Tamil editor arrested in Sri Lanka

New York, February 26, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists questions charges leveled against Sri Lankan newspaper editor Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, who was arrested this morning. According to friends who were with him at the time, police detained Vithyatharan while he was attending the funeral of a friend in Colombo. The arrest comes at a time when Sri Lankan journalists have been under increased attack.

The Associated Press reported that a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Lakshman Hulugalle, said Vithyatharan was being held in connection with a February 20 attack on Colombo by two airplanes from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which is fighting a secessionist war in the north and east of the country. The attack killed three people and injured 43, according to AP. The Sri Lankan Army’s Web site announced Vithyatharan’s arrest soon after the incident.

Vithyatharan publishes two Tamil-language dailies, Uthayan in Jaffna in the Tamil-dominated north of the country, and Sudaroli in Colombo.

“Nadesapillai Vithyatharan has been a respected journalist for more than 25 years in Sri Lanka,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The nature of his arrest and the allegations that he was somehow involved in an aerial attack on Colombo point to more government repression of critical reporting. We call for his immediate release and are concerned that like other arrested journalists he will be held for lengthy period. This is a tactic we have seen before in Sri Lanka.”

Vithyatharan’s newspapers have been critical of the government’s all-out military push to end the war with the LTTE. In a 2007 interview with CPJ in Colombo, Vithyatharan said he was proud of his papers’ editorial integrity and the fact that they had covered the government fairly.

Many journalists allege government involvement in a number of recent attacks, including one that took the life of one newspaper editor, put another in the hospital , and blew up a control room of the country’s leading independent broadcaster, all in a three-week period in January.   

Tamil journalists like Vithyatharan have been persecuted in the past. The case of another Tamil journalist, The Times‘ columnist J.S. Tissainayagam, who has been jailed on state security charges since March 2008 under harsh conditions, has attracted international attention.

On Tuesday, CPJ testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about media conditions in Sri Lanka. CPJ submitted the findings of a recent reporting trip to Colombo in a special report, Failure to investigate,” which found that recent attacks, jailings, and harassment of journalists and media outlets have grown worse under the government of President Mahinda Rajapkasa, and that there is an increasing level of impunity for those who carry out such attacks.