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Sri Lanka

2012


The most recent paper produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, "Media Freedom in post-war Sri Lanka and its impact on the reconciliation process<," does a great job of cataloging the abuse Sri Lankan journalists continue to face after the decades-long civil conflict with Tamil secessionists ended in May 2009.

(AFP/Pedro Pardo)

Almost half of the 67 journalists killed worldwide in 2012 were targeted and murdered for their work, research by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows. The vast majority covered politics. Many also reported on war, human rights, and crime. In almost half of these cases, political groups are the suspected source of fire. There has been no justice in a single one of these deaths.

If you've been watching the attempts to silence media in Sri Lanka through attacks, disappearances, legal harassment, and government policies aimed at restricting free speech and the right to information, take the time to speak out with others around the world today. An opportunity like this only comes around every four years.

When I first met Sandhya Eknelygoda in May 2010 in her home outside Colombo, she was a distressed mother of two young boys whose husband had gone missing. He was last seen four months earlier, just prior to the elections that returned President Mahinda Rajapaksa to power after the end of the decades-long war with Tamil secessionists. She still has no inkling of the whereabouts of her husband Prageeth, a cartoonist and columnist for the opposition website Lanka eNews (which has since ceased to operate in Sri Lanka because of arson attacks and legal harassment of its staff, but is maintained overseas).

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in white, inspects a parade May 19 marking the third anniversary of the defeat of Tamil Tiger separatists. (Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte)

You would think that with fighting between government forces and secessionist Tamils finished in May 2009, the Sri Lankan government might ease its grip on public information--information which is really the property of the country's citizens, not whichever administration happens to be holding political power. In 2004, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike's cabinet did approve a Freedom of Information Bill, but parliament was dissolved and the bill never went further.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, the founder of the citizen journalism website Groundviews, sent us the links to a new series of posters and videos focused on digital communications security. The material, which is aimed at a Sri Lankan audience, is available in English, Sinhala, and Tamil, but is relevant to anyone who uses the Internet or a mobile phone.

Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa responded nastily to a question from The Sunday Leader, an editor says. (AFP/Ishara S.Kodikara)

As far as Frederica Jansz is concerned, "The Sri Lankan media have been completely cowed into submission by this regime with the exception of The Sunday Leader. It is Mahinda Rajapaksa's biggest success story next to winning the war."

Iqbal Athas. (AP/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

For a good historical perspective on the abuse of journalists in Sri Lanka, Iqbal Athas, the recipient of a 1994 International Press Freedom Award from CPJ, wrote a center-page spread for the 25th anniversary edition of the Sunday Times, a popular weekly in Colombo. Athas, a critical journalist who specializes in defense issues, works as an associate editor and defense correspondent for the Times.

The lede to his article recounts a 1998 incident in which armed men invaded his home while he, his wife, and their seven-year-old daughter watched television. After the men left, the story spread, and all night, they received phone calls from friends and acquaintances inquiring about their safety. In his article, Athas describes how one of the callers was then-Minister of Fisheries Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa was trying to make a name for himself as a champion of human rights and offered his support to the Athas family.

Prageeth Eknelygoda's wife and sons are still seeking information on him. (CPJ)

Former Attorney General Mohan Peiris has been ordered to testify about a statement he made at the U.N. Committee Against Torture in Geneva on November 9, 2011, in which he said that Prageeth Eknelygoda was alive and living outside the country (see "Sri Lanka's savage smokescreen"). Peiris will have to appear at the Homogama Magistrate's Court in Colombo on June 5, next Tuesday, which has been hearing the case brought by Eknelygoda's wife, Sandhya, to learn more about his disappearance on January 24, 2010.

On Wednesday, Sri Lanka's Supreme Court slammed the door on a case about the shutdown of four websites that had failed to register with the government. In handing down its decision, the Court appeared to rule that freedom of expression in Sri Lanka is not an absolute right and can be restricted--and you don't need to pass a law to do so. The three-judge panel told the petitioners who brought the case--Sunil Jayasekara, convener of the Free Media Movement, and Udaya Kalupathirana, a member of the movement's executive committee--that they saw no reason for the court to hear any further arguments. 

The magistrate's hearings into the January 24, 2010, disappearance of opposition journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknelygoda continue at a tortuously slow pace. A correspondent in Colombo shared the details of the April 24 hearing, where Eknelygoda's wife, Sandhya, and the couple's two teenage sons continue to press for any news of Prageeth. The family's attorney said he may have to press Sri Lanka's Appeal Court to order former Attorney General Mohan Peiris to testify about the comments he made at the U.N. Committee Against Torture on November 9, 2011, in Geneva. The government has ignored the January 2012 ruling by the Court that Peiris could be called in as a witness.

Sri Lankans are calling for a boycott of U.S. products after the U.S. sponsored the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution calling for an investigation into possible war crimes. (Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte)

On Thursday and Friday, we wrote about the ugly government backlash to last week's U.N. Human Rights Council resolution calling for an investigation into Sri Lanka's alleged abuses of international humanitarian law during its war with Tamil separatists.

Sri Lankan ruling party lawmakers demonstrate in front of the parliament against the U.N. Human Rights Council in Colombo Thursday. (Reuters)

In the wake of the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution calling for an investigation into Sri Lanka's alleged abuses of international humanitarian law during its war with Tamil separatists, the government has resorted to outright threats of violence against journalists who might dare to return home after taking part in the Geneva discussions.

Supporters of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa protest in Colombo against the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. (Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte)

On March 9, Sri Lanka's military authorities told all news and media organizations that they would have to get prior approval before releasing text or SMS news alerts containing any news about the military or police.

In her final hours, Marie Colvin gave this damning report to CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Bravery, generosity, and commitment: These are the three characteristics of Marie Colvin that have surfaced, again and again, in the many tributes spoken and published since the veteran Sunday Times reporter was killed Wednesday in the besieged city of Homs by Syrian forces.

Sri Lankan journalists stage the "Black January" protest, demanding the government punish the culprits responsible for killing journalists. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)

On Monday, I wrote about two demonstrations scheduled for Sri Lanka this week. Both were meant to commemorate the ugly string of anti-press attacks in recent Januaries, which has included journalists killed and abducted, television stations bombed, websites attacked, and media offices torched. But Wednesday's Black January effort, publicized by the Free Media Movement (FMM) and other media support groups, was sabotaged and had to be moved at the last minute. A source in Colombo gave the following account, the outlines of which were confirmed by other CPJ sources:

Sandhya Eknelygoda and sons Sanjay and Harith. (CPJ)

A couple of weeks ago, I described the terrible incidence of anti-press abuse that has come each recent January in Sri Lanka. Media activists have come to call the month "Black January" for good reason, as this email message details: 

For Sri Lankan journalists, January might be the cruelest month. In January 2011, Sonali Samarasinghe wrote about the death of her husband Lasantha Wickramatunga two years earlier on January 8, 2009. In January 2010 I reported in "Sri Lanka: A year later, still failing to fight media attacks" about the government's inactivity in investigating Wickramatunga's death one year on. That was a follow up to the February 2009 "Failure to Investigate," in which CPJ had investigated his death and two other January attacks --- one a bombing raid on an independent television station and the other -- an attack similar to that on Wickramatunga, though not fatal -- on Upali Tennakoon, the editor of a Sinhala newspaper.

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Killed in Sri Lanka

19 journalists killed since 1992

10 journalists murdered

10 murdered with impunity

Attacks on the Press 2012

23 Journalists in exile, one of the highest rates in the world.

Country data, analysis »

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Asia

Program Coordinator:
Bob Dietz

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