Attacks on the Press 1999: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s increasingly violent political climate has heightened the danger for the country’s journalists. The 16-year-old civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a guerrilla movement fighting for a separate homeland for the country’s ethnic Tamil minority, continued, and has so far claimed more than 61,000 lives.

On December 18, two young camera assistants, Indika Pathinivasan of the Maharaja Television Network and Anura Priyantha of the Independent Television Network, were killed while covering an election rally for President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Both journalists were fatally wounded by shrapnel from a suicide bomb whose intended target was Kumaratunga; the president was injured in the attack, which was believed to have been orchestrated by the LTTE. Another three Sri Lankan journalists were killed by assassins in 1999. CPJ continues to investigate their cases, to determine whether the murders were linked to the journalists’ work.

When the fighting intensified in the fall, President Kumaratunga responded to reports of heavy army casualties by reinforcing censorship regulations governing local media coverage of the conflict. “I regret that some media institutions have grossly exaggerated, and in fact continue to repeat, highly misleading casualty figures of government forces,” said Kumaratunga. This was emblematic of the president’s tendency to blame her critics for the various problems besetting her administration.

Although the censorship decree did not apply to news sent abroad, the government does require all journalists, including foreign correspondents, to submit written requests to the defense minister if they wish to travel to the embattled north of the country. These requests were routinely denied last year, according to CPJ’s sources, though the government did approve a limited number of conducted media tours. Some journalists reported from the north by surreptitiously entering the region through eastern border checkpoints.

Between censorship regulations and lack of access to conflict areas, journalists are essentially blocked from covering the numerous atrocities allegedly committed by both government forces and militant groups.

Kumaratunga’s once comfortable relationship with the media deteriorated badly over the course of the year. In May, reports that her administration was moving toward reviving the archaic Official Secrets Act of 1953–which would have criminalized reporting on cabinet-level discussions, among other restrictions–brought strong criticism from local journalists. The government eventually withdrew the proposal. On July 15, at least 12 journalists covering an opposition rally in Colombo were assaulted and harassed by riot police and members of the presidential security division. The security forces used tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets in their attempts to disperse the crowd of thousands who had gathered outside Kumaratunga’s residence for the protest.

Eyewitnesses said the security forces seemed to single out photographers and cameramen, in order to prevent them from documenting police assaults on the crowd. The next week, hundreds of journalists held an angry demonstration and marched toward the president’s home, where they were turned back by police. In November, during the run-up to the presidential election, the media minister summoned several private broadcasters to a meeting in which he warned them that pro-opposition coverage could cost them their broadcast licenses. After pressure from local journalists, the government withdrew the threat.

Criminal defamation provisions remain on the books, and are used regularly to punish journalists. Last year, at least five local editors faced criminal defamation charges brought by government officials, including the president herself. In July a group of parliamentarians from both the ruling coalition and the opposition filed a motion calling for the overhaul of the country’s media laws. The group suggested scrapping the country’s criminal defamation laws, repealing the Press Council Law, and introducing a Freedom of Information Act. But the president’s administration virtually ignored the proposal, and the full house of parliament never considered it.

Similarly, the administration did little to pursue investigations into the numerous attacks against the Sri Lankan press, including the three unsolved murders. Following Kumaratunga’s re-election in December, there were rumors that the president intended to rein in private broadcast media in the new year.

March 14
Srilal Priyantha, Lakbima ATTACKED

At approximately 4:00 a.m., 10 men wearing black hoods over their faces and carrying automatic weapons kidnapped Priyantha, defense correspondent of the weekly Sinhala-language newspaper Lakbima, from his boarding house in Colombo. The men entered Priyantha’s room, blindfolded him, and forced him into a vehicle.

The attack is believed to have come in response to Priyantha’s published investigations into corruption within the Sri Lankan armed forces. He was taken to a cemetery about a mile from his home in Colombo’s Nugegoda district. The assailants beat Priyantha, stripped him, and left him tied to a tree. About five hours later, he was found and taken to a hospital.

Priyantha is known for his investigative reporting on corruption within the military and the police. Bandula Padmakumara, Lakbima‘s editor, told the Daily News of Colombo that Priyantha “was writing a very comprehensive defense column in which he highlighted the corruption in the military establishment.”

