Sri Lankan investigative reporter detained and his editor questioned

New York, October 25, 2007—Sri Lankan authorities should immediately release Sunday Leader reporter Arthur Wamanan Sornalingam, who was detained in Colombo on Wednesday in connection with a story critical of a government minister, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Sornalingam and his mother, with whom he lives, were picked up by Criminal Investigation Division officers at 4:30 a.m. from their home, according to Lasantha Wickrematunga, The Sunday Leader’s editor-in-chief, and the Sri Lankan press freedom group Free Media Movement. The reporter appeared before the acting magistrate of Mount Lavinia and was ordered held until November 7; his mother was released. He has not been formally charged.

The arrests stemmed from a complaint filed by Enterprise Development Minister Mano Wijeratne over a story published Sunday and headlined, “Minister gets Gem Authority to pay wife’s roaming charges.” The piece alleged that the government-run Gem and Jewelry Authority had paid Bharathi Davina Wijeratne’s roaming cell phone bill. Wijeratne said in parliament on Tuesday that a person named Arthur had called him on Saturday demanding 5 million rupees (US$44,460) not to publish the story.

Wickrematunga said in an e-mail message to CPJ that the accusation was baseless. The Sunday Leader’s investigative editor, Dilrukshi Handunetti, was present when the reporter called the minister on Saturday to seek his comment for the story, and there was no discussion of a bribe, according to Wickrematunga. During the call, the minister warned Sornalinmgam not to publish the story, Wickrematunga said. Sornalingam’s mother, whose name was not immediately available, had apparently been detained because the reporter used her phone to make the call.

Police summoned Handunetti today and forced her to hand over documents used to write the article, according to local press reports.

“We are concerned that this is yet another example of those in authority using their influence to silence critical journalists,” said Joel Simon, CPJ executive director. “Arthur Wamanan Sornalingam should be released, and the minister should either produce evidence to support his accusation of extortion or withdraw it immediately and publicly.”