CPJ urges Sri Lankan ambassador to investigate attacks

New York, March 6, 2009–A delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists met yesterday with the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States and called for a comprehensive and transparent investigation into a series of recent attacks against the press that may have involved government forces. 

Citing the independence of the Sri Lankan judiciary, Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya said he was unable to offer any assurances about the scope of the investigation. “The government of Sri Lanka is perturbed by threats against media workers and especially repulsed by the alleged attacks on media workers,” the ambassador told the delegation. “The government in no way condones or endorses any such attacks.” He said that the attacks on journalists may have been perpetrated by “terrorists” seeking to embarrass the government.

“While we appreciate the opportunity to convey our concerns directly to the ambassador and his staff, we hoped to emerge from the meeting with assurances of a robust and vigorous investigation into these appalling crimes,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We were disappointed not to receive any such assurance.”

The worst attack came on January 8, when the editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickramatunga, was killed in his car on his way to work. CPJ produced a special report, “Failure to investigate,” detailing this assault and others after a trip to Colombo at the end of January.

“There has been impunity for those who attack journalists in Sri Lanka, and there have been attempts to intimidate and silence critics of the government,” Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator, told Wickramasuriya. “Journalists who are critical should not be targeted as part of the government’s military objective.”

CPJ highlighted three specific cases that need urgent attention:

  • Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam will have spent a year behind bars as of March 7, and is facing implausible terrorism charges.
  • Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, the editor of two Tamil-language papers, was detained February 27 for alleged contact with the suicide bombers who attacked Colombo by plane on February 20.
  • Iqbal Athas, the Sri Lankan Sunday Times‘ defense columnist and a former CPJ award winner, has been under constant harassment, and has been in and out of the country for months, fearing for his life.

CPJ also raised concerns about a consistently high level of violence toward journalists that rose in January with three incidents, and the ongoing restrictions on reporting:

  • A bomb attack on Sirasa TV’s main control room on January 6.
  • The murder of prominent opposition editor Lasantha Wickramatunga by an eight-man hit squad on January 8.
  • The beating of a pro-government editor, Upali Tennakoon, by four men on January 23, which resulted in severe injuries and his fleeing the country.
  • Restrictions on access to the north and east, where a humanitarian disaster is unfolding. The government routinely denies journalists access because of security concerns.

The CPJ delegation included board members Andrew Alexander, David Marash, Clarence Page, and Mark Whitaker in addition to Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director, and Washington Representative Frank Smyth. Marash posted a blog entry about the meeting on CPJ’s Web site.

According to CPJ’s records, since Rajapaksa took high office in Sri Lanka, eight journalists have died of what CPJ considers to be premeditated murder. No one has been brought to trial in any of these cases, according to CPJ research.

Dietz testified about the threats to the Sri Lankan media in front of a Senate subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia on February 24.