Local journalists said Priyantha had been concerned about his safety for more than a month before the attack. One week prior to his abduction, Priyantha told a radio interviewer in Colombo that he had been receiving death threats because of his writings on national defense.

May 14
Srilal Priyantha, Lakbima IMPRISONED

Police arrested Priyantha, the defense correspondent for the Sinhala-language newspaper Lakbima newspaper, on murder charges.

According to Priyantha’s lawyer, Priyantha was arrested at his home in Colombo on the evening of May 14. Having taken Priyantha into custody, police stripped him and interrogated him until the early morning hours.

On the day of Priyantha’s arrest, the government’s information department issued a five-page press release accusing him of having murdered five people during a 1988 uprising of the then-militant Marxist organization Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP). The government accused Priyantha of concealing his identity by circulating a rumor that he had died. Meanwhile, the JVP publicly denied that Priyantha had ever been a member of their group.

Earlier that year, on March 14, Priyantha was abducted from his home by 10 hooded gunmen, who ransacked his room and then drove him to a cemetery, where they beat him, stripped him, and tied him to a tree (see March 14 case). Priyantha’s colleagues said the journalist was probably attacked for his coverage of corruption in the armed forces.

According to the government’s press release, police received information about Priyantha’s past after his March abduction, which was widely covered in local media. Residents of Matugama, a village about 35 miles south of Colombo, allegedly told police that they recognized Priyantha from pictures in newspapers and on television. They added that they thought he had died 10 years earlier. The state-run Daily News also claimed that Priyantha’s real name was Priyantha Jayalal.

Several local journalists told CPJ that Priyantha’s arrest was intended as a warning to other investigative journalists, particularly those covering the armed forces and police.

Priyantha was released in August. CPJ was unable to determine the legal status of his case.

July 15
M.A. Pushpakumara, The Sunday Times ATTACKED, HARASSED
Lakmal Spencer, The Sunday Leader ATTACKED, HARASSED
Sanjeeva Chinthaka, The Sunday Times ATTACKED, HARASSED
Buddhika Weerasinghe, Lakbima ATTACKED, HARASSED
Janapriya Samaradiwakara, Yukthiya ATTACKED, HARASSED
H.A.N. Fernando, Sithijaya ATTACKED, HARASSED
Saman Mendis, Dinamina ATTACKED, HARASSED
Suba Dissanayake, Rupavahini ATTACKED, HARASSED
Ashoka Fernando, Sunday Leader ATTACKED, HARASSED
Ajith Seneviratne, Ravaya ATTACKED, HARASSED
Lakruwan Wanniarachchi, Lankadeepa ATTACKED, HARASSED
Athula Devapriya, The Sunday Times ATTACKED, HARASSED

Sri Lankan police and soldiers armed with batons, tear gas, and water cannons assaulted and harassed at least 12 journalists covering an opposition rally in the capital, Colombo.

Thousands of people had gathered outside President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s heavily guarded residence to protest the government’s failure to scrap the all-powerful executive presidency by a promised July 15 deadline. Security forces moved in to control the crowd. While scores of people were injured in the attack, journalists from both private and state-owned media appear to have been specifically targeted, according to CPJ’s sources.

Most of the journalists attacked were photographers and television cameramen. Some of their cameras were taken, damaged or lost in the melee. At least 11 journalists were injured, two of them seriously, according to the Colombo-based Free Media Movement. Pushpakumara, a photographer for The Sunday Times, was hospitalized with a broken arm. Spencer, a photographer for The Sunday Leader, was wounded in the knee by a rubber bullet.

Among the other injured were Chinthaka, a photographer for The Sunday Times; Weerasinghe, a photographer for Lakbima; Samaradiwakara, a photographer for Yukthiya; H.A.N. Fernando, a photographer for Sithijaya; Mendis, a photographer for Dinamina; Dissanayake, a cameraman for the Rupavahini television network, who also had his camera seized; Ashoka Fernando, a photographer for The Sunday Leader; Seneviratne, a journalist for Ravaya; and Wanniarachchi, a journalist for Lankadeepa.

