New York, December 16, 2019 — Sri Lankan authorities must thoroughly investigate several recent attacks against journalists, hold those responsible to account, and ensure that journalists can report freely in the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On December 6, a group of men beat Thusitha Kumara de Silva, a reporter for the Daily Mirror and LankaDeepa newspapers, and his wife with helmets and sticks near their home in Beruwala, western Sri Lanka, according to news reports. They were both admitted to a local hospital for treatment and later transferred to a general hospital with unspecified injuries, according to those reports.
On December 10, a group of men entered the offices of the Resa newspaper and grabbed Maduka Thaksala Fernando, a journalist at Resa parent company Lake House, by the neck, dragged him outside, and beat him while telling him not to return to the newspaper, according to news reports.
The attacks, along with a spate of police actions against journalists in Sri Lanka, followed the November 18 inauguration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has been accused of involvement in the 2009 murder of journalist Lasantha Wickramantunga and of a broad campaign against journalists during his tenure as defense minister, according to CPJ reporting.
On December 12, Rajapaksa addressed the heads of local media institutions in a speech, saying that while there was an opportunity for “reasonable criticism,” