Journalists in Sri Lanka face intimidation, censorship

New York, January 29, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by reports that journalists in Sri Lanka have been subjected to government intimidation, arrests, censorship, and harassment in the aftermath of this week’s presidential election. 

“We are receiving reports of government retribution against journalists who sided with the opposition in the election. Given the ugly history of attacks on journalists in Sri Lanka, we call on President Mahina Rajapaksa to ensure the safety of all journalists in Sri Lanka, and to use his new mandate to reverse the repressive trends of the past several years,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator.  

At least 10 security agents were deployed outside the Colombo offices of Lanka eNews, a Web site critical of Rajapaksa’s government, on Thursday night, according to CPJ sources. One source reported that authorities padlocked the gate to the premises before leaving late Thursday.

Prageeth Eknelygoda, a political reporter for Lanka eNews, remained missing today after disappearing on the night of January 24. Several CPJ sources said they fear he was abducted. Eknelygoda was described by colleagues as a political analyst who supported opposition presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka.

Lanka eNews is blocked to online users in Sri Lanka, news reports said, although it is still accessible outside the country. In a joint e-mail message today, Sri Lankan press groups reported that three other Web sites critical of the government—Sri Lanka Guardian, Infolanka, and Nidahasa—have been blocked domestically by state and Internet service providers.

Swiss Public Radio reported today that Sri Lankan authorities have withdrawn a visa granted to journalist Karin Wenger and have asked her to leave the country within 48 hours. “I fear I have been kicked out for asking uncomfortable questions at a government press conference,” Wenger, who is based in New Delhi, told Agence France-Presse.

The Sinhala-language opposition weekly Lanka reported that its editor, Chandana Sirimalwatte, had been arrested around noon today. Several other news outlets picked up the report, citing Lanka as their source. CPJ is seeking to independently corroborate the arrest and the circumstances.

Fonseka, the former general who challenged Rajapaksa, has refused to accept the outcome of the election and has vowed a legal challenge. The BBC reported that journalists have been barred from entering the street where Fonseka’s campaign office is located, in a tourist hotel in Colombo. Fonseka has been widely quoted in the local and international media as saying that he wants to leave the country because of death threats.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, a nonpartisan domestic group, said that while there were apparent irregularities in the polling, there was little evidence of large-scale fraud. About 70 percent of the country’s 14 million voters cast ballots, although the turnout in Tamil areas was only 30 percent, particularly in the northeast where the war with secessionist Tamils ended last year.