Sri Lankan attorney general assures exiled journalists

Colombo, March 10, 2010—In a meeting with a CPJ delegation today, Sri Lankan Attorney General Mohan Peiris said he was prepared to offer protection to any of the nation’s journalists who return to the country from exile.

“Speaking for myself, and I’m fairly sure the government will back me up on this, there is no question that the government needs our journalists,” Peiris told the delegation in his office. “They must come back and work with us and help set up the structures so that we can work together and we can respect each other. We must work with these institutions because we need them. We know if they stay outside and attack the government that is not useful.”

When asked if the government would ensure their safety, Peries said, “Of course, if they come back, there must be assurance on our part that they won’t come to any harm.”

Pereis made the statements to CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney and Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz. The meeting came near the end of a series of discussions CPJ had with Sri Lankan journalists in Colombo and Jaffna to assess the situation for reporters following presidential elections in January and before April’s parliamentary voting. 

The January voting resulted in a landslide victory for incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Post-election disputes saw the arrest of the chief opposition candidate, former general Sareth Fonseka, who is being held as the government prepares charges against him and many of his supporters.

“The attorney general’s appeal to journalists to return from exile is just a first step,” said Mahoney. “The government must go further by taking concrete action to address the climate of impunity and intimidation that prompted them to flee in the first place.”

Sri Lankan journalists told CPJ about growing harassment from the government. Sri Lankan journalism is noted for its high degree of partisanship, and most media sided clearly with either Rajapaksa or Fonseka. State media heavily favored the incumbent, and staff at some state-owned media protested the violation of neutrality. Independent media chose to back one candidate, with few remaining neutral.

“Many journalists with whom we met in Colombo are very open about their fears of retribution from the government after the presidential elections, and they worry about what will come after the parliamentary elections in April,” Dietz said. “Attacks, threats, and disappearances have led many of them to consider leaving the country, and many others already have. Attorney General Peiris should extend a  promise of protection to those who are still in the country as well as those who are in exile.”

The January 24 disappearance of Prageeth Eknelygoda, a political reporter for Lanka eNews, an opposition, pro-Fonseka Web site, remains unresolved. Eknelygoda’s wife, Sandhya, has repeatedly written to authorities, including President Rajapaksa, pleading for news of her husband’s whereabouts. The Sinhala-language opposition weekly Lanka’s editor, Chandana Sirimalwatte, was arrested on January 29, held for 19 days, and released with no charges brought against him. Earlier this week, Sandurwan Senadeera, Lanka eNews’ owner and editor, left the country after repeated threats on his life. CPJ estimates there are more than 15 Sri Lankan journalists who are now in exile, having fled to country in fear of their safety.

Sri Lanka ranks fourth, behind Iraq, Somalia, and Sierra Leone, on CPJ’s Global Impunity Index, a ranking of countries where journalists are murdered regularly and the killers go free. The country ranks 13th on CPJ’s database of journalists killed.  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.