Attacks on the Press 2006: Sri Lanka


Hopes that the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels would be able to salvage their crumbling cease-fire were dashed in 2006. By September, the military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were again locked in combat in the north and east of the country. While the conflict looked similar to that of past years, the government did permit a freer flow of information about the separatist fighting and did not impose the censorship that had prevailed in earlier years. But impunity continued to be the rule for those who attacked journalists and media facilities, despite international pressure from press freedom and human rights groups on both sides of the conflict.

The LTTE had launched its rebellion in 1983 seeking to establish a separate state for the country’s 3.2 million Tamils. Before the government and rebels signed a cease-fire in 2002, some 65,000 people died. The situation grew more complicated in March 2004, when the LTTE split into two factions after a rebel leader known as Colonel Karuna formed his own rival army in eastern Sri Lanka. The LTTE accused the Sri Lankan army of supporting Karuna’s rebellion.

Tamil journalists have been particular targets of hit squads and bombings, accounting for all seven of the journalist murders in Sri Lanka between 2000 and 2005. The source of these targeted attacks is not always the government or groups linked to the Sinhalese ethnic majority. Some of the attacks are tit-for-tat killings, the result of rivalries among the various armed Tamil groups.

Subramaniyam Sugitharajah, a reporter for the Tamil-language daily Sudar Oli, was shot and killed on his way to work in January—just a few weeks after his published photographs contradicted an official military account. The photos showed that five men said to have been killed by their own hand grenades during an attack on the military had actually been shot.

CPJ sent a letter on February 22 to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and LTTE leader Anton Balasingham, calling on all parties in the conflict to recognize that journalists 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.

Tamil media facilities were also attacked during the year. On October 16, Sri Lankan Air Force planes destroyed the broadcasting towers of the Voice of Tigers (VOT), the LTTE radio station in the northern guerrilla-held town of Killinochchi. The LTTE said that two workers, whom it did not identify, were injured in the strike. The government’s Media Centre for National Security said the VOT radio tower was not directly targeted but could have been damaged during air strikes on other LTTE targets in the area.

One Tamil newspaper was targeted repeatedly, but the source of the violence was not clear. On May 2, five masked gunmen killed two employees and wounded at least two others, one seriously, when they sprayed the offices of the Jaffna-based Tamil newspaper Uthayan with automatic weapon fire. On August 19, warehouses containing the paper’s printing equipment were burned down. Four days earlier, an Uthayan driver was killed in Jaffna.

For Uthayan, the situation had become so dire that E. Saravanapavan, the paper’s managing director, contacted CPJ on September 7 to make a public plea: “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 made the call from Colombo, where he had moved because he was afraid he would be attacked if he continued to live and work in Jaffna. He said some Uthayan staffers, fearing for their lives, rarely ventured onto the streets, living instead in the paper’s offices. CPJ has documented a series of attacks on Uthayan dating back to 1999. Despite the newest threats and the flaccid government response, the paper has continued to appear regularly.

The northern Jaffna peninsula was the site of most military conflicts between government and Tamil forces, but other regions were not immune. On July 31, the Tamil-language dailies Thinakkural in Amparai district and Sudar Oli (a sister publication of Uthayan) in Batticaloa district stopped distributing after receiving threatening phone calls. Both newspapers eventually resumed production, but the circulation of Sudar Oli dropped by a third, the paper’s management said. On October 23, about 20,000 copies of the Tamil daily Virakesari were seized from the paper’s distributor and burned. In a press statement made in Colombo, the paper’s owners said they thought the Karuna faction of the LTTE was responsible for the attack.

The media situation is complicated by the fact that many journalists are openly partisan, favoring a particular side or faction within the conflict. Despite their overt political positions, in its February 22 letter CPJ called “on all parties to recognize that even journalists who choose political sides are not valid targets for arrest or abuse.” Yet such partisanship, coupled with the government’s unwillingness to assert its authority and pursue assailants, adds to the ongoing threats facing all Sri Lankan journalists—partisan or not.