Sri Lanka: Tamil newspaper pleads for protection from attacks

New York, September 8, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Sri Lankan authorities to fulfill their duty to protect the staff of the pro-Tamil Jaffna newspaper Uthayan, which was threatened and coerced on Thursday. The incident was the latest in a series of attacks and acts of intimidation against the newspaper.

E. Saravanapavan, Uthayan’s managing director, said two men, one brandishing a pistol,
forced their way into the papers’ offices around 7:45 p.m. The men threatened the staff with harm if they did not print a statement telling Jaffna students to call off a school boycott they were planning, Saravanapavan said. He said the men were among a group of six armed motorcyclists who arrived outside the newspaper’s offices.

Saravanapavan said Uthayan’s staff felt compelled to print the statement. He said the newspaper’s efforts to get government protection have been ignored.

“Please tell everyone that I have repeatedly asked the government for protection for my staff, and I have appealed to all of the high commissions and to everyone I can think of in civil society organizations to help us. The government has removed all protection from my staff, despite our repeated pleas for assistance,” Saravanapavan told CPJ from Colombo. He said he had moved to the capital recently because he feared that he would be attacked if he continued to live and work in Jaffna. He said some Uthayan staffers, fearing for their lives, no longer ventured onto public streets and were living in the paper’s offices.

Saravanapavan said he told the government’s Civil Affairs Office in Jaffna that he suspects state agents were involved in the threat, but he said he was given no response. He said he based his suspicion on the fact that the motorcyclists travelled unfettered in a high-security area despite a government curfew. Officials in the Civil Affairs Office said they would not speak with CPJ about Saravanapavan’s assertions.

“We are greatly concerned about the safety of Uthayan’s staff and the growing threat to all journalists in Sri Lanka’s civil conflict,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “It’s past time for all parties in Sri Lanka’s civil conflict to respect the lives and rights of all of the country’s media workers. We also on call police and other government authorities to do their jobs by protecting all citizens, including these journalists.”

The newspaper and its staff have been attacked three times already this year. Here are details:

• On August 19, warehouses containing Uthayan’s printing equipment were burned to the ground. Four days earlier, on August 15, an Uthayan driver was killed in Jaffna. See CPJ’s August 21 alert.

• On May 2, five masked gunmen killed two employees and wounded at least two others, one seriously, when they sprayed the paper’s Jaffna office with automatic weapons fire. See CPJ’s May 2 alert.

In an open letter on February 22, CPJ called on all parties in Sri Lanka’s civil conflict to recognize that even journalists who choose political sides are not valid targets for arrest or abuse. “We urge all sides to make a commitment to ensure that journalists are able to carry out their duties without fear of intimidation or reprisal,” CPJ said in its message to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader Anton Balasingham, and members of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, who are overseeing the 2002 ceasefire. See CPJ’s February 22 letter.