Two journalists missing in Sri Lanka

New York, February 11, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the disappearance of two journalists in Sri Lanka. Chandana Sirimalwatte, chief editor of the Sri Lankan weekly newspaper Lanka, was detained by police around noon on January 30, according to his wife, Hemali Abeyratne, and staffers at the paper. Lanka e News journalist Prageeth Eknelygoda has been missing since January 24.

Lanka, the weekly Sirimalwatte edited, was closed down by the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) for several days around the same time he was detained, but was ordered reopened when staff appealed to a local magistrate. Soon after he was detained, the BBC reported that it was told by the director of the CID that Sirimalwatte was being held under unspecified emergency regulations, because a recent article might have violated rules on government inquiries into terrorism. It did not specify which article was at issue.

“CPJ calls for Chandana Sirimalwatte’s immediate release,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “His continued detention without charge is an indicator of the Rajapaksa government’s continued anti-media policies, and should be ended immediately.”

The situation remains tense for opposition politicians and the media after incumbent President Mahinda Rajapksa won the country’s highly contested presidential elections on January 26. His major opponent, former general Sareth Fonseka, was arrested on February 8 at his party’s headquarters. Sirimalwatte’s detention came four days after the voting ended.

Today, Abeyratne issued a public letter calling for Sirimalwatte’s release: “I believe that my husband is being held in illegal detention for over 14 days without being produced in a court of law and without any charges being formally brought against him. It is obvious that the Government is trying to stifle the right of all Sri Lankans to information and crush the principles of universally accepted press freedom.” 

Also today, Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said he expects a breakthrough in the disappearance of Lanka e News journalist Eknelygoda by next week, though he admitted the government had little information in the case: “The government is not aware if Eknelygoda is being held captive by a group of unknown persons and his family had no information whether he was abducted or not,” Abeywardena was quoted as saying by the Daily Mirror. “There is a possibility that Eknelygoda could be hiding himself.”

The disappearance of Prageeth Eknelygoda is particularly chilling in a country where so many journalists’ deaths and disappearances have gone uninvestigated,” Dietz said. “And given the post-election climate in Sri Lanka, there is reason to be greatly concerned.”

The government has continued to put pressure on the media in the post-election period, especially on outlets linked to the opposition party. Several Web sites have been shut down and remain inaccessible within Sri Lanka.

In a separate development, Sri Lankan media have reported that Rajapaksa has taken over the Ministry of Mass Media and Information (which is a separate ministry from the one run by Abeywardena). According to the reports, all using official sources, the decision came after a request by the former Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. He said he wanted to resign to work in the ruling party’s campaigns for parliamentary elections set for May.