Attacks on the Press 2009: Sri Lanka

Top Developments
• Editor murdered, broadcaster bombed, reporters assaulted.
• Columnist convicted of terrorism for his writing.

Key Statistic
0: Number of convictions in 10 journalist murders since 1992.

On May 19, the government formally declared a victory in its 26-year civil war with the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had claimed territory for an ethnic Tamil homeland. Victory came at a high price for the press. Escalating attacks on independent journalists coincided with the government’s 2006 decision to pursue an all-out military victory, CPJ found in a February special report, “Failure to Investigate.” Ethnic Tamil journalists seen by the government as supporting independence had long been under murderous assault, but physical and verbal attacks on Sinhalese and Muslim journalists critical of the government’s military operations began accelerating in 2006 as well. These attacks—which in 2009 included a murder, a bombing, and several assaults—occurred with complete impunity.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
As fighting surges,
so does danger to press

Makings of a Massacre
Country Summaries
North Korea
Sri Lanka
Other developments

On January 6, as many as 20 assailants carried out a 3 a.m. bombing that destroyed the control room of the country’s largest independent broadcasting company, Maharajah Broadcasting, knocking the prominent Sirasa TV and six sister radio and television stations off the air, according to news accounts and CPJ interviews. The blast came after state media criticized the broadcaster for its coverage of military operations.

The bombing was immediately followed by two violent episodes in which motorcyclists wielding iron bars and wooden poles attacked prominent journalists. A January 8 assault by eight men on four motorcycles resulted in the death of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunga and set off a wave of domestic and international protest. Wickramatunga foresaw his own murder, writing in an editorial published three days after his death: “Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened, and killed. It has been my honor to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.”

The other January attack, on Upali Tennakoon, editor of the Sinhala-language, pro-government weekly Rivira and his wife, Dhammika, came at about 6:40 a.m. on January 23. This time, four men on two motorcycles severely injured Tennakoon. Soon after, the couple fled to the United States seeking asylum. 

The government denounced the January attacks but sought to deflect responsibility. Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, the top officials in the Ministry of Mass Media and Information, told Colombo newspapers there was a “massive conspiracy” to discredit the government by destabilizing the country with attacks on prominent figures. They said a comprehensive inquiry would be carried out to find the attackers in all three January cases. Such inquiries had been promised in the past; as in the past, the 2009 cases led to no conclusive government action by late year. 

With international outrage growing, CPJ sent a representative to Colombo to investigate the assaults. Eighteen journalists were killed in Sri Lanka between 1992 and 2009, according to CPJ research, and 10 of them were murdered. No convictions have been obtained in any of the murders, a law enforcement failure that propelled Sri Lanka to fourth place on CPJ’s Impunity Index. The index is a ranking of countries where journalists are killed regularly and authorities are unable to solve the crimes.

CPJ said the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa should be held directly responsible for impunity surrounding the attacks. Nine of the murders took place after Rajapaksa rose to high office, first as prime minister in April 2004 and then as president in November 2005. CPJ testified before U.S. Senate and House committees, as well as Canada’s House of Commons, about the January attacks and the history of abuse directed at journalists in the country.

The Sri Lankan government maintained a hard line of denial after CPJ released its findings. A Washington meeting between a CPJ delegation and Sri Lankan Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya did not change the government’s outward position—no assurances were given and little responsibility was accepted. The acts of intimidation and the absence of substantive government response drove at least 11 Sri Lankan journalists into exile between June 2008 and June 2009, CPJ research found. Sri Lankan journalists accounted for more than a quarter of the journalists worldwide who fled their countries during that period after being attacked, harassed, or threatened with violence or imprisonment, according to CPJ research.

January’s attacks and intimidation continued through the year. Typical was the June 1 kidnapping of the general secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, Poddala Jayantha. He was abducted on a busy road in Colombo during rush hour, beaten, and dropped by the side of a road in a suburb. Witnesses at the scene said six unidentified men in a white Toyota Hi Ace van with tinted glass windows had grabbed him; the same type of vehicle has been used to pick up antigovernment figures in the past. No arrests had been made by late year.

In July, domestic access to the independent Lanka News Web was shut down. The site’s managers received no formal explanation but suspected the shutdown stemmed from a story reporting that the president’s son had been the target of stone throwers at a Tamil refugee camp. Around the same time, 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 included pictures of three of the lawyers, making them identifiable to government supporters who might accost them.

CPJ pressed for journalists to be allowed access to the conflict zones. Both the government and the LTTE had barred the press. Reporters who did try to cover the major humanitarian catastrophe taking place in the heart of the Indian Ocean region were obstructed. A team from Britain’s Channel 4 News—Asia correspondent Nick Paton Walsh,  cameraman Matt Jasper, and producer Bessie Du—were ordered to leave the country on May 10 by Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Channel 4 had just aired footage filmed secretly in a Tamil refugee camp in the northern city of Vavuniya. The report included allegations that guards had left corpses to rot, that food and water were in short supply, and that sexual abuse was prevalent. A month later, on July 20, Associated Press Bureau Chief Ravi Nessman was ordered out the country when the government refused to renew his visa.

By mid-year it was clear that, even with its victory in the war against the LTTE, the government was not going to back away from its policies of intimidation. That reality was driven home on August 31, when columnist J.S. Tissainayagam, also known as Tissa, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of violating the country’s harsh anti-terror law. After his conviction, the first in which a journalist was found guilty of violating the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, a Colombo High Court sentenced him to 20 years of hard labor.

Terrorism Investigation Division officials arrested Tissainayagam, an English-language columnist for the Sri Lankan Sunday Times and editor of the news Web site OutreachSL, on March 7, 2008, when he visited their offices to inquire about the arrests of colleagues the previous day. He was held without charge until his indictment in August 2008 in connection with articles published nearly three years earlier in a now-defunct magazine, North Eastern Monthly. The sentencing judge, Deepali Wijesundara, said articles Tissainayagam wrote for the Monthly in 2006 incited communal disharmony, an offense under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. She also found him guilty of raising funds to publish the magazine, itself a violation of the anti-terror law.

The government had backed off the anti-terror law in 2006 when, under a cease-fire then in effect between the government and the LTTE, it pledged not to detain people under the statute. But as the government ramped up its military efforts, it began enforcing provisions of the law to rein in uncooperative media.

In November, CPJ recognized Tissainayagam’s independent journalism, practiced under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, by honoring him with an International Press Freedom Award.