above) came an assertive denial of reality from, you guessed it, Dhilip Nawaz, a Humphrey Fellow who ordinarily works as a senior state counsel in the Sri Lankan attorney general's office. Take the time to watch--it is an amazing example of the bureaucratic two-step.

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Comments

Thank you very much, Sir!
Mr. Bob your detaild presentation of sorid conditions prevailing against the 'Freedom of Opinion, Expression and the News Media' and the media prsonnel's life threatening situation in the tiny Isaland is highly appreciated. Also the description of how and has transpaired at meeting in Washington makes people like us feel demoralized.
Keep-up your Good Work!
May God Almighty bless you!

You are nothing but an American conspirator trying to destabilise the developing world using 'journalistic' freedom' as the lever.

We in Sri Lanka do not want the press 'freedom' of the type you have iun the US where the Murdoch owned and other establishment media propagate the lies and distortions necessary to implement the nefarious US agenda.

If you need any credibility, you should preach to the media in your own f****** country wher North Korea, Iran and Venezeula related is totally distorted.

Mind your own f****** business. Sei Lanka is a 3000 year old civilizaion and your country's murdorous and genocidal history gives you no claim to moral high ground or authority. We will not be swayed your conspiracies.
Now f off.

So, it is crystal clear that this government transcends all norms and decency in gagging journalists and murdering them when they expose corruption, irregularity and impunity in murdering civilians in the name of national security.
How many more journalists need to be sacrificed and imprisoned under PTA 79 and OSA (Official Secrets Act 1956)before CPJ or anyone else counter the government head on and indict it for war crimes? Pearl Thevanayagam (Secretary-Exiled Journalists Network)

Pearl Thevanayagam March 19, 2009 1:17:15 PM ET

How exactly does CPJ or yourself Mr. Deietz, know that these journalists have in fact not aided and abetted the terrorists of LTTE? Them being journalists do not give them a free pass to commit treason against their country.

Thanks for your message, Patrick---
The question isn't whether they are guilty or not. The question is whether they are being fairly charged. There is a pattern here that we have seen in many countries, not just Sri Lanka---When governments start resorting to violations of state security laws or broad charges of terrorism, and start extending detention periods while they say they are investigating the case, there is very real reason for concern.

please just as much as there is diplomatic two step there is journalistic two step.And deception all over. I've been reading the comments and one from some two bit organisation called exiled journalists network. No one for instance has even heard of a pearl thevanayagam. Until of course she like other tamil economic refugees in switzerland, norway and UK like leeches cling to situations to get funding etc. Tho I don't agree too much with Janaka surendra it makes me laugh to see vermin like this pearl take advantage of real journalists. In fact she had come on british TV claiming to have known the editor Wickrematunge who was murdered somewhere in january. This woman couldn't even express herself and she said she wanted to go back and start a newspaper in the east. What's stopping her? not the govenrment of sri lanka but her own ability

wijitha markaani April 3, 2009 1:01:30 AM ET

Dear Wijita,

I never wanted to seek asylum anywhere. Unlike many Sri Lankan journalists when offered scholarships who pursued higher studies instead of serving their country
when I was offered (I did not apply for it) a fellowship by Asia Foundation to study at Berkeley I returned to serve in the Daily News.
You know nothing of the sacrifices I made for media freedom.
The Board of Trustees at Lake House wanted this fellowship to be awarded to a Sinhalese.
But the US embassy insisted I be given this. I went to the US when the editor said it would be no-pay leave.
After my family lost everything in the pogrom of July 1983 I had every reason to stay behind and claim asylum.
My family paid for my private education and I did not scrounge from the Sri Lankan govt.
I know Lsantha very well much more than you wiould have known. In fact I think you are just a sycophant Sinhala chauvinist.I have a clean passport and I can travel anywhere without seeking asylum. It was due to my independent reporting the Eastern commander gav me death threats.
So please vent your anger somewhere else or do some research on my journalistic credentials.
Envy is no propagated in Buddhism.

Pearl Thevanayagam April 11, 2009 6:39:19 PM ET

It is very clear that Sri Lankan government is NOT friendly with any media who is reporting the truth about the current situation in Sri Lanka. I think the International community should force SL government change its approch and allow independant media to move into the war zone. People like you should bring these stories to the public and let the western world to force these war criminals bring under the international law. Please keep up your good work! God bless you.
Thanks, Andy

Andrew Ravindran May 10, 2009 11:54:53 PM ET