Attacks on the Press in 2008: Sri Lanka

A 2002 cease-fire between the predominantly Sinhalese government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which claims territory for an ethnic Tamil homeland, was abandoned in January. Ethnic Tamil journalists perceived as supporting independence have long been under murderous attack, but 2008 brought an escalation in physical and verbal attacks on mainstream journalists who dared to be critical of the government’s military operations.

On January 2, in an interview in the state-controlled Sinhala daily Dinamina, the commander of the Sri Lankan army, Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, called unnamed journalists “traitors” and referred to the “treachery” of the media. According to a translation of Fonseka’s remarks supplied by the Sri Lankan media rights group Free Media Movement, he said: “The biggest obstacle [to fighting Tamil separatists] is the unpatriotic media. I am not blaming all journalists. I know 99 percent of media and journalists are patriotic and doing their jobs properly. But unfortunately, we have a small number of traitors among the journalists. They are the biggest obstacle. All other obstacles we can surmount.”

At a press conference on January 7, Minister of Social Services and Social Welfare K.N. Douglas Devananda, a Tamil, called the respected senior journalist Sri Ranga Jeyarathnam, also a Tamil, a “traitor” and accused him of being in league with the LTTE. Devananda made his remarks after Jeyarathnam aired a documentary on the Shakthi TV program “Minnal” that investigated the assassination of Tamil opposition politician T. Maheshvaran on New Year’s Day. The use of terms like “traitor” and  “treachery” are more than overheated rhetoric. They are legally charged and enable the government to make use of the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act to detain people for extended periods without trial.

The government’s verbal assaults set the tone for the rest of the year, and the situation steadily deteriorated. In June, President Mahinda Rajapaksa held a series of meetings with news editors and owners of media institutions at his residence, Temple Trees. According to some of the journalists at the meeting, he told them not to criticize the army, including its weapons procurement deals, because doing so would harm military operations.

By October, the government issued new television ownership and content rules aimed at quashing criticism. Under the new regulations, owners were barred from having political affiliations and stations were prohibited from airing content considered detrimental to national security. Violations could lead to suspension of broadcast licenses.

Sri Lanka placed fifth on CPJ’s Impunity Index, a ranking of countries where governments have consistently failed to solve journalists’ murders. The index, compiled for the first time in 2008, calculated the number of unsolved journalist murders for the years 1998 through 2007 as a percentage of the population in each country. Only Iraq, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Colombia have worse prosecution records when it comes to pursuing killers of journalists.

The killing of journalists with impunity by both government security forces and LTTE militants was a fact well known to Tamil journalists, who have pursued their craft with little or no protection for years.

Paranirupasingham Devakumar, Jaffna correspondent for the Maharaja Television news channel News 1st was stabbed to death by a group of LTTE supporters after covering a government-supported rally in Jaffna in May. Devakumar’s death left a bitter scar not only among journalists but in Sri Lanka as a whole.

Rashmi Mohamed, a provincial correspondent of Sirasa TV, was covering the opening ceremony of the new office of the opposition United National Party (UNP) in Anuradhapura in northern Sri Lanka when a suicide bomber blew himself up in October. The blast apparently came from a member of the LTTE inside the crowded office. Retired Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera, believed to be the target, was killed as were at least 26 others; 80 or more were wounded. Mohamed was covering the event, where security was apparently lax, according to news reports. UNP officials quoted by The Associated Press accused the government of ignoring repeated requests for a stronger security detail for Perera, who was a vocal critic of the way the government had conducted its military campaign against the LTTE secessionists. “The government must take full responsibility. They did not give him adequate security for political reasons,” party official Tissa Attanayake said, AP reported.

The two work-related deaths in 2008 reflected a decline from 2007, when five journalists, all Tamils, were killed. But the drop came as widespread self-censorship took root, Sri Lankan journalists told CPJ.

