Sri Lanka’s mettlesome media endured another year of extraordinary political volatility. Although the administration of President Chandrika Kumaratunga finally lifted onerous censorship regulations and eased restrictions preventing journalists from reporting fully on the country’s long-running civil war, journalists were still routinely threatened and harassed for their reporting. Impunity for crimes against journalists continued to be the norm, contributing to a culture in which political violence occurs frequently because it goes unpunished.
On May 30, Kumaratunga ordered the Media Ministry to revoke a June 1998 order imposing censorship on the press. The administration had enforced the restrictions, which were tightened further in 2000, as part of an effort to curb reporting on politically sensitive issues, including the government’s handling of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are fighting for an independent homeland for the country’s ethnic Tamil minority. The civil war has dragged on for nearly 20 years, costing more than 60,000 lives and shattering Sri Lanka’s economy.
Local journalists had hoped that lifting censorship regulations would be followed by a broader effort to grant reporters freer access to the conflict areas. Currently, journalists require permission from the defense ministry to travel to war zones in the north and east of the country, though their requests are seldom granted. The occasional media visits were typically limited to military guided tours.
A July announcement by the government’s Special Media Information Center that access restrictions had been lifted on areas in the north and east was followed within weeks by a Defense Ministry clarification stating that areas held by the LTTE remained off-limits. Journalists did say they were able to obtain permits to visit government-controlled conflict areas more quickly and easily than in previous years and acknowledged government efforts to improve communication between the military and the media. However, an initiative sponsored by the Sri Lankan Editors’ Guild to work with government officials to formulate a set of rational guidelines on war coverage foundered as the administration was consumed with various political crises.
In April, Marie Colvin, a veteran war correspondent for London’s Sunday Times newspaper, did manage to cross the front lines and report from the LTTE-controlled Wanni region, only to be shot by Sri Lankan soldiers on her way out of rebel territory. Colvin was hit by shrapnel from a grenade fired by the Sri Lankan army, receiving wounds in her head, chest, and arms. Her left eye was permanently blinded by the attack. Though Colvin was traveling with a group of unarmed civilians, soldiers apparently mistook the group for LTTE members. Colvin shouted out that she was a journalist, but the soldiers fired anyway.
Colvin was beaten, threatened, and interrogated by soldiers before being taken to a military hospital in a nearby army garrison town. The next day, the government Department of Information issued an ominous statement noting that Colvin had overstayed her visa and appeared to have “her own secret agenda with the LTTE.” Sri Lanka’s overseas missions were “asked to be cautious when recommending journalists for visas.”
Though authorities decided not to press charges against Colvin, they did arrest six men for allegedly helping to arrange her visit to rebel territory.
In early July, Kumaratunga allowed the country’s harsh emergency laws to lapse rather than face certain defeat in parliament, where her ruling People’s Alliance no longer held a majority of seats. The emergency regulations were first imposed in March 1983 and required monthly approval by parliament in order to be extended. The regulations gave the executive branch broad authority to take whatever measures it deemed necessary to preserve law and order–including the authority to restrict the press.
However, the government immediately invoked the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to preserve the administration’s sweeping powers, including the authority to detain anyone suspected of involvement with the LTTE for up to 18 months without charge. Activists from the Tamil Media Alliance protested that journalists could be detained under the PTA simply for “failing to provide information about the activities of terrorists.”
Tamil journalists are already particularly vulnerable to official harassment. In March, A.S.M. Fasmi, a reporter for the Tamil-language newspaper Thinakkural who is based in the town of Mannar, was detained, interrogated, and threatened repeatedly with death after he reported on the alleged rape of two Tamil women while in the custody of local security forces.
In July, the acting army brigadier in Batticaloa summoned three Tamil journalists for interrogation and warned them that they could be charged under the PTA if they continued to criticize the government and security forces in print.
On July 10, President Kumaratunga abruptly suspended parliament, in order to avoid a no-confidence motion scheduled for the following week, and called for a nationwide referendum on whether the constitution should be amended to allow greater regional autonomy, a key demand of the country’s Tamil minority. Independent media fiercely criticized the move, which many considered anti-democratic. On July 22, after days of vocal protests led by the opposition United National Party (UNP), the chief elections commissioner invoked the long-dormant Referendum Act No. 7 of 1981 to threaten the press that publishing “false statements” regarding the referendum was illegal. The vaguely worded order encouraged self-censorship because it did not specify a punishment.
Parliament reconvened on September 6. By October 11, Kumaratunga faced another round of crippling defections and a looming no-confidence vote. Instead of holding a referendum, the president eventually decided to dissolve parliament altogether and call new elections, which were scheduled for December 5.
