Attacks on the Press 2003: Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan government’s fragile cease-fire with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), reached in February 2002 after 20 years of fighting, held throughout 2003 and brought a measure of stability to the media. But political tensions reached a crisis point on November 4, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga suspended Parliament and deployed troops in the capital, Colombo, while her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was out of the country on an official visit to the United States.

Citing security concerns, Kumaratunga fired key ministers and replaced them with her own appointees, including the minister of information, who is in charge of Sri Lanka’s far-reaching state-controlled media. The president also replaced the editors of state-run print and broadcast outlets with journalists aligned with her People’s Alliance party. The surprise move came one week after the Tamil rebels proposed a peace plan that formally renounced their goal of a separate state for Tamil nationals in Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern territories.

On November 5, Kumaratunga declared a state of emergency and introduced temporary emergency provisions, including media censorship and a ban on demonstrations. However, none of these provisions was enacted since the state of emergency was lifted two days later, on November 7, and replaced with less severe regulations giving extended power to the military. In an address to the country that day, Kumaratunga blamed the prime minister’s government for lapses in security and criticized his handling of the peace process. Talks with the Tamil rebels were suspended while the president and the prime minister faced off in a political showdown over the right to represent the country at the negotiating table. Unable to reach a compromise, Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe remained deadlocked at year’s end.

Amid the political crisis, local journalists groups called for the reform of Sri Lanka’s state-controlled media. In a November 6 press release, the Sri Lankan press freedom group Free Media Movement called the state-run media a “one-party propaganda machine,” criticized the government for appointing political allies to high-ranking positions at media outlets, and urged the government to take “steps to transform state media into genuine public service media institutions.”

The cease-fire brought journalists greater access to northern and eastern Sri Lanka in 2003. The military removed roadblocks and checkpoints, and there were fewer reported attacks on members of the media, according to local journalists. However, journalists say that self-censorship remains a major obstacle. Many media outlets are state-run and toe the government’s party line, while other private publications and broadcasters reflect specific political or ethnic viewpoints.

Journalists who wrote critical stories about government officials and Tamil rebel groups still risked threats and harassment in 2003. On May 7, Ponniah Manikavasagam, a regular contributor to the BBC and a correspondent for the Tamil-language daily Virakesari, received a phone call at his home in Vavuniya accusing him of supporting the LTTE and warning him that he would be “killed very soon.” The call was traced to an office run by the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front, a Tamil group strongly opposed to the Tigers.

On August 7, a group of LTTE activists ambushed a truck delivering the Tamil-language weekly Thinamurasu in Sunkankeni and burned about 5,000 copies. Thinamurasu is known for its reporting on LTTE human rights abuses and supports the Eelam People’s Democratic Party, a Tamil opposition party. According to the newspaper, two of its local correspondents also received death threats in June from an LTTE leader in the northern district of Mannar.

In July, Fisheries Minister Mahinda Wijesekera threatened to have Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of The Sunday Leader, stabbed or shot to death in retalia-tion for a series of investigative articles exposing corruption in his ministry. The minister made the threat in the lobby of Parliament in front of other government officials and also alluded to plans to kill two other newspaper editors, Ravaya editor Victor Ivan and Satana editor Rohana Kumara, according to a report in The Sunday Leader. Although the minister issued a statement denying those allegations, he reportedly made similar threats against the journalists in a closed government meeting on August 4. Sri Lankan press freedom groups condemned Wijesekera, but police never investigated the threats, showing that a climate of impunity continues to exist in Sri Lanka.