Editor injured in latest media assault

New York, January 23, 2009–President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government must act to stem a worsening security crisis in the media in the wake of another attack on a Sri Lankan newspaper editor outside the capital, Colombo, this morning, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Four men on motorcycles blocked Upali Tennakoon, editor of the Rivira Media Corporation-owned Sinhala-language weekly Rivira, in his car near his home in the town of Imbulgoda, just north of Colombo, according to local and international news reports. His wife, Dhammika, a passenger in the vehicle, shielded him as the men smashed the windshield and attacked him with knives and sticks. After the assailants fled the scene, the couple were taken to Colombo National Hospital and treated for multiple lacerations, which were not life-threatening, the reports said. Dhammika Tennakoon works for Sri Lanka’s University Grants Commission, according to its Web site.

The attack bore striking parallels with the January 8 shooting of The Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunga, who died in a hospital after several bullets were fired at him from close range through a shattered car window. He had also been driving to work on the outskirts of the capital.  

“As these attacks on the media continue, we become increasingly skeptical about official claims that they will be investigated,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “It is time for the Rajapaksa government to act decisively to bring a worsening situation under control.”

Reuters characterized Rivira as a relatively neutral newspaper, yet its parent company has suffered harassment before. Critical defense columnist Keith Noyahr with Rivira‘s English-language sister paper The Nation was severely beaten during a night-long abduction in May.

Past assaults have often targeted government critics. Gunmen disrupted broadcasts when they torched parts of Maharaja TV studios earlier this month after the station drew condemnation from state-controlled media for “unpatriotic” coverage of the government’s war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Wickramatunga’s murder made the danger of offending the authorities yet more plain. “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me,” he predicted in an editorial published posthumously by the Leader.

The government announced Friday that a special police team would be investigating the attacks, according to The Associated Press. But Wickramatunga had foreseen this too. His editorial addressed the president directly: “In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too.”