In Sri Lanka, arsonists strike printing press as attacks escalate

New York, October 17, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns recent violent attacks on the Sri Lankan media and the apparent escalation of the assaults ahead of November’s presidential election. In the most recent incident on Sunday, unidentified men set fire to the printing press of a newspaper group that was critical of the government.

At around 8 p.m., as many as 10 men entered a building in Ratmalana, south of the capital Colombo, where the printing press is housed for the English-language weeklies Sunday Leader and Midweek Leader, and the Sinhala-language weekly Irudina, Sunday Leader Editor-in-Chief Lasantha Wickramatunga told CPJ. The armed men set fire to bundles of newspaper in the printing offices and warned the factory manager to stop publishing them, according to Wickramatunga. The armed men hit the factory manager and stole his mobile phone and some cash.

The fire was doused before it could do serious damage to the printing press.

Wickramatunga said that a police report was filed and the newspapers planned to continue publishing. He told CPJ that he was aware of no threats prior to Sunday’s incident.

The Sunday Leader and Irudina are known for their critical reporting on the government. CPJ has documented several threats and attacks in recent years against the Sunday Leader editor, who requested police protection in May after a government official publicly accused him of being a “terrorist.”

The Sunday Leader recently published a series investigating allegations that the prime minister had misappropriated funds intended for tsunami relief.

“We condemn these violent attacks on our colleagues, which appear to be politically motivated,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on the government to ensure that journalists can work safely and freely, especially in the run-up to the presidential election.”

Sunday’s incident followed two attacks on another newspaper based in Colombo. On October 6, a parked van exploded outside the offices of Thinamurasu, a Tamil-language newspaper associated with the Eelam People’s Democratic Party. The party is considered moderate and opposes the militant group Liberation of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While no one was injured in that attack, it came just 15 minutes after Kingsley Weeratana, a distributor for Thinamurasu, was shot and killed while handing out the newspaper.

Police suspect the LTTE of involvement in both attacks on Thinamurasu, charges the group has denied. Local journalists fear that attacks may continue to escalate as the November 17 presidential election approaches.