In May, senior journalist Iqbal Athas wrote to CPJ warning that press freedom conditions had deteriorated under President Mahinda Rajapaksa. By September, Athas, a well-known defense correspondent for The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka and a 1994 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner, had to leave the country temporarily in fear for his safety after angering officials with a story about the corruption-ridden purchase of MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine. That departure was not the first time Athas had fled Sri Lanka for his safety, but it was indicative of the pressures facing journalists who dared to take on the government.
The Athas incident galvanized the political opposition and the rest of the media, although most other attacks on the press drew little attention. Ethnic Tamil journalists faced the direst threats, with local and less prominent journalists the most likely to be targeted, Sunanda Deshapriya, a leader of the press freedom group Free Media Movement, told CPJ. In August, CPJ conducted a research mission to Sri Lanka, speaking with journalists about the extent and nature of the threat. Swept up in a 24-year-long conflict between the Sinhalese-dominated government and Tamil separatists, the nation is among the world’s deadliest for the press.
CPJ recorded the deaths of five journalists in 2007, all ethnic Tamils. On April 16, Subash Chandraboas, editor of the Tamil-language monthly magazine Nilam, was shot in his home near Vavuniya. In addition to his work for Nilam, Chandraboas was head of an alternative media network and was known as a poet. Vavuniya, 162 miles (260 kilometers) north of Colombo, had been the site of a number of killings in 2007, at least 25 in April alone. The targets, there and elsewhere, were usually Tamil journalists whose assailants were virtually never prosecuted.
On April 29, Selvarajah Rajeewarnam, a reporter for the Tamil-language daily Uthayan, was riding his bicycle to an assignment when he was shot by unidentified motorcycle-riding gunmen about 600 feet (180 meters) from a military checkpoint, according to Uthayan staffers. Rajeewarnam was a crime reporter who had recently switched jobs from the pro-Tamil Jaffna daily Namathu Eelanadu, which closed after its managing editor, Sinnathamby Sivamaharajah, was gunned down in August 2006.
Three journalists for the Voice of Tigers radio station in Kilinochchi—announcer Isaivizhi Chempiyan and technicians Suresh Linbiyo and T. Tharmalingam—were killed in a Sri Lankan Air Force air strike on November 27. Fighter jets dropped a dozen bombs on the station shortly before Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was due to broadcast a statement. At least five other people were killed in the strike against the LTTE-run station, according to local media reports.
Tamil-language media have taken the brunt of the government-led assault on the press, particularly in the north and east, where Tamil separatist groups have sought territory. A joint press freedom mission in October 2006—which included representatives from the International Federation of Journalists, the International Press Institute, and the International News Safety Institute—produced a highly critical report in January. The report found “a serious deterioration in the security situation for the Sri Lankan media with threats, abductions, and attacks committed by all parties to the conflict, and particularly paramilitary and militia groups.” Titled “The Struggle for Survival,” the report stated that “media practitioners are prevented from reporting freely and as a direct consequence press freedom and freedom of expression are severely restricted.” The media situation, the report said, is complicated by the fact that many journalists are openly partisan, favoring a particular side or faction within the conflict.
Threats, abductions, and attacks on journalists come from all sides. In the Tamil conflict areas, armed men from the government or rival Tamil groups, both in and out of uniform, operate with virtual impunity.
In the capital, Colombo, roving government agents and paramilitaries are usually behind the violence. Their vehicles of choice are often vans with tinted side glass and no license plates, driven by men in plain clothes. One reporter, Parameswaree Maunasámi, dared to write about the vans and the abductions in November 2006. Maunasámi, a Tamil writing for the Sinhalese-language weekly Mawbima (Motherland), was arrested and accused of associating with a young woman alleged to be a Tamil suicide bomber. Maunasámi, held for five months in a darkened cell infested with vermin and roaches, was eventually released with no charges brought against her. Though frightened, Maunasámi continued to pursue the abduction story and was soon followed for a time by a white van. She filed a complaint with the police, but no apparent investigation was launched.
In areas of conflict, publications that supported negotiated peace with the government were labeled traitorous and threatened by militant groups such as the LTTE. It was common for journalists to back away from their jobs and go into hiding, particularly when their families had been threatened. But threats did not have to come at street level, as they did for Maunasámi. In April, Champika Liyanarachchi, editor of the prominent Daily Mirror, told CPJ that Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa called her to complain about the paper’s coverage of sectarian fighting in Pottuvil in Ampara district. Rajapaksa was angered by an article that said Tamil rebels belonging to the breakaway Karuna faction of the LTTE were freely moving weapons within the government-controlled area. Liyanarachchi said Rajapaksa told her “that she should not expect any security from the government to protect her” against possible retaliation from the rebels.
Such intimidation is not likely to subside as long as the country remains at war. The LTTE started its rebellion in 1983 with the goal of establishing a separate state for the country’s 3.2 million Tamils. Before the government and rebels signed a cease-fire in 2002, some 65,000 people died. The situation grew more complicated in March 2004, when the LTTE split into two factions after a rebel leader known as Colonel Karuna formed his own rival army in eastern Sri Lanka. The LTTE accused the Sri Lankan army of supporting Karuna’s rebellion.
Emergency regulations from 2005 give the government wide powers to control the media. As in other countries, Sri Lankan authorities employ a vaguely worded “state secret” law to harass troublesome journalists against whom they do not otherwise have a case.
In June, the government proposed reinstating a criminal defamation law—repealed in 2002—that would include a two-year prison term and fine for anyone convicted of the offense. Justice Minister Dilan Perera introduced the resolution at a cabinet meeting with the backing of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, but three cabinet ministers dissented and the resolution was quietly taken off the table. It was, however, an indicator of the Rajapaksa government’s intention of silencing its critics.
The Free Media Movement’s Deshapriya cited two encouraging developments in 2007. During a three-day visit in May, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher publicly identified attacks on journalists as an area of concern. The United States, a major donor of food and economic and military assistance, has considerable influence with the country’s leadership. Boucher’s visit, coupled with the January release of the press freedom mission’s report, lent credibility and publicity to the issue of media freedom, Deshapriya said.
Still, Deshapriya and others said that press freedom problems were significant. “Some of us feel personally threatened,” Deshapriya wrote in an e-mail in November. Said Athas: “The harassment and threats have never been worse. This is easily the darkest chapter in my 42-year career in journalism.”