Attacks on the Press 2005: Sri Lanka


The slow unraveling of a cease-fire between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) complicated Sri Lanka’s efforts to recover from the December 2004 tsunami and hindered the media’s ability to cover the disaster and other important stories. Two Tamil journalists were murdered in 2005 and others were threatened. Independent journalists were not only caught in the feuding between the government and the rebels, known as the Tamil Tigers, but also in the conflict between Tamil factions.

Any sense of national solidarity that arose following the tsunami, which killed 30,000 people on the island, was short-lived. The LTTE accused the government of failing to help the Tiger-controlled areas of the ravaged east coast. Under international pressure, President Chandrika Kumaratunga agreed to share international relief aid with the Tigers. The deal stalled, however, after intense opposition by the hard-line Sinhalese nationalist party, the People’s Liberation Front (JVP).

The east, which bore the brunt of the tsunami, was also hit by violence between the Tigers and a splinter group led by a rebel commander known as Colonel Karuna. The government denied an LTTE allegation that the Karuna faction, which emerged in March 2004, was backed by the Sri Lankan army. But many international observers believe that the government is involved in the inter-Tamil conflict, making that fighting a breach of the cease-fire. The killings ebbed following the tsunami but soon resumed, with both sides targeting each other’s supporters, including journalists.

In April, veteran Tamil journalist Dharmeratnam Sivaram was seized outside a police station in the capital, Colombo, and shot dead. Sivaram was a founding member and contributor to the TamilNet news Web site and a military and political columnist for the English-language Daily Mirror. He had written sympathetically about Tamil nationalism and the Tigers, putting him at odds with the government and, more recently, with the Karuna faction. Accused by state media in 2001 of being a spy for the LTTE, Sivaram had been under threat for years. In 2004, police twice searched his house looking for weapons. His last article in a Tamil-language newspaper had criticized Karuna.

Police launched an investigation into Sivaram’s death that yielded one arrest—a member of the formerly militant and now mainstream People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), which opposes the LTTE. Another man was arrested but later released for lack of evidence. These developments did not, however, ease the doubts of many Sivaram supporters, who saw the government as unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute the journalist’s killers. Police had yet to make any arrests in connection with the murders of two Tamil journalists in 2004.

After condemning Sivaram’s killing, members of the Free Media Movement, an advocacy organization based in Colombo, received death threats in May from a group calling itself “Theraputtabhaya Force” that claimed responsibility for Sivaram’s murder. The group is named for a Buddhist monk who fought Tamils in the second century B.C. The editor of the English-language Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickramatunga, requested police protection after a government official called him a terrorist. Other journalists feared that they would be targeted in retaliation for Sivaram’s murder because they had written critically about the Tamil Tigers.

Tamil journalists abroad also reported threats from rival groups that escalated in the wake of Sivaram’s murder. In May, burglars broke into the London offices of the exiled Tamil radio station Tamil Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) and stole equipment, temporarily forcing the station off the air. The station’s program director, V. Ramaraj, blamed the LTTE for the attack.

On August 12 in Colombo, unidentified gunmen killed popular Tamil broadcaster Relangi Selvarajah and her husband. Selvarajah was a radio and television host for the state-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and for the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation. Local newspapers reported that Selvarajah also produced an SLBC program that was known for criticizing the LTTE. Her husband was affiliated with PLOTE, raising the possibility that their killings might be related to Sivaram’s murder. Political leaders blamed the Tigers, who denied the charges. No arrests had been reported by year’s end.

On the same day, assassins killed Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The Tamil Tigers were widely blamed for the assassination, but they denied responsibility. The killing was seen as a major blow to the peace process, which has been stalled since the LTTE walked out of negotiations in 2003. In November, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse was elected president in a tight race against the more moderate opposition candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe. LTTE leaders had denounced both candidates, and turnout was low in Tamil areas. Rajapakse’s win raised more questions about the possibilities for peace; the new president’s supporters opposed concessions to the Tigers, including the prospect of power sharing.

Independent reporting on the conflict in the rebel-held north and east is rare, and journalists in Sri Lanka have recognized the need for media that are free of political influence to meet the challenge. For Tamil journalists and media workers in particular, the tight link between some newspapers and political actors is a dangerous one; media workers are often targeted for their perceived association with militant factions. In June, Kannamuthu Arasakumar, a distributor of the pro-LTTE newspaper Eelanathan, was killed while traveling between Batticaloa and Ampara in the eastern region.

But even the most independent reporters put themselves at risk when covering military issues. In July, Kumaratunga accused defense correspondent Iqbal Athas of publishing information harmful to Sri Lanka’s national security and threatened legal action against him. Athas, a reporter for the English-language Sunday Times, was honored with CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 1994. No charges were brought against him, but the president’s remarks, delivered in front of military personnel, were perceived as a threat to his security.

As the mid-November presidential election approached, fears increased in anticipation of the same violence that had accompanied previous elections. In late August, the Colombo-based Tamil-language newspaper Sudar Oli, which had been targeted previously by both LTTE and anti-LTTE forces, was again hit by a spate of attacks. On August 29, grenades lobbed into its printing works killed a guard and injured two staff members. Also in August, three Sudar Oli reporters were assaulted; in one case, JVP activists protesting LTTE killings mobbed a photographer and turned him over to the police as a member of the LTTE. Police released him the next day.

In October, two attacks targeted Thinamurasu, a Tamil-language newspaper associated with the Eelam People’s Democratic Party, which opposes the LTTE. Kingsley Weeratana, a distributor for Thinamurasu, was shot and killed while handing out the newspaper in Colombo. Fifteen minutes later, a van parked outside the newspaper’s office exploded. No one was injured in that attack.

Later that month, a group of armed men entered a building south of Colombo that housed the printing press for the English-language weeklies Sunday Leader and Midweek Leader, and the Sinhala-language weekly Irudina. The men set fire to bundles of newspaper and warned the factory manager to stop publishing the papers, the Sunday Leader‘s Wickramatunga told CPJ. The attack came shortly after the Sunday Leader published allegations that the prime minister had misappropriated funds intended for tsunami relief.