Is Sri Lanka done assaulting the media?

It was good to hear Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa point out in his Independence Day speech on Thursday that the country “cannot be developed with harassment, gross punishments or by the gun.” But the sentence that followed that—“Discipline is not revenge”—gives cause for concern. Rajapaksa’s speech marked the 62nd anniversary of the country’s independence from Britain. It was delivered in Kandy, the heartland of the president’s electoral base.

Is a change coming? The government’s past policies saw media in Sri Lanka under steady attack as the country worked toward putting an end to its decades-long war with separationist Tamils. Or are the anti-media actions since the January 26 elections part of what Rajapaksa considers to be “discipline,” not “revenge”?

To show that that the era of harassment, gross punishment, and wanton gun-wielding are over, CPJ is calling on President Rajapaksa to use his re-election to address the air of impunity surrounding media attacks that have swelled during his first term in office and immediately deal with the problems that followed the recent elections. This is a perfect time to address the attacks on journalists that coincided with Sri Lanka’s long war.

Two issues are pressing: The whereabouts of opposition journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda remain unknown even to his family, according to his wife, Sandhya, who believes he was abducted.  Eknaligoda, she has told local and international media, disappeared on the night of January 24, two days before the presidential voting started. He wrote for the Web site Lanka eNews.

And, while police have removed the padlocks from the premises of the weekly Lanka newspaper following a court order a few days ago, according to the paper’s staffers, the editor, Chandana Sirimalwatte, remains in police custody since being summoned to make a statement at the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) headquarters in Colombo on January 30. He has not been charged with a crime so far. The BBC is reporting that it was told by the director of the CID that Sirimalwatte is being held under unspecified emergency regulations, because a recent article might have violated rules on government inquiries into terrorism.

Politics have always been hard fought in Sri Lanka, and a large part of the media has always been partisan. But slightly more than one week after the election, it looks like revenge and harassment remain part of the political process. Little seems to be changing since CPJ ranked Sri Lanka fourth on our Global Impunity Index, a ranking of countries where journalists are murdered regularly and the killers go free. A 2009 CPJ report, “Failure to Investigate,” reported on the history of attacks on journalists and the government’s failure to bring any prosecutions or convictions in any of the cases.