Sri Lanka arrests six in connection with news Web site

New York, March 11, 2008—Six people affiliated with the Sri Lankan news Web site OutreachSL have been detained by the Terrorist Investigation Division of the Sri Lankan police force in Colombo since last week, according to Agence France-Presse and local news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists urges the government of Sri Lanka to charge these journalists and media workers or release them from police custody.

“The detention of these journalists and media workers is troubling,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The Sri Lankan government must clarify why they are being held and either charge them or release them immediately. The fact that four of them are Tamil journalists and media workers is an indicator of how vulnerable this group is to harassment by the Sri Lankan authorities.”

The six individuals, including journalists, editorial, and management staff of the multimedia news Web site OutreachSL, were detained separately between Thursday and Saturday last week, according to local press freedom group the Free Media Movement (FMM).

The six have not appeared in court, and it is not clear if they have been allowed access to legal council, FMM spokesman Sunanda Deshapriya told CPJ.

Three journalists, OutreachSL editor J.S. Tissanayagam, who also writes a column for Sri Lankan weekly The Sunday Times;S. Ranga, a photographer; and K. Wijesingha, a video cameraman for the Web site, were among the detained, according to The Sunday Times Web site. First names were not reported.

A fourth journalist, the Web site’svisual editor who was identified only as Udayanan, was also arrested on Friday, according to Deshapriya and the Tamil nationalist Web site TamilNet.

Two others, N. Jasiharan, who manages OutreachSL and owns a printing business, and his wife Valarmathi, were detained on Thursday night, Deshapriya told CPJ. TamilNet reported that Valarmathi is a management trainee with the independently owned Sri Lankan MTV news and entertainment television network.

Wijesingha and Udayanan are ethnic Sinhalese; the other four are Tamil, according to Deshapriya.

According to police records obtained by the FMM, Jasiharan is being investigated for links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Deshapriya said. The records said the other five had been detained for questioning, he said.

OutreachSL, a news Web site, is not known for controversial reporting. It is not clear what sparked the detentions, Deshapriya told CPJ. A journalist based in Colombo who declined to be identified told CPJ that Tissanayagam’s Times column, “Telescope,” offered a Tamil viewpoint of current affairs and was sometimes critical of the government.

Deputy Inspector General W. Prathapasinghe confirmed the arrests on Sunday, according to The Sunday Times. CPJ calls and e-mails to police in Colombo were not immediately returned.  

Another FMM spokesman, S. Sivakumar, who edits the bimonthly Tamil magazine Sarinihar—which is printed by Jasiharan’s printing company E-Kwality—was also detained for nearly 12 hours on Saturday, Deshapriya told CPJ. Police visited Sivakumar’s office on Saturday morning and held his cousin there until Sivakumar arrived and agreed to be taken in for questioning, Deshapriya said.

The Free Media Movement and The Sunday Times reported that the detentions were made under emergency regulations. Sri Lanka’s August 2005 emergency regulations allow detentions of up to 12 months without charge, while some provisions of the longstanding Prevention of Terrorism Act, which were re-enacted in December 2006, allow for 18-month detentions.

Families of the detained had not yet been given detention orders for their relatives, Deshapriya said.