Attacks on the Press 2000: Sri Lanka

RI LANKA’S LIVELY AND COMBATIVE MEDIA FACED NUMEROUS CHALLENGES from a hostile government, with the most intense battle waged over the president’s tightening of censorship restrictions. Press coverage of the country’s 17-year-old civil war remained thin, due to intermittent censorship and because the government refused to grant journalists regular access to the conflict areas in northern Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, violent attacks against journalists continued, and were typically committed with impunity. One journalist was killed in 2000 and another narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.

On May 3, after the Sri Lankan army suffered a critical setback in its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga introduced new emergency regulations that included some of the harshest censorship measures ever imposed in the country. Within weeks, the censor had shut down three newspapers and blacked out scores of articles and political cartoons.

Journalists in Sri Lanka vigorously challenged these actions in the courts and in the pages of their newspapers. However, restrictions on local media continued even after the government lifted the prior censorship requirement for foreign media on June 5.

In mid-June, CPJ sent a delegation to Colombo, including board member Peter Arnett, Asia program coordinator Kavita Menon, and Asia program consultant A. Lin Neumann, to push the government to lift censorship and ease access restrictions that prevented journalists from adequately covering the civil war. Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera both met with CPJ, and both admitted independently that the government’s censorship policy was counterproductive. Samaraweera pledged that the censorship would be lifted by the time parliamentary elections were called, and expressed some interest in developing a system to allow journalists access to the conflict areas. In July, the government suspended prior censorship of the local media, but kept in place the emergency regulations governing content.

On August 18, the government announced that parliamentary elections would be held on October 10, but disappointingly made no further changes to the censorship policy. In September, it temporarily suspended the additional censorship regulations imposed over the year, but emphasized that reporting on the military remained subject to censorship provisions issued in 1998 and 1999.

Kumaratunga’s censorship policy is just one manifestation of her basic mistrust for the media. The president started the year with a three-hour marathon interview on state television in which she launched a bitter, intensely personal diatribe at the private media. Kumaratunga accused several media outlets and individual journalists of attempting to sabotage her December 1999 re-election bid via biased reporting and corrupt practices, and threatened to crack down on her critics. Among those singled out for special condemnation were Victor Ivan, editor of the Sinhala-language tabloid Ravaya, and Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of the English-language paper The Sunday Leader.

On January 9, state media alleged, quoting police sources, that several unnamed businessmen were conspiring with the LTTE in a plot to assassinate the president. Both Ivan and Wickrematunga claimed that the reports targeted them and that the timing was suspicious, coming just days after the president had denounced them by name. “The government wants to stifle all dissent,” Wickrematunga told journalists at a news conference. “This attempt to link us with the LTTE is a direct threat to our lives.”

The government used this alarming tactic again in early June, when several state-owned media outlets ran a press release that accused four prominent journalists of “maintaining secret connections with the LTTE.” They were P. Seevagan, who reports for the BBC’s Tamil service and heads the Tamil Media Alliance; Roy Denish, defense correspondent for The Sunday Leader; Saman Wagaarachchi, editor of the Leader‘s Sinhala-language counterpart, Irida Peramuna; and D. Sivaram (alias “Taraki”), an outspoken free-lance columnist. The smear campaign provoked a spate of threats and “was very clearly designed and deliberately calculated to instigate extremist elements and contract killers against us and our families,” the four journalists said in a June 6 statement.

On April 3, a bomb exploded at the home of Nellai Nadesan, a Batticaloa-based columnist for Virakesari, the country’s leading Tamil-language newspaper. Local sources blamed pro-government Tamil paramilitaries. Nadesan, who frequently covers militia activities, was not injured in the blast. On the night of October 19, a group of unidentified gunmen shot and killed Mylvaganam Nimalarajan, a journalist based in the northern Jaffna peninsula who reported for various news organizations, including the BBC’s Tamil- and Sinhala-language services. Nimalarajan was one of the few sources of independent news from Jaffna, a strife-torn area where journalists have rarely been allowed free access. CPJ sources suspected that Nimalarajan’s reporting on vote-rigging and intimidation during the recent parliamentary elections in Jaffna led to his murder.

Even when the government has paid nominal attention to pursuing justice, it has come up short. Iqbal Athas, defense columnist for the English-language weekly The Sunday Times, experienced repeated delays in the prosecution of two air force officers who were indicted on charges of unlawful entry, criminal trespass, and criminal intimidation. The charges stemmed from events on February 12, 1998, when five armed men forcibly entered Athas’ home and threatened him, his wife, and his young daughter at gunpoint. According to neighbors, the intruders were backed by some 25 armed men who waited outside the house. The intruders eventually left without inflicting serious injuries.

The government often cited the prosecution of Athas’ case as evidence of its commitment to press freedom, but the Justice Department made no apparent effort to expedite the trial. At press time, the trial had been postponed until February 16, 2001-three years after the attack.

