Journalists receive death threats as tensions rise

New York, May 12, 2005—Two journalists with the Sri Lankan press freedom organization Free Media Movement (FMM) received death threats on Tuesday at the group’s headquarters in the capital, Colombo. Several other journalists also said they are under threat in the wake of the abduction and murder of veteran Tamil journalist Dharmeratnam Sivaram late last month.

Victor Ivan, editor of the Sinhala-language tabloid Ravaya and FMM organizer, and Sunanda Deshaprita, FMM spokesman and freelance journalist, received letters from an alleged Sinhalese extremist group calling itself “Theraputtabhaya force. The letters, signed by a person identified only as Commander Mayadunne, threatened all “traitors” and said they should be ready to become “fertilizer of the motherland.”

The group also claimed responsibility for the April 28 murder of Sivaram, who was a founding member of the TamilNet news Web site and a columnist for the English language Daily Mirror who wrote sympathetically about the rebel group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Local sources say that the FMM may be a target for extremist groups because it condemned Sivaram’s murder and has supported calls for a negotiated peace to end Sri Lanka’s longstanding civil war.

Several journalists have reported being under threat. Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of the English-language paper The Sunday Leader, sent a letter to Sri Lanka’s police chief last week requesting police protection after a government official publicly accused him of being a “terrorist,” The Associated Press reported. Other local journalists told CPJ that they fear being targeted in retaliation for Sivaram’s killing because they have written critically about the LTTE or are perceived as sympathetic to the government.

With peace talks between the LTTE and the government stalled and millions of dollars of tsunami aid money frozen pending an agreement between the two sides about distribution rights, political vitriol and violence are on the rise, sources told CPJ. Since the LTTE split into two warring factions last year, tensions between the rival Tamil groups have escalated and journalists have become increasingly vulnerable to attack.

“We are alarmed by the rising threats against our colleagues, and call on authorities to find those responsible for these crimes. All sides of this conflict must respect the rights of journalists and help safeguard the free flow of information in Sri Lanka,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said.

Exiled Tamil journalists also claim new threats from rival sides of the Tamil community.
Oslo-based Tamil journalist Sethurupan Nadarajah said that he has been targeted with death threats on several Web sites, and V. Ramraj, program director of the London-based Tamil Broadcasting Corporation, said that he has received threats.