Press freedom in Sri Lanka continues to deteriorate

June 13, 2008

President Mahinda Rajapaksa
President of Sri Lanka,
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 alarmed by your government’s policies toward journalists who write critically about the conflict between Sri Lanka’s military forces and Tamil secessionists. We have seen an increase in harassment, intimidation, and detention of reporters, many of whom are columnists in senior positions with well-established careers. Police have failed to investigate threats to journalists who cover elections or expose alleged corruption or misdeeds. They have also never investigated the death of a television journalist.

Those who wish to harass, harm, or even kill journalists can operate with relative impunity in Sri Lanka. Your government, particularly the Ministry of Defense, has done nothing, even as violence escalates in many parts of the country.

Based on our research, we have concluded that your government is stifling news reporting that it finds inconvenient precisely because those reports attempt to accurately reflect the ebb and flow of such a war. Suppressing journalists will neither alter the course of the conflict nor generate more public support for it.

Of particular concern is the fact that the Defense Ministry has repeatedly used its Web site to denounce and even condemn journalists, often individually by name and at other times as a group, for their reporting on the conflict and the activities of the ministry and the armed forces. In recent weeks it has accused eight media outlets of traitorous behavior–an incredibly strong term to use during a time of such intense conflict, and one clearly meant to intimidate, given that no charges have been brought against any of the organizations. The eight named on the ministry’s Web site were Sirasa TV, The Sunday Leader, The Morning Leader, Irudina (the Sinhala-language Sunday weekly of  The Sunday Leader group), the Daily Mirror, The Sunday Times, and the Web sites  Lanka Dissent and Lanka e-news.

The ministry’s May 31 posting was exceptionally chilling. It clearly implies that anyone reporting negative news about the military or the ministry’s activities is guilty of treachery or worse:

“Whoever attempts to reduce the public support to the military by making false allegations and directing baseless criticism at armed forces personnel is supporting the terrorist organization that continuously murder citizens of Sri Lanka. The Ministry will continue to expose these traitors and their sinister motives and does not consider such exposure as a threat to media freedom. Those who commit such treachery should identify themselves with the LTTE rather than showing themselves as crusaders of Media Freedom.”

Our concerns grew deeper after a front-page story ran in the June 3 issue of the Daily Mirror. The story quoted Defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, who said the views expressed on the Web site were the ministry’s own and did not reflect the view of the government. Certainly, your government ministries answer to you, and their official statements reflect your government’s policies. Mr. Rambukwella’s statement is even more disconcerting given that Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is your brother. And as minister of Defense, Public Security, Law and Order, you must also bear responsibility for such statements. 

Beyond these overt attacks from the Defense Ministry, there are many recent incidents that have caused such great concern for us:

• After 90 days in detention, senior journalist J.S. Tissainayagam was detained for another three months without charges, on June 6. Mr. Tissainayagam writes political opinion, particularly on matters relating to the Tamil ethnic minority, for the mainstream Sunday Times and ran a Web site, Outreach, which your government has claimed is maintained “with the financial backing of the LTTE”–the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. He has been held since March 7 by the Terrorist Investigation Division under the Emergency Regulations of 2005. To date he has not been charged with a crime. Several Sri Lankan media reports say he is being held in solitary confinement.

• The killing of popular Sirasa Television reporter Paranirupasingam Devakumar has gone unexplained. Mr. Devakumar was gunned down in the Jaffna peninsula in the Northern Province on May 15, 2008, in an area that is under military control. The unprosecuted and, as far as we can determine, apparently uninvestigated death of one of the few independent reporters still working in that area of conflict has left a bitter scar not only in the journalists’ community but in Sri Lanka as a whole.

• The overnight abduction on May 22-23 and vicious beating of Keith Noyahr, a deputy editor at the English-language weekly The Nation, remains largely uninvestigated, according to several of our Sri Lankan colleagues. We have not been able to communicate with Mr. Noyahr since the incident, but suspect that he was so severely abused because of his writing on military matters. Our colleagues in Sri Lanka tell us they fear he was attacked because of a piece he wrote on irregularities in national awards in the army.
• We are also greatly concerned by the ongoing threats directed toward Iqbal Athas, the consultant editor/defense correspondent of The Sunday Times, who has stopped writing his weekly defense column as a result. He has told CPJ that a pro-government radio station has–on an almost daily basis–broadcast slanderous and vituperative statements against him, in addition to attacks on the Defense Ministry’s Web site. Mr. Athas is the 1994 winner of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, and has been a longtime CPJ associate. For such a widely respected figure to cease his work in journalism because of threats is a travesty. The personal security detail provided to Mr. Athas by the government was withdrawn last August. He tells us he continues to be followed by people unknown to him, and is greatly concerned that on June 3, on both the state-run Rupavahini national television network and the state-owned Independent Television Network, Defense Secretary Rajapaksa singled out Mr. Athas by name for his reporting for The Sunday Times.

• Also of concern to CPJ are the attacks on Muslim journalists covering elections in the Eastern province, as far as we have been able to determine, have gone uninvestigated by local police. According to Sri Lankan media reports, the most recent attack came on June 5 against M.A.C. Jalees, who was assaulted by supporters of the ruling political party who took away his camera. Journalists T.L.M. Joufer Khan, M.S.M. Noordeen, and Moulavi S.M.M. Musthapha, were either threatened or assaulted in the same area.

President Rajapaksa, we recognize that your government is involved in an ongoing conflict with Tamil secessionists. But the security of the nation will not be enhanced by policies that curtail one of the most basic rights guaranteed in Article 14 of Sri Lanka’s Constitution–the right to freedom of expression. We call on you to reverse the direction in which your government has turned, and restore to journalists throughout the country the right to freely report without fear or intimidation.

We eagerly await your reply.


Joel Simon
Executive Director