During the run-up to the parliamentary elections, Kumaratunga used state media to spread the accusation that one of the defecting lawmakers, S.B. Dissanayake, had suggested murdering two editors to silence criticism of the government. Dissanayake, who had been a senior minister in Kumaratunga’s cabinet, responded that the president herself had been complicit in a series of attacks against journalists and opposition figures. Journalists said the exchange lent credence to their suspicions that the most high-level government officials had plotted attacks on the press.
Particularly during the election campaign, state media often fed dangerous passions by irresponsibly accusing Kumaratunga’s political opponents of maintaining links with the Tamil Tigers. Earlier in the year, in June, state media outlets accused the veteran journalist and TamilNet Web site editor Dharmeratnam Sivaram of being an LTTE spy, a charge that seriously endangered Sivaram and his family.
In Sri Lanka, where the civil war has exacerbated interethnic tensions and political violence is frequent, branding someone an LTTE spy can be tantamount to issuing a death warrant. The government almost never prosecutes attacks against journalists, fostering a climate of impunity that heightens the dangers for all members of the press.
Perhaps the most shocking example of this impunity was the government’s failure to prosecute the October 2000 murder of Mylvaganam Nimalarajan, a Jaffna-based journalist who covered the civil war for various news organizations, including the BBC’s Tamil and Sinhala-language services, the Tamil-language daily Virakesari, and the Sinhala-language weekly Ravaya. Police ignored evidence suggesting that militias backed by a pro-government party may have murdered Nimalarajan in retaliation for his reporting on vote rigging and intimidation during the 2000 parliamentary elections in Jaffna. CPJ’s repeated queries to government officials requesting information about the status of the investigation into Nimalarajan’s assassination went unanswered.
CPJ’s advocacy did seem to stimulate prosecution efforts in a case involving Iqbal Athas, defense columnist for the Colombo-based, English-language weekly The Sunday Times, who was harassed and threatened by military officers after writing a series of exposés on corruption in the armed forces. In February 1998, Athas and his family were subject to an attack on their home during which five armed men forcibly entered the residence and threatened him, his wife, and young daughter at gunpoint.
Athas and his wife identified Air Force squadron leaders H.M. Rukman Herath and D.S. Prasanna Kannangara as two of the assailants. After CPJ sent letters to the Sri Lankan attorney general and justice minister in February and April, respectively, trial proceedings finally began in May. Hearings were still in progress at year’s end.
Criminal defamation laws remain on the books and continue to be used to harass journalists. In 2001, Victor Ivan, editor of the Sinhala-language newspaper Ravaya, faced four separate criminal defamation suits, most of them filed by government officials whom the paper had accused of wrongdoing.
After the opposition United National Party won the December parliamentary elections, media activists hoped to secure a slew of media reforms, including the elimination of criminal penalties for libel and defamation. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe of the UNP campaigned on a pro-media platform, as did his archrival Kumaratunga years ago.
One local journalist told CPJ that any reforms would need to be passed within the first six months of 2002, before power clouded the judgment of the new victors.
A.S.M. Fasmi, Thinakkural
Fasmi, a reporter for the Tamil-language newspaper Thinakkural, said he was detained, interrogated, and threatened repeatedly with death after reporting on the alleged rape of two Tamil women detained by local security forces in February.
On the morning of March 21, the day Fasmi’s report on the rape charges appeared in Thinakkural, intelligence officers from the 21-5 Army Brigade on the northern island of Mannar summoned the journalist for interrogation, according to his own account. Fasmi, who is based in Mannar, said the officers accused him of plotting to bribe members of the armed forces and thereby tarnish their image. An army officer told him he was under arrest and transferred him to the crime branch of the Mannar Police.
Fasmi was released at around 4 p.m. after signing a sworn statement. The journalist later reported receiving numerous phone calls threatening his life.
On April 16, CPJ wrote a letter to President Chandrika Kumaratunga asking her to guarantee Fasmi’s safety.
Marie Colvin, The Sunday Times
Colvin, an award-winning American journalist who works for the British newspaper The Sunday Times, was hit by shrapnel from a grenade fired by the Sri Lankan army, receiving wounds in her head, chest, and arms. Colvin’s left eye was permanently blinded by the attack.
Though she was traveling with a group of unarmed civilians, soldiers apparently mistook the group for members of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Colvin shouted out that she was a journalist, but the soldiers fired anyway.
Even after she was hit, Colvin continued shouting that she was a journalist, an American, and that she needed a doctor. Eventually, soldiers told her to approach them with her hands in the air. According to her account, later published in The Sunday Times, soldiers then pushed her down on the ground, flat on her back, and began kicking her. After searching her for weapons, they led her away at gunpoint.