Along with violence, reporters faced government harassment. Senior journalist J.S. Tissainayagam (known as Tissa) was detained without charge in March. Tissainayagam wrote opinion columns, particularly on matters relating to the Tamil ethnic minority, for the mainstream Sunday Times and edited a Web site, OutreachSL, which the government claimed was maintained “with the financial backing of the LTTE.” After being held for five months without charge by the Terrorist Investigation Division, Tissainayagam was indicted by the High Court under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. In the almost 30 years since the terrorism act went into effect as a “temporary” measure, it had never been used against a journalist or publisher. Two colleagues—Vettivel Jasikaran and Vadivel Valamathy—were being held on related charges in late year.

A wave of violence and threats aimed at journalists covering security issues threatened to silence a crucial area of coverage.

Journalists were shocked by the abduction and vicious beating of Keith Noyahr, a deputy editor of the English-language weekly The Nation, in May. The assault remained largely uninvestigated in late year, and Noyahr eventually fled the country. A veteran journalist, Noyahr wrote independent, often critical analyses of Sri Lanka’s security situation in his column, “Military Matters.” “His abduction followed a series of threats against him,” Krishantha Cooray, an executive of The Nation, said in a statement published on the Free Media Movement’s Web site. Noyahr’s May 11 column was headlined  “An army is not its commander’s private fiefdom.”

Namal Perera, a freelance defense writer, was attacked by men wielding wooden poles and sticks as he traveled in a car with a senior British High Commission (BHC) official in June. The motorbike-riding attackers had tailed Perera and his friend, Mahendra Ratnaweera, a BHC political officer, and intercepted their vehicle near an army camp. The men tried to pull Perera out of the car, beating both men severely and fleeing only after a large number of bystanders had gathered. Perera had recently criticized the government’s actions in its campaign against Tamil rebels.

Iqbal Athas, defense correspondent for The Sunday Times, stopped writing his weekly column as a result of threats. A pro-government radio station had for weeks, on an almost daily basis, broadcast vituperative statements against him, and the Defense Ministry’s Web site published attacks on his character. On June 3, on both the state-run Rupavahini national television network and the state-owned Independent Television Network, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa faulted Athas by name for his independent reporting. In September, Athas said by e-mail: “Things in Sri Lanka have not improved at all. I write now with great restraint to avoid getting into trouble.” Athas was a 1994 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award.

On the Jaffna peninsula in the north, where the conflict with the LTTE was the worst, journalism all but disappeared. The city and its suburbs were under full military control, with checkpoints on virtually every street corner. According to Sunanda Deshapriya of the Free Media Movement, only three dailies—Uthayan, Yal Thinakkural, and Valampuri—remained, with none printing more than 12 pages in an issue. Circulation was lower than in peacetime. None had a print run of more than a few thousand, although copies were freely passed around by readers. Uthayan had by far the largest circulation, but it had only two reporters, a managing editor, and a news editor.  “No others come to work,” the group reported, and “there have been no new trainees in the last two years.”

Jaffna newspapers published stories on civilian casualties and humanitarian crises, but they provided limited reporting on the war; the threat of retribution from either side usually discouraged reports of military losses. Stories dealt with day-to-day necessities such as food supplies and new government restrictions. Only state-controlled ITN and privately owned Shakthi TV could be received in a few areas on the peninsula. Indian channels were available on satellite.

The state of journalism was discouraging, and the morale of reporters in the combat areas suffered as a result. Deshapriya sent this message to CPJ: “At a Free Media Movement workshop in Jaffna in August, 47 journalists (most of them no longer pursue journalism as a living) and student journalists took part. Only four spoke up at the meeting. When asked about difficulties they are facing as journalists their only answer was that they have a hard time getting batteries for their cameras and recorders. The few practicing journalists said they reported only religious festivals and approved government-related activities. They have imposed a strict self-censorship not to report political or military-related issues.”

ASIA: Regional Analysis
Media Freedom Stalls as China Sets the Course

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