CPJ troubled by second arrest at a critical newspaper in Sri Lanka

New York, March 1, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is troubled by the arrest on Saturday of the publisher of the Sunday Standard and Sinhala-language Mawbima newspaper in Sri Lanka.

The editors of Mawbima said that Dushyantha Basnayake’s arrest was part of a “campaign of harassment” against the newspaper which began after it published articles criticizing Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and reporting on accusations of human rights violations committed by his brother, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse.

“We had to think twice before writing any story that exposed corruption in any Ministry under President Rajapakse,” the editors wrote in a statement issued Monday. “Most times we were forced to cancel such articles.”

The Terrorist Investigation Division detained Basnayake, director of Standard Newspapers (Pvt.) Limited, at 10 p.m. Saturday in Colombo, according to his colleagues and local news reports. Basnayake has not been charged with a crime, and is being held under the recently re-activated Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), that allows for lengthy detention without charge or trial. The Act had not been used since the ceasefire in 2002 temporarily ended hostilities between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

A Tamil employee of the same weekly, Parameswaree Maunasámi, has been jailed for more than three months under the same law. Authorities have not made public their allegations against her, but deny that her detention is related to her journalism.

“We are disturbed by the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in connection with Mawbima, which has been outspoken in its criticism of the President,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Politically motivated attacks on the media shrink the already narrow space for reporting on matters of public interest in Sri Lanka.”

Before Basnayake’s arrest, President Rajapakse singled out Mawbima in a press conference, and accused it of favoring the LTTE, a charge which its editors deny.

Journalists in Sri Lanka told CPJ that coverage of political and defense matters has become increasingly difficult after PTA was reactivated last year, and that self-censorship is common.