Upali Tennakoon

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By Bob Dietz

No prosecutions have been brought in the Lasantha Wickramatunga murder. (Reuters/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

CPJ’s March 2009 special report, “Failure to Investigate,” addressed three severe attacks on the media in January of that year. CPJ also found a broad pattern in which “top journalists had been killed, attacked, threatened, and harassed since the government began to pursue an all-out military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in late 2006.”

Top Developments
• Editor murdered, broadcaster bombed, reporters assaulted.
• Columnist convicted of terrorism for his writing.

Key Statistic
0: Number of convictions in 10 journalist murders since 1992.

On May 19, the government formally declared a victory in its 26-year civil war with the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had claimed territory for an ethnic Tamil homeland. Victory came at a high price for the press. Escalating attacks on independent journalists coincided with the government’s 2006 decision to pursue an all-out military victory, CPJ found in a February special report, “Failure to Investigate.” Ethnic Tamil journalists seen by the government as supporting independence had long been under murderous assault, but physical and verbal attacks on Sinhalese and Muslim journalists critical of the government’s military operations began accelerating in 2006 as well. These attacks—which in 2009 included a murder, a bombing, and several assaults—occurred with complete impunity.

A drawing of Wickramatunga in the lobby of The Sunday Leader. (CPJ)On Tuesday, I revisited three cases CPJ had investigated last year, dating from January 2009: the attack on Sirasa TV; the murder of newspaper editor Lasanatha Wickramatunga, and the violent attack on another editor, Upali Tennakoon and his wife, Dhammika. Last year's report was called Failure to Investigate. Today, I'll take a look at the implications of the government's failure to bring any of them to prosecution as the country moves toward presidential elections on January 26.

Court documents recently revealed that a coroner's report found that Wickramatunga's death was "caused not due to gunshot injuries, but injuries caused to his head with a sharp weapon." Iron bars, wooden poles, pistols, silenced or not, what's the difference? There is one.

With Monday’s release  of J. S. Tissainayagam on bail, maybe things are looking up for the media in Sri Lanka. CPJ welcomed Tissainayagam’s release from a sentence of 20 years' “rigorous imprisonment,” but called on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to extend him a full pardon, as it is within his presidential powers to do. For now, at least, Tissa, as he is known, is out of his prison cell though not free to leave the country—the appeal court that set him free demanded that he hand over his passport as part of the bail agreement. But there are many other cases still hanging in the air in Sri Lanka that will not go away, even though they are making their way through the courts.

Lasantha Wickramatunga

Even by Sri Lanka’s standards, January 2009 was a brutal month for journalists.

On January 6, on a quiet road on the outskirts of Colombo, the country’s main independently owned TV station, Sirasa TV, was raided at 2:05 a.m. by 15 to 20 masked armed men working with military precision. At 2:35:31 they detonated an explosion, possibly a claymore mine, a military-style antipersonnel mine set off by an electrical charge through wires leading to the device.

Sri Lankan journalists flee under severe pressure in the past year. Iraq and Somalia, two deadly countries for the press, also rank high in numbers of journalists forced into exile. Hundreds of journalists have been driven into exile this decade. By Karen Phillips

Sri Lankan journalists protest violence against the press. (Reuters)

On Tuesday, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission convened a hearing on Sri Lanka. The impetus was the disintegrating human rights situation in the northeastern "no fire zone." CPJ was invited to testify about attacks on Sri Lankan journalists and the fact that both sides to the Tamil secessionist war--the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the government--do not allow journalists access to the conflict zone.

The dire situation for journalists in Sri Lanka who have fallen out of favor with the government has not gone unnoticed at the U.S. State Department. On March 23, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a letter to Senator Robert Casey, who chaired the Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on Sri Lanka on February 24. Seven senators had written to her about their concerns in Sri Lanka after the meeting.

January 6, 2009: The main control room of Colombo's TV Sirasa is bombed. January 8, 2009: Prominent independent editor Lasantha Wickramatunga is killed by a hit-squad that attacks his car while it is blocked in traffic. January 23, 2009: Pro-government editor Upali Tennakoon is attacked under similar circumstances by a similar hit-squad. He is injured, but escapes with his life and flees the country.

Sri Lanka Special Report: Failure to Investigate

As the Sri Lankan government steps up its war with the LTTE, assaults on journalists are on the rise. So are suspicions that the government is complicit in these attacks.

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