Criminal defamation laws were still used to punish journalists who criticized the government, and the president herself successfully sued the editors of the country’s two most prominent English-language dailies. Sri Lankan judges skirt the international criticism that would certainly result from imprisoning journalists by issuing suspended jail sentences. On September 5, the High Court sentenced Leader editor Wickrematunga to a two-year jail term for criminally defaming the president. The sentence was suspended for five years. And on December 5, the Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal by Sinha Ratnatunga, editor of The Sunday Times, who in 1997 was sentenced to 18 months in prison for criminal defamation. Ratnatunga’s sentence was suspended for seven years.

Nellai G. Nadesan, Virakesari

Shortly before midnight, a bomb went off at the home of Nadesan, a columnist for Virakesari, the country’s leading Tamil-language newspaper. Nadesan was not injured in the blast, though the explosion caused some damage to his home.

Sources at Virakesari said Nadesan had received a telephone death threat after the paper ran an article in March about atrocities committed by a member of the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), an armed Tamil group that supports the government’s battle against separatists. Nadesan did not write the article, according to an editor at the paper, but he was widely assumed to be the author, as he writes regularly about the activities of PLOTE and other pro-government Tamil groups in Batticaloa.

Nadesan lives in a high-security zone in the eastern city of Batticaloa. His home is between two checkpoints-one manned by PLOTE cadres, the other by members of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front. Both these organizations assist Sri Lankan security forces in their fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the main separatist guerrilla movement. Sources said no one could have reached Nadesan’s home without the knowledge of someone at one of these checkpoints.

Elmo Fernando, BBC

Fernando, a correspondent for the BBC’s Sinhala-language service, was attacked in front of the Norwegian Embassy in the capital city of Colombo by a group of demonstrators protesting Norway’s attempts to mediate a peace agreement that would end Sri Lanka’s 16-year civil war.

The demonstration was led by members of the Buddhist clergy and the National Movement Against Terrorism, a Sinhalese organization bitterly opposed to negotiating with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrilla movement, which seeks an independent homeland for Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority.

Upon seeing Fernando, a group of demonstrators began shouting slogans accusing the BBC of pro-LTTE bias. Fernando, who was covering the demonstration for the Sinhala-language program “Sandeshaya,” was then assaulted while trying to record their chants.

“They shouted against the BBC and me, and then someone hit me from behind,” Fernando told Agence France-Presse. He suffered minor injuries before he was rescued by other journalists.

On April 7, CPJ issued a news alert condemning the assault.

All journalists

Emergency regulations promulgated on May 3 included tough new censorship restrictions on both local and international print media. On May 10, the regulations were extended to cover broadcast media.

Local journalists had been subject to censorship provisions since June 1998, but the new regulations applied to foreign correspondents as well, and introduced harsh punitive measures. The government was empowered to arrest journalists, seize their property, block the distribution of newspapers, and shut down printing presses and broadcast facilities on vaguely defined grounds of “national security.”

The restrictions were imposed following setbacks in the government’s military campaign against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Initially, the competent authority in charge of enforcing the censorship regime, Ariya Rubasinghe, required both local journalists and foreign correspondents to submit politically sensitive stories to the Department of Information for approval. On June 5, the government lifted the prior censorship requirement for foreign correspondents but noted that they were still required to abide by the emergency regulations. Local media remained subject to prior censorship.

Journalists in Sri Lanka submitted reams of evidence to the Supreme Court (and to CPJ) documenting the censor’s often arbitrary and partisan decisions to bar articles and even cartoons that, while critical of the administration, did not jeopardize the country’s national security. Many Sri Lankan newspapers protested the censorship restrictions by publishing blank pages and paragraphs that clearly indicated where cuts had been made.

CPJ wrote numerous letters to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga during the year, urging her to lift the censorship restrictions altogether. In mid-June, a CPJ delegation met with Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in Colombo to discuss the government’s media policy. At that time, Samaraweera pledged that the administration would lift censorship restrictions by late August, in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for November.

On June 30, a Supreme Court ruling on a petition brought by Leader Publications, whose newspapers had been shut down by the chief censor, challenged the legality of Rubasinghe’s appointment. A three-judge panel found that the censor had been appointed improperly, rendering his decision to close The Sunday Leader newspaper “a nullity, and of no force or avail in law.”

Because this ruling had obvious implications for all actions taken by the censor, the government soon issued a new set of regulations, backdated to July 1, the day after the verdict.

“We have reimposed some restrictions…as we felt that in the interest of the nation there should be some restrictions on news reporting,” Rubasinghe told The Associated Press on July 4. That same day, Rubasinghe met with editors and senior journalists from the print and broadcast media to explain the provisions of the revised regulations. He said that the prior censorship requirement was no longer in place, but that journalists would still be held liable for other censorship violations.

Among the topics proscribed by the revised decree (labeled Gazette Extraordinary No. 1138/34) were “any matter which pertains to any operations carried out or proposed to be carried out by the Armed Forces or the Police Force,” “any statement pertaining to the official conduct or the performance of the Head or any member of any of the Armed Forces or the Police Force, which affect the morale of the members of such forces,” and “any material which would or might in the opinion of the Competent Authority be prejudicial to the interests of national security or the preservation of public order.”

CPJ wrote to President Kumaratunga on July 6, noting that the Supreme Court ruling was an opportunity to end censorship, and that the administration’s failure to do so belied earlier commitments to relax its repressive media policy.

