Sri Lankan journalist, still in jeopardy, says government never offered protection

New York, August 31, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists remains concerned about the safety of Sri Lankan journalist Iqbal Athas, who has come under threat after writing an August 12 article about alleged government misconduct in the procurement of MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine. Athas said that he has been harassed and followed by unknown people since then, and that he fears for his life and for the safety of his wife and daughter.

Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, the government’s non-cabinet media minister, told a news conference in Colombo on Thursday that the Defense Ministry had offered police security for Athas’ house. He said the journalist declined the offer, insisting on a security detail from a unit known as the Special Task Force. Abeywardena’s comments were cited widely in Sri Lankan media, including the English-language Daily Mirror.

The journalist, interviewed by CPJ in Colombo, said the government made no such offer.

“Abeywardena’s claims are not true,” Athas told CPJ. “There has been no offer of protection of any kind and I still feel in jeopardy—even more so after the unruly demonstration outside of my house on Monday.” A rowdy pro-government crowd protested outside Athas’s house, accusing him of antigovernment activity.

“The government’s assertion about offering police protection is not correct. The fact that a top official resorted to such a distortion makes this situation more worrisome,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “The government should accept responsibility for the safety of Iqbal Athas just as they would for any other citizen.”
Athas is an award-winning journalist who specializes in defense issues. His investigative work has drawn prior threats, prompting the government to provide police protection. That protection was withdrawn two weeks ago—just after publication of Athas’ August 12 story about irregularities surrounding a 2006 deal to purchase MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine.
On Tuesday, CPJ sent a letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and other members of the government, calling for the immediate restoration of adequate security to ensure Athas’ safety and that of his family. Athas, well-known for his columns in The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka, is a frequent contributor to international media outlets such as CNN, Jane’s Defense Weekly, and The Times of London.