Devapriya, a photographer for The Sunday Times, was detained for nearly three hours.

August 21

At around 8:30 p.m., unidentified assailants threw two hand grenades at the office building housing the operations of the Tamil-language newspaper Uthayan, the only daily paper publishing in the northern city of Jaffna. The grenades exploded outside the building. About 70 people were working inside at the time of the attack, according to M.V. Kanamylnathan, chief editor of New Uthayan Publications. A security guard was injured in the blast.

As a Tamil paper published in an area controlled by the Sri Lankan military, Uthayan was operating in an extremely threatening environment. One journalist with the paper told Deutsche Presse-Agentur: “It is a matter of anybody who does not like what we are writing, attacking us with bombs, grenades, or shooting us. Therefore we have to be very careful what we publish.”

Though no one claimed responsibility for the attack, a newspaper spokesman said that one of the pro-government paramilitary groups was likely behind the incident, perhaps in retaliation for the paper’s recent criticism of these groups.

In an August 24 letter to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, CPJ condemned the attack and urged a thorough investigation.

November 6
All journalists CENSORED

The Sri Lankan Information Department issued an immediate ban on the “publication, broadcast or transmission of sensitive military information” after the previous week’s wave of attacks against government troops by Tamil rebels in the Wanni region of northern Sri Lanka.

Director of Information Ariya Rubasinghe introduced the regulations in a press release, stating that “the fresh promulgation is meant to plug any loopholes that may have existed in the previous notification.”

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga imposed this censorship through an amendment to the Emergency (Prohibition on Publication and Transmission of Sensitive Military Information) Regulation No. 1 of 1998, which states that no media organization can print, transmit or broadcast information on military operations without clearance from the government.

In a November 9 letter to President Kumaratunga, CPJ protested the Sri Lankan government’s attempts to control media coverage of the 16-year-old civil war and called on her to rescind the censorship decree.

November 23
Sinha Ratnatunga, The Sunday Times LEGAL ACTION

Ratnatunga, editor of the English-language weekly The Sunday Times, appeared before the Colombo High Court to appeal his July 1, 1997, conviction on criminal defamation charges. The judge postponed the trial until February 8, 2000. This was the fourth time that Ratnatunga’s appeal had been postponed.

Ratnatunga was indicted because of a February 19, 1995, Sunday Times article about President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s attendance at an all-night birthday party for Parliament Deputy Asitha Perera. The article suggested that the president arrived late at a meeting the following day because of the party, which was held at a five-star hotel.

Ratnatunga was sentenced to two consecutive prison terms: a 12-month term under the penal code and a six-month term under the Press Council Law provisions. Both sentences were suspended for seven years. This penalty effectively discourages Ratnatunga from investigative journalism, since he would have to serve the full sentence if convicted of another offense within the seven-year period.

Two weeks after Ratnatunga’s conviction, President Kumaratunga promoted the trial judge to Sri Lanka’s Court of Appeal. According to CPJ’s sources, the promotion had been conditional on the outcome of the Ratnatunga case.

December 18
Indika Pathinivasan, Maharaja Television Network KILLED
Anura Priyantha, Independent Television Network KILLED

At an election rally in Colombo, shrapnel from a suicide bomb aimed at President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga fatally wounded Pathinivasan of Sri Lanka’s privately-owned Maharaja Television Network and Priyantha of the state-owned Independent Television Network, both camera assistants. Five other journalists were injured by the blast, which also injured Kumaratunga and scores of onlookers.

The bomb exploded at around 10 p.m. near a barrier separating journalists, including Pathinivasan and Priyantha, from Kumaratunga and a car that had arrived to pick her up. At least 22 people were killed in the assassination attempt, according to police.

Pathinivasan died instantly from shrapnel wounds, while Priyantha died later at a Colombo hospital. MTV cameraman K. Karunaratne and MTV reporter Shehan Baranage both suffered shrapnel wounds to the abdomen. Other journalists injured by shrapnel were Hiromi Hirose, chief New Delhi correspondent for the Japanese broadcasting company NHK, Nobuhiro Ikeda, a cameraman for NHK, and Reuters photographer Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi.