SRI LANKA: CPJ urges president to halt attacks on correspondent

October 2, 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 greatly concerned by your government’s unwarranted attacks in various media on Iqbal Athas, associate editor and defense correspondent for The Sunday Times. Officials representing your government have effectively equated Athas’ critical journalism with terrorism, a wholly inappropriate position.

The attacks apparently stem from Athas’ recent reporting. His article on Sunday, “Heavy casualties as battles in north intensify,” describes your government’s battles with Tamil separatists, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The article reported, among other things, on the resistance that government troops are meeting, the casualties they are taking, and some of the successes they are generating. The article also questioned “whether the guerrillas would soon cross the threshold from maintaining a strict defensive posture to assume an offensive role.” Athas’ work addresses an issue of vital public importance in a way that–as journalism demands–encompasses varying points of view.

While your government might not be happy with such reporting, its response has been entirely disproportionate and unsubstantiated. A lengthy attack on Athas’ reporting appeared today on the Web site of the Ministry of Defense. It accuses Athas of “insulting our soldiers’ sacrifices” and claims that his reporting “has been assisting in the psychological operations of the LTTE terrorists.” The article claims that “promoting terrorism had become a lucrative business” for Athas.

The article is part of a larger attack on Athas. On Sunday, according to Athas and the media rights group Free Media Movement, military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said on national television that an article written by Athas “aims to discredit the government and the military” and “is a clear support to terrorism.”

Such unsubstantiated attacks on Athas’s integrity are out of order. If your government disagrees with his reporting, officials should counter it with facts, not with attacks on his character or his role as a journalist.

Athas has endured numerous threats and acts of intimidation during his career. As you know, he came under extraordinary pressure following his investigations into irregularities surrounding a 2006 deal to purchase MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine. CPJ sent a letter to you on August 28 when the government abruptly withdrew his security detail in the wake of the MiG-27 article. That Athas has continued to report on security matters reflects his courage and integrity as a journalist.

We urge you to immediately halt your government’s campaign to impugn Athas’ integrity and intimidate him and his family. A free press, one in which journalists can openly report without fear of reprisal, is the best antidote to terrorism.

Joel Simon
Executive Director