Of journalists’ arrests and Senate hearings

Yesterday’s arrest of Nadesapillai Vithyatharan in a suburb of Colombo was a continuation of the killing, jailing, harassing, and intimidating of Sri Lankan  journalists–and the feeling is that it if it hadn’t been for the quick response of the international community, Vithyatharan’s situation could have gotten a lot uglier.

It happened around 9 a.m. and e-mails started circulating immediately between NGOs and diplomats. (I had heard about it a few minutes after it happened while I was on the phone with a source in Colombo.) The message was soon delivered to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office that Vithyatharan had been grabbed and that it had not gone unnoticed. It was a rapid-response system that had evolved from past incidents in which journalists have been grabbed, beaten and dropped by the roadside–if they haven’t been killed.

Police at first said they were not involved but reversed the story by midday and confirmed the arrest. The Sri Lankan army’s Web site announced the arrest soon after the incident. Vithyatharan is the editor for two Tamil-language dailies, Uthayan in Jaffna in the Tamil-dominated north of the country, and Sudaroli in Colombo. The feeling was that the government told whoever had taken Vithyatharan that there was too much outside pressure. With him under police custody, some of the pressure came off. Today, the government said that Vithyatharan had helped the LTTE with their suicide air strike on Colombo on 20 February. The attack killed three people and injured 43, according to AP. That amounts to an accusation of treason, and if the case of J.S. Tissainayagam is any example, Vithyatharan is in for a very hard time. We posted a report called  “Failure to investigate” on cpj.org that catalogs recent attacks on journalists. They have been going on since President Mahinda Rajapaksa first came to office.

The report was released in conjunction with the Senate Foreign Relations Middle East and South Asia subcommittee hearing on February 24, at which former U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Jeffrey Lunstead, Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch, and I testified. Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollogama sent a letter for the record explaining the government’s actions in the war with the LTTE, but didn’t address the question of mistreatment of journalists.

Given yesterday’s swoop on Vithyatharan, it’s still clear the government doesn’t feel it has a problem in dealing with journalists, and they remain fair targets for the same abductions, harassment, jailing, and intimidation that we have seen in the past. At least no journalists have been killed for the last month or so. Maybe that has to be seen as an improvement.

Let me end with a link to a pro-government Web site, which has the headline “SHAME ON YOU ANNA NEISTAT & BOB DIETZ FOR BOMBARDING US FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE HEARING ON SRI LANKA WITH LIES.” The article can give you a sense of how hard it will be to move Sri Lanka beyond its policies toward the media.