In Sri Lanka, censorship and a smear campaign

New York, July 14, 2009–The Sri Lankan government is continuing its offensive against the independent news media, blocking domestic access to a news Web site and smearing lawyers who are representing a leading newspaper.

“The government is continuing to silence its critics through harassment and threats. Authorities should end their anti-media policies, and they can start by restoring access to independent news Web sites and halting attacks on their critics,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. The government launched aggressive efforts to curb independent media in 2006–at the same time it began an all-out military effort to defeat the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). On May 19, the government formally declared an end to the 25-year civil war.

Domestic access to the independent Web site Lanka News Web was shut down over the weekend, according to several sources. The site, which is still accessible outside of Sri Lanka, posted a statement today saying that government had directed domestic Internet service providers to block access to the site, which is hosted outside the country. The statement said that site managers had received no formal explanation but suspected the shutdown stemmed from a story on Saturday saying that the president’s son had been the target of stone throwers at a refugee camp.

The same day, the official Web site of the Ministry of Defense carried an article headlined, “Traitors in Black Coats Flocked Together,” which identified five lawyers who represented the Sunday Leader newspaper at a July 9 hearing in a Mount Lavinia court as having “a history of appearing for and defending” LTTE guerrillas. The article carries pictures of three of the lawyers, making them identifiable to government supporters who might accost them. The ministry’s Web site has criticized several individuals in the past who have gone on to be targeted with threats. The paper’s parent organization, Leader Publications, has been in court defending itself against contempt charges stemming from critical coverage of Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa. The lawyers had recently replaced the original defense attorneys, who had resigned because they said they did not support criticism of Rajapaksa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother.

Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader, was killed on January 8 by motorcycle-riding assassins. The death was among three violent anti-press episodes in January, which CPJ documented in a special report, “Failure to Investigate.” As the government’s military victory drew closer, attacks against journalists continued.

CPJ counts at least 11 journalists who have fled the country in the past year in fear of their lives.