Attacks on the Press 2002: Sri Lanka

A cease-fire agreement signed in February by the government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ushered in a period of relative calm in Sri Lanka after 19 years of war. The LTTE has been fighting for an independent homeland for the country’s ethnic Tamil community, which has suffered discrimination from the Sinhalese majority. The brutal conflict has claimed more than 60,000 lives, displaced more than 1 million people, and devastated the economy. The Sri Lankan media, which are generally outspoken and aggressive, carried extensive debates about the ongoing peace talks.

Reporting on Sri Lanka’s civil war was extremely difficult, not only because of periodic censorship but also because the government generally prevented journalists from traveling to areas in the north and east of the country, where fighting was most intense. But on February 11, a week-and-a-half before the cease-fire agreement was signed, the government issued a statement declaring that the Defense Ministry would no longer require prior approval for travel to the northern Jaffna peninsula and “uncleared areas” under rebel control. Officials reopened the A-9 highway, the key road linking Jaffna to the south, in April and began allowing daily flights to Jaffna in June.

The highway opened just in time for nearly 300 journalists to make the journey to LTTE-held territory for an April 10 press conference with the reclusive head of the rebel movement, Vellupillai Prabhakaran–his first in 12 years. Journalists faced elaborate security screenings, and the LTTE banned satellite phones and live broadcast transmissions, ostensibly to prevent government forces from finding Prabhakaran’s exact location.

The LTTE has not tolerated critics in the past. Some political and human rights observers said the group exerted even more pressure on journalists and other members of civil society during the cease-fire period because the LTTE was able to operate openly, even in government-controlled areas.

Violence, and the threat of violence, is frequently used to silence the media in Sri Lanka, and attacks against journalists are generally committed with impunity. However, the Sri Lankan press won an important victory this year, when two air force officers were sentenced in February to nine years in prison for their role in a nighttime raid on the home of Iqbal Athas, a well-known defense correspondent for the English-language weekly The Sunday Times and a 1994 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. The raid, which occurred in February 1998, came in reprisal for a series of exposés on military corruption that Athas had written. Trial proceedings in the case had been repeatedly postponed and began in earnest only in May 2001, after CPJ sent letters protesting the delays to Sri Lanka’s attorney general and justice minister.

Relations between the government and the press deteriorated under the leadership of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who remains in power though her party lost control of Parliament in December elections. Kumaratunga has imposed censorship restrictions, particularly during political or military crises, and has used Sri Lanka’s criminal defamation laws to harass journalists. Two of the country’s leading editors were sentenced to jail in 2000 for allegedly defaming the president. In each case, the court issued a suspended sentence, but the threat of imprisonment remains. In August 2002, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of one of these editors, Sinha Ratnatunga of The Sunday Times.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, who was elected in December 2001, promised to improve the climate for the media. Soon after taking office, he discussed legal reforms with the country’s three leading media organizations–the Editors Guild, the Free Media Movement, and the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka. His Cabinet approved draft legislation to repeal the criminal defamation law in April, and in mid-June, Parliament unanimously voted to do so.

February 15

Frederica Jansz, The Sunday Leader

Jansz, an investigative reporter for the Colombo-based weekly The Sunday Leader, received a letter threatening her for her reporting on Sri Lankan security forces. In the letter, which was typed and written in English, the writer(s) “promise[s] to destroy me if I continue to write, adding that acid will be too kind a treatment,” Jansz told CPJ by e-mail.

Jansz filed a complaint with the Mirihana Police Department in Colombo, and local media reported on the threat. Following the reports, military spokesman Brig. Sanath Karunaratne called her to apologize and to offer army assistance. However, Jansz said that she could not be sure “if this letter is merely a hoax or a genuine threat.” She told CPJ that she writes on a broad range of subjects, including investigative articles on the security forces, but also on politics and social issues.

June 25

Ponnuthurai Sathsivanandam, Virakesari

Sathsivanandam, a stringer for the Tamil-language newspaper Virakesari, went into hiding after his home in the northeastern town of Mutur was attacked. Mutur, which is just south of the major port city Trincomalee, was one of several places in the northeast where violent clashes between Muslims and Tamils had erupted during the spring. The attack on Sathsivanandam’s home followed an interview he had given earlier in the day with the BBC’s Tamil service describing the unrest.

Sathsivanandam told the BBC that he believed the attack came in reprisal for his on-air statements. Sathsivanandam is, like most Tamils, a member of Sri Lanka’s Hindu minority. Muslims make up about 8 percent of the country’s population. Sri Lanka is dominated by ethnic Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhist.

August 8

Kodeeswaran Rushangan, Thinakkathir

At around 11 p.m., a group of about 10 masked men raided the office of Thinakkathir, a Tamil-language daily newspaper published in the eastern city of Batticaloa. The gang assaulted several members of the night staff, including the newspaper’s editor, Rushangan, and seized valuable office equipment, including computers, printers, tape recorders, and cameras, according to an official complaint filed by Thinakkathir. They also set fire to documents in the newspaper’s editorial room and library.

The intruders left abruptly, “in military style, at the blow of a whistle,” according to the Thinakkathir account, and drove off in a van with the stolen equipment. Newspaper management estimated they lost about 1.2 million rupees (US$12,500).

Journalists at the paper believe that a division of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a rebel group that has been fighting for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority for nearly two decades, committed the attack. The LTTE agreed to a cease-fire with the Sri Lankan government in February, but some human rights observers say the group has increased pressure on journalists and other critics during sensitive peace negotiations.

Manoranjan Rajasingam, Thinakkathir‘s chief editor and managing director, wrote an open letter claiming that a section of the LTTE in Batticaloa was responsible for the attack and calling on the LTTE leadership to “take immediate action to guarantee the freedom of the press.” Rajasingam claimed that the paper had received threats in response to recent political columns.

Thinakkathir filed complaints with police, the LTTE, and the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission, the government body charged with investigating violations of the cease-fire agreement.