Sri Lanka: No letup in censorship of war coverage

May 22, 2000

Her Excellency Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga
President, Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
Presidential Secretariat
Sri Lanka

VIA FAX: 011-94-1-333-703

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is profoundly dismayed by your government’s use of censorship regulations to restrict coverage of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). We are particularly alarmed by the recent decision of the chief censor, Ariya Rubasinghe, to shut down the Tamil-language daily Uthayan and the English-language weekly The Sunday Leader.

CPJ is further troubled by numerous reports indicating that the censors are exercising their authority in a partisan and arbitrary way — allowing, for example, stories and cartoons critical of the opposition while censoring identical pieces that focus instead on your administration. The Sri Lankan people have the right to uncensored, independent news and information about the course of the war and the government’s handling of the crisis.

On the evening of May 19, authorities closed the offices of Uthayan, the only Tamil daily published in the northern city of Jaffna. According to news reports, government troops forced all employees to leave the premises, and then locked the building. Rubasinghe justified the government’s decision by accusing the newspaper of “acting maliciously and detrimentally in publishing information that is biased to the LTTE,” but local journalists say that the editors of Uthayan had taken great pains to report fairly in a tense, often dangerous atmosphere.

Prior to the raid, Uthayan‘s assistant general manager and deputy editor, N. Vidyatharan, had repeatedly told authorities that because the civil war has disrupted telecommunication links between the Jaffna peninsula and the rest of Sri Lanka, Uthayan could not submit articles to censors in Colombo. Vidyatharan asked that a censor be appointed in Jaffna, as was done in 1998, according to The Sunday Times, an English-language daily published in Colombo.

This evening, May 22, at around 6 p.m., dozens of police shut down a printing facility operated by Leader Publications (Pvt.) Ltd., which owns the English-language daily The Sunday Leader, in order to stop the paper’s publication. Police locked the building and installed armed guards outside, according to the paper’s editor, Lasantha Wickramatunga. The raid was prompted by a May 21 article in The Sunday Leader titled “War in Fantasyland,” which lampooned the government’s censorship policy. The ban on the paper is to remain in effect for six months. However, the closure of the printing press has also interrupted the production of Irida Peramuna, the Sinhala-language counterpart of The Sunday Leader, along with five other publications owned by the Leader group, according to Wickramatunga.

Meanwhile, the private television station Telshan Network Limited (TNL), which is owned by the brother of opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, has been threatened with closure, according to CPJ’s sources, for allegedly violating the terms of a censorship order prohibiting news coverage of a May 17 bomb attack in the eastern town of Batticaloa, in which at least 23 people were killed. The attack occurred during a major Buddhist festival, and the government defended the local news blackout by saying that media coverage could provoke reprisal attacks against the minority Tamil community.

According to the BBC, however, nearly all the victims were in fact ethnic Tamils. Joseph Pararajasingham, a member of parliament from Batticaloa, has sent an open letter to Your Excellency, claiming that minutes after the blast, government security forces opened fire on the crowd, injuring scores of civilians.

Around midnight on May 17, at least eight police officers with the Criminal Investigation Bureau (CID) arrived at the home of TNL news editor Namal Perera and interrogated him. “We did not report the incident, but all we told our viewers was that we are unable to bring the news of a bomb attack because the censor had not cleared our report,” Perera later told Agence France-Presse. “We did not violate the censorship.” CPJ is monitoring developments in this case.

As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of our colleagues around the world, CPJ believes that censorship has no place in any democratic country. In our May 15 letter to Your Excellency, CPJ respectfully urged you to lift the censorship orders and to ensure that journalists are able to report freely in conflict zones. We have not yet received any reply, and so reiterate our call for an end to these harsh and unjustifiable regulations. We also ask that both Uthayan and The Sunday Leader be allowed to resume publishing immediately.

We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter, and await your response.

Yours sincerely,

Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director