CPJ urges Sri Lankan president to ensure columnist’s safety

August 28, 2007

His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa
President of Sri Lanka and Minister of Defense, Public Security, Law and Order
Presidential Secretariat 
Colombo 1 
Sri Lanka 

Via facsimile: +94 11 2430 590

Dear President Rajapaksa:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by grave threats made against the veteran journalist Iqbal Athas. He has come under extraordinary pressure following his investigations into irregularities surrounding a 2006 deal to purchase MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine.

Athas told CPJ that his security detail was abruptly withdrawn by the government two weeks ago, after publication of an article about the deal. Athas said that he has been harassed and followed by unknown people since then, and that he now fears for his life and for the safety of his family.

CPJ calls on your government to act immediately to provide adequate security to ensure the safety of Athas, a well-known defense columnist for The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka and frequent contributor to international media outlets such as CNN, Jane’s Defense Weekly, and The Times of London. He received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 1994.

On August 12, Athas wrote a detailed investigative report in his regular Sunday Times column about the Ukrainian government’s own inquiry into the arms deal. The headline read: “MiGs loaded with millions in mega frauds; The Sunday Times investigation reveals shocking double-deals and wheeler-dealings; While Lanka remains hush-hush, Ukraine Govt. orders full probe.”

The Sinhala-language newspaper Lankadeepa, which is published by the same newspaper group that owns The Sunday Times, published a translated version of the article on August 14. The next day, on August 15, the personal security detail attached to Athas was abruptly withdrawn. The government had provided Athas with a security detail since April 2005, when it received credible intelligence reports that he may be targeted by members of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

On August 18, at around 9:20 p.m., the police guard stationed outside his home also was withdrawn without prior notice. A police guard had been posted outside Athas’ home, in the Nugegoda suburb of the capital, Colombo, since February 1998, when Sri Lankan Air Force personnel forcibly entered his home and threatened him and his daughter, then 7, at gunpoint. That attack came in retaliation for a series of investigative reports he wrote for The Sunday Times about corrupt weapons procurement practices.    

Despite the current fears for his safety, Athas published a follow-up article on the MiG deal, based on extensive independent reporting, on August 19.

Over the next days, Athas received warnings from several sources that his home may be raided by government agents. He says he has been followed repeatedly by unidentified people, and he suspects there may be an attempt to abduct him and question him about his reporting on the MiG deal.

On Monday, more than 50 people staged a demonstration outside Athas’ home, accusing him of threatening national security. A provincial politician belonging to the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, identified as Upali Kodikara, was seen at the demonstration and is believed to have been among the organizers.

Also Monday, a man claiming to be a retired Air Force officer walked into the offices of Wijeya Newspapers Ltd., publisher of The Sunday Times and Lankadeepa, and warned a staff member not to translate Athas’ articles into Sinhala. The man said the translator would face serious consequences if he ignored the warning, according to journalists present at the scene. The visitor also said that if Athas did not stop reporting and leave the country, he may share the fate of Tamil journalists killed by unknown gunmen.

Athas knew well the dangers he might face for reporting on these issues, but proceeded because of his concerns that such dealings could undermine Sri Lanka’s security. “Those dabbling in millions of dollars or billions of rupees in military procurements [tend to] get away in this paradise isle,” Athas wrote in his August 12 column. “The only casualties are those exposing them. They continue to become prime targets and many an embarrassed official want to hound them out. Little wonder, to some, war is big business.”

As an organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of our colleagues around the world, CPJ is deeply disturbed by the array of threats facing Iqbal Athas. The government must take responsibility for the safety and security of journalists in Sri Lanka, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the media.

We urge you to ensure that the government security detail and police guard provided for Athas are immediately and fully restored, and that reports of intimidation against the journalist and his employer are thoroughly investigated.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your response.


Joel Simon
Executive Director