Iqbal Athas. (AP/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Iqbal Athas. (AP/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

How times change in Sri Lanka, and how they don’t

For a good historical perspective on the abuse of journalists in Sri Lanka, Iqbal Athas, the recipient of a 1994 International Press Freedom Award from CPJ, wrote a center-page spread for the 25th anniversary edition of the Sunday Times, a popular weekly in Colombo. Athas, a critical journalist who specializes in defense issues, works as an associate editor and defense correspondent for the Times.

The lede to his article recounts a 1998 incident in which armed men invaded his home while he, his wife, and their seven-year-old daughter watched television. After the men left, the story spread, and all night, they received phone calls from friends and acquaintances inquiring about their safety. In his article, Athas describes how one of the callers was then-Minister of Fisheries Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa was trying to make a name for himself as a champion of human rights and offered his support to the Athas family.

But Rajapaksa, who was elected president in 2005, has a long and alarming record of intolerance to criticism, according to CPJ research. Journalists have been attacked, assaulted, abducted, and killed during his administration, CPJ research shows. In a 2008 letter to Rajapaksa, CPJ voiced concern about government officials repeatedly calling journalists “traitors” in public. At least nine journalists have been murdered in the Rajapaksa era, all of them unsolved, CPJ research shows.

Athas’ piece is a reminder of how long conditions have been bad for journalists in Sri Lanka. The anniversary edition of the Sunday Times is posted as a PDF, and you can find Athas’ piece on pages 25 and 26.

And congratulations to all the staff at the Sunday Times for making it this far in such a hostile media climate.