Sri Lankan Embassy denies press freedom crisis

January 6, 2009: The main control room of Colombo’s TV Sirasa is bombed. January 8, 2009: Prominent independent editor Lasantha Wickramatunga is killed by a hit-squad that attacks his car while it is blocked in traffic. January 23, 2009: Pro-government editor Upali Tennakoon is attacked under similar circumstances by a similar hit-squad. He is injured, but escapes with his life and flees the country.

Wickramatunga is the eighth journalist to be murdered in apparent connection with his work since President Mahinda Pajapaksa took office.

CPJ’s conclusion: The Rajapaksa government must take responsibility for an atmosphere of impunity with regard to crimes against journalists in Sri Lanka.

But, in a meeting with a CPJ delegation at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington on Thursday, Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya denied there was any press freedom crisis in his country. It was only, he said, “a problem of communication.”

The Rajapaksa government has stepped up its war against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), which is fighting for an independent Tamil homeland along Sri Lanka’s north and east coasts. During this time, the ambassador told the delegation that the country’s “image has been distorted. It has been called a place of violence, a place where journalists are threatened. But this image is not accurate.”

Pressed by CPJ’s Joel Simon and Bob Dietz about the three January attacks, Wickramasuriya said all were under investigation. The delegation, which also included CPJ’s Frank Smyth and board members Clarence Page, Mark Whitaker, and myself, questioned the credibility of the government investigation, given that some eyewitnesses and critics claimed to see a government hand in the attacks.

The delegation suggested the government could relieve some doubts by making the investigation more rigorous, by presenting regular progress reports to Sri Lankan and international news media, and more transparent, by opening the process to journalistic coverage.

Vinoda Basnayake, an advisor to the Embassy from the Washington law firm Patton Boggs LLP said some confused reporting about the ongoing fighting between the government and the Tamil Tigers had been caused by “the fog of war.” But Simon pointed out that the reality of the fighting had been shrouded not by fog, but by government restrictions barring news personnel from the battle zones, and by threats to prosecute critics of the government’s military actions with treason.

Wickamasuriya concluded the meeting by promising better communication from the government and especially from the attorney general’s office, but then handed out a list of Sinhalese and Tamil, pro- and anti-government newspapers in publication, calling them proof that “Sri Lanka has freedom of the press.”