The offices of Sri Lankan website Lanka eNews were completely destroyed in an arson attack today. (Lanka eNews)
The offices of Sri Lankan website Lanka eNews were completely destroyed in an arson attack today. (Lanka eNews)

United Nations must intervene to protect Sri Lanka’s media

New York, January 31, 2011Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must press the United Nations to address the string of uninvestigated and unprosecuted attacks on journalists and media houses under the government of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ responded after an early Monday morning arson attack on the offices of the independent Sri Lankan website Lanka eNews in the Malabe suburb of the capital, Colombo. Staff members told CPJ that everything in the offices had been destroyed, although no one was injured in the 2 a.m. raid. The outspoken website posted pictures of the destruction

“The litany of arson attacks, assaults, disappearances, and outright killing of journalists that have gone unaddressed under President Mahinda Rajapaksa make it necessary for the international community to act,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator.  “The responsibility falls to the United Nations to lead an effective international response to a government that has failed to protect journalists, and is itself a viable suspect in many of these acts.”

So far, the U.N. has failed to respond to the wife of Prageeth Eknelygoda, a columnist and cartoonist for Lanka eNews who disappeared on January 24, 2010. His family and colleagues say they suspect he has been kidnapped. Sandhya Eknelygoda wrote to Ban earlier this month, saying that the government–which she suspected was complicit in her husband’s disappearance–has showed no interest in investigating the case. Lanka eNews founder Sandaruwan Senadheera went into exile in March 2010 after repeated death threats.

Lanka eNews has long been critical of the government and had sided with a former presidential candidate, Sareth Fonseka, who is now in jail. In recent days, the site had reported critically on Rajapkasa and his brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, secretary of defense, including reports of the president’s quiet visit to the U.S., which the website said was for medical purposes. In another report, the website questioned whether the defense secretary had perjured himself while giving evidence in a case against Fonseka. 

As CPJ noted in a blog entry on January 19:

Sri Lanka is notorious for impunity in anti-press attacks. It is the fourth worst country in the world in terms of unsolved journalist murders, according to CPJ’s Impunity Index.

The string of brutalities under protest in Colombo date back to January 2009. That year, on January 6, the independent Sirasa TV’s studios were bombed in an early-morning raid carried out with “military precision,” according to staffers on hand at the time. Two days later, on January 8, Lasantha Wickramatunga was killed by eight motorcycle-riding men wielding wooden and metal poles. And on January 23, Upali Tennakoon, editor of the Sinhala-language, pro-government weekly Rivira and his wife, Dhammika were driving to his office when motorcyclists intercepted their car and smashed its window in an attack similar to that which killed Wickramatunga. The Tennakoons escaped (although Upali was heavily scarred), and they now live in exile in the United States. CPJ documented those attacks in our February 2009 special report “Failure to Investigate.”

None of the cases have been solved, and no one has been brought to justice.

Attacks on media have continued since the spasm of January 2009 violence, even though the government ended its war with Tamil separatists in May 2009.  In July 2010, two employees were injured in an arson attack on the offices of the Voice of Asia Network in the heart of Colombo that destroyed the group’s studios. Men armed with assault rifles and gasoline bombs carried out the attack in the middle of the afternoon. Siyatha TV mainly aired entertainment programming, but the network’s owners had been linked to Fonseka.