At the next location, an officer interrogated her and tried to force her to admit that her party had fired first, which she denied. Finally, soldiers took her to a military hospital in the garrison town of Vavuniya. She was later flown to Colombo.
An April 17 statement issued by Sri Lanka’s Department of Information noted that Colvin did not have official clearance to travel to the rebel-held Wanni region, where she had spent two weeks with LTTE guerrilla forces. Colvin is one of the few foreign correspondents who have managed to reach rebel-held territory in Sri Lanka in recent years.
In addition, the statement contended that Colvin had overstayed her visa and suggested she “had her own secret agenda with the LTTE.” Sri Lanka’s overseas missions were “asked to be cautious when recommending journalists for visas.”
CPJ issued an alert on April 17, expressing concern for Colvin’s safety and cautioning the Sri Lankan government against imposing additional bureaucratic restrictions on journalists.
Unidentified assailants threw a smoke bomb into the office compound of Ravaya, a Sinhala-language weekly paper published from Maharagama, a southern suburb of the capital, Colombo. There was no serious damage.
The nonlethal smoke bomb was of a type commonly used by Sri Lankan security forces and is not available to the general public, police told the BBC.
Ravaya editor Victor Ivan, who has been an outspoken critic of the government, told CPJ that he thought the bomb attack was intended as a warning. “My feeling is that this is only a signal,” he said. “This is a small thing, but journalists have also been killed in Sri Lanka–and nothing happens.”
CPJ issued a press release on May 25, noting the alarming frequency of attacks against journalists in Sri Lanka and urging the administration to issue a prompt and full report on the status of the police investigation into the Ravaya attack.
Dharmeratnam Sivaram, TamilNet
In early June, several state-owned newspapers accused Sivaram, a veteran journalist and the editor of the TamilNet Web site, of being a spy for the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The charges seriously endangered Sivaram and his family.
TamilNet (www.tamilnet.com) is an online news service that covers Sri Lankan affairs, with special emphasis on news of interest to the Tamil community. The service is widely acknowledged as an indispensable source of information about the long-running civil war between government forces and the LTTE.
On June 8, the English-language government newspaper The Daily News included Sivaram on a list of alleged LTTE spies. On June 17, the state-run Tamil-language daily Thinakaran ran similar accusations in a front-page story that included a color photograph of Sivaram. That same day, the independent Sinhala-language newspaper Divaina followed the lead of the state media by accusing Sivaram of acting as an LTTE agent.
None of the newspapers provided any substantive evidence to prove the allegations against Sivaram.
In Sri Lanka, where the civil war has exacerbated ethnic tensions and political violence is common, branding someone as an LTTE spy can be tantamount to issuing a death warrant.
On June 21, CPJ sent a letter to President Chandrika Kumaratunga asking her to guarantee personally that no harm came to Dharmeratnam Sivaram or his family as a result of the state media’s irresponsible and vicious campaign.
Aiyathurai Nadesan, Virakesari
S. M. Gopalaratnam, Thinakathir
K. Rushangan, Thinakathir
Nadesan, Batticaloa correspondent for the Tamil-language daily Virakesari, was summoned for interrogation by the coordinating officer of the Sri Lankan army’s 23-3 brigade. Nadesan identified the officer as Colonel Manawaduge.
The officer warned Nadesan that he would be arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) if he continued writing against the government and the security forces, according to the journalist’s account.
The officer also delivered an oblique threat, reminding Nadesan that political activists have been killed in Sri Lanka for putting up posters critical of the government. Nadesan said he was then photographed from different angles, which he feared would make it easier for security forces to target him in the future.
Nadesan, who uses the pen name Nellai G. Nadesan, is an award-winning journalist with a reputation for independent reporting.
Manawaduge had summoned two other journalists for a similar interrogation just days earlier, according to the East Lanka Journalists Association: S. M. Gopalaratnam, editor of Thinakathir, Batticaloa’s only Tamil-language daily, and K. Rushangan, the paper’s deputy editor.
Following opposition protests against President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s July 10 decision to suspend parliament and call a nationwide referendum, Chief Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake warned the press that publishing any “false statements” regarding the referendum was illegal and would be punished under the long-dormant 1981 Referendum Act No. 7.
Section 58 (1) of the act criminalizes the publication of “any false statement concerning or relating to (a) the utterances or activities at a Referendum of any recognised political party or any person; or (b) the conduct or management of such Referendum by any such recognised political party or person, and such statement [as] is capable of influencing the result of such Referendum,” according to the government-run Daily News.
The act places the burden of proof on journalists, who are considered “guilty of an illegal practice unless such person proves that such publication was made without his consent or connivance, and that he exercised all such diligence to prevent such publication as he ought to have exercised having regard to the nature of his function in such capacity and in all the circumstances.”