CPJ alarmed by Sri Lankan president’s comments against senior journalist

New York, August 3, 2005—
The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by intimidating remarks made by President Chandrika Kumaratunga against senior defense correspondent Iqbal Athas last week. Speaking to a closed meeting of 1,000 top military and police officials in Colombo on July 26, the president accused Athas of publishing sensitive information harmful to Sri Lanka’s national security, sources told local news reporters.

Kumaratunga threatened to use the Official Secrets Act against Athas and said the journalist had reported and exaggerated “gossip.” Athas, a veteran defense correspondent for the popular weekly The Sunday Times, reported the president’s remarks in a column on Sunday.

In his column, Athas said that the president’s remarks followed several articles that focused on government plans to purchase Sir Gallahad, a logistics landing craft, from Britain’s Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Athas said in a July 10 column that the purchase would be a waste of public money.

The Official Secrets Act allows the minister of defense to prohibit access to certain locations and facilities, and to bar photography and reporting about such secret information. Under the law, those convicted of gathering secret information can be subject to 14 years in prison.

No journalist has ever been charged under the act, but local sources told CPJ that the president’s comments were troubling and could have a chilling effect on reporting.

Athas told CPJ he fears for his safety and that the president’s comments in front of military personnel were meant to intimidate him. Athas has been threatened before, notably in 1998, when gunmen entered his home and tried to abduct him. He was honored with CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 1994.

“We’re appalled by these threatening remarks against our colleague Iqbal Athas who is being targeted for doing his job as a journalist by promoting debate on matters of public interest,” said Ann Cooper, CPJ’s executive director.