State secrets, public denials in Sri Lanka

There’s a familiar pattern emerging in Sri Lanka, one we’ve seen in many countries. When the government doesn’t have a viable case against a critical journalist, prosecutors turn to state security laws to keep them in detention.

Nadesapillai Vidyatharan, editor of the Tamil daily Sudar Oli, was grabbed at a friend’s funeral in a Colombo suburb on February 26. Since then, in an effort to charge the editor under antiterrorism laws, police have been scouring phone records to try to establish a tie between Vidyatharan and the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamal Eelam. Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapkasa has already linked Vidyatharan to a February 20 suicide air attack on Colombo in which two LTTE planes were shot down, the two pilots were killed, and more than 45 people were injured. When Vidyatharan’s case came up this morning in Colombo, the magistrate gave police permission to hold him without charge as they continue to trace his calls.

Another case, this one involving editor and columnist J. S.Tissainayagam, has been dragging on for a year. Tissa, as he is known, was detained without charge on March 7, 2008, and held without explanation for more than three months. In August, he was formally indicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency Regulations. When he was detained, he was the editor of a news Web site OutreachSL. But he is being held for articles he wrote in the North Eastern Monthly in 2006 and 2007–two years before he was grabbed. Tissa’s case was the first time Sri Lanka used this law against a journalist explicitly for published work. His next court date is set for March 20. Trial dates and the appearance schedules of witnesses have changed frequently, possibly at the hands of the judge hearing the case, but it’s difficult to tell who is causing the delays.

In February, CPJ documented a shocking wave of violence against the Sri Lankan press in a special report, “Failure to Investigate.” That report, coupled with CPJ’s appearance before Senate Foreign Relations Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee on February 24 brought us to the attention of the Sri Lankan embassy. When we were doing research in Colombo early this year it was impossible to get an interview with a government official. Only after the embassy in Washington realized that we would be testifying before a Senate subcommittee did we get interviews with Attorney General Mohan Peiris and Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama. Both men asserted that authorities had no involvement in attacks on journalists and that the cases are being thoroughly investigated–responses that we noted in our report. (Our research shows that authorities have failed to solve the murders of at least nine Sri Lankan journalists in the past decade.)

This month, we were invited to a meeting with Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya in Washington. Our six-person delegation sat across the table from the embassy’s six- person team and there was, as they say, a frank exchange of views, but really it was like two airplanes traveling in different directions at altitudes several thousand feet apart. The ambassador professed anger at recent attacks on journalists, and he promised full investigations. But another government official, Dhilip Nawaz, claimed that all cases are being fully investigated and that there are no significant media problems in Sri Lanka. Board member David Marash captured the tenor of the meeting in a post on the CPJ Blog. The embassy’s response came in a news story the next day headlined, “Sri Lankan ambassador invites journalist delegation to Sri Lanka to observe firsthand freedom enjoyed by journalists.”

On Tuesday, I was on a panel discussing Sri Lankan media rights at the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance in Washington. CPJ Washington Representative Frank Smyth noted that Sri Lankan government representatives were on hand and suggested that they be given an opportunity to respond to criticism. A reasoned response and expression of concern came from Yasoja Gunesekera, who has served in Sri Lanka’s foreign service for more than a decade. Then (toward the end of the video linked above) came an assertive denial of reality from, you guessed it, Dhilip Nawaz, a Humphrey Fellow who ordinarily works as a senior state counsel in the Sri Lankan attorney general’s office. Take the time to watch–it is an amazing example of the bureaucratic two-step.