In an order dated September 5, the government temporarily suspended Regulation 14, which codified the censorship restrictions. But in a separate statement issued on September 8, Rubasinghe announced that reporting on the military remained subject to censorship under regulations issued in June 1998 and November 1999.

Topics proscribed by these regulations include “any matter pertaining to military operations in the Northern and Eastern Province…or any statement pertaining to the official conduct, morale, or…performance of the Head or of any member of the Armed Forces or the police force.”

MAY 19

Government security forces shut down 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.

The government’s chief censor, Ariya Rubasinghe, justified the government’s decision by claiming that Uthayan had been “continuously publishing reports violating the prevailing censorship regulations.” He also accused Uthayan of “maliciously and detrimentally” publishing information that was allegedly biased in favor of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant Tamil separatist organization.

Local journalists disputed Rubasinghe’s claims, telling CPJ that the editors of Uthayan had taken great pains to report objectively in a tense and 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 had disrupted telecommunication links between the Jaffna peninsula and the rest of Sri Lanka, Uthayan could not submit articles to censors in Colombo. According to The Sunday Times, an English-language daily published in Colombo, Vidyatharan asked that a censor be appointed in Jaffna, as was done in 1998.

On May 22, CPJ sent a letter to Sri Lankan president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, protesting the ban on Uthayan and calling on her to lift the censorship regulations. A CPJ delegation also raised these matters in a June 14 meeting with Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera in Colombo.

On June 30, the Supreme Court, presiding over a case brought by the publisher of another paper that had been shut down, ruled that because the chief censor had been appointed improperly, his decisions were therefore “a nullity, and of no force or avail in law.”

On July 3, police allowed Uthayan to resume publishing in response to a written request from the paper’s publisher that noted the bearing of the Supreme Court decision on his case.

MAY 22
Leader Publications

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. Police locked the building and stationed armed guards outside, according to editor Lasantha Wickrematunga.

The raid was prompted by a May 21 article in The Sunday Leader, “War in Fantasyland,” which lampooned the government’s censorship policy.

On May 22, the Department of Information imposed a six-month suspension on the printing facility, charging that Leader Publications had ignored repeated warnings to obey the country’s censorship regulations. Although the ban was directed at The Sunday Leader, the closure of the printing press interrupted the production of its Sinhala-language counterpart, Irida Peramuna, as well as five other publications owned by the Leader group.

On June 2, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a petition filed by the Leader group, which challenged the ban as a violation of its constitutional rights. After preliminary hearings in which the presiding judge questioned the legality of the government’s emergency censorship regime, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga ordered the ban shortened by several months. On June 26, the government announced that the Leader group would be permitted to resume publishing on July 31.

The Supreme Court’s June 30 ruling obviated the president’s decision to ease the ban. In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel ruled that because the appointment of the “competent authority” charged with enforcing emergency censorship regulations had not been submitted to parliament for review within seven days, as required by law, his decision to shut down the Leader group was “a nullity, and of no force or avail in law.” The judges also ordered the state to pay the Leader group 100,000 rupees (US$1300) in court costs.

After the ruling, the Department of Information temporarily suspended its censorship operations. Wickrematunga welcomed the court’s decision and announced that The Sunday Leader would resume operations immediately.

Lasantha Wickrematunga, The Sunday Leader

Colombo High Court Judge Andrew Somawansa sentenced Wickrematunga, editor of the English-language weekly The Sunday Leader, to two years in prison on charges of criminally defaming President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The sentence was suspended for five years. If Wickrematunga is convicted of any other criminal offense within this period, he will have to serve the two-year sentence in addition to any other penalties that might be imposed.

The criminal defamation charge was filed in response to a September 1995 Sunday Leader article that criticized the president for not making good on election promises. State prosecutors alleged that the article, headlined “Promising Government,” implied that President Kumaratunga was corrupt.

CPJ issued a statement the day of the ruling, calling for the elimination of Sri Lanka’s archaic criminal defamation laws.

Mylvaganam Nimalarajan, free-lancer

On the night of October 19, a group of unidentified gunmen approached the home of Nimalarajan, a Jaffna-based journalist who reported for various news organizations, including the BBC’s Tamil and Sinhala-language services, the Tamil-language daily Virakesari, and the Sinhala-language weekly Ravaya.

The assailants shot the journalist through the window of his study, where he was working on an article, and threw a grenade into the home before fleeing the premises. The attack occurred during curfew hours in a high-security zone in central Jaffna town.

Army officers were summoned to the house, and they took the journalist to Jaffna Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The journalist’s parents and his 11-year-old nephew were seriously injured in the attack. Local journalists suspect that Nimalarajan’s reporting on vote-rigging and intimidation in Jaffna during the recent parliamentary elections may have led to his murder.

Sri Lankan president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga ordered defense authorities to launch an immediate inquiry into the assassination. In an October 20 letter, CPJ urged the president to ensure that the investigation was pursued vigorously and its findings made public.

Police failed to respond to repeated requests for information regarding the status of the investigation, which appeared to have stalled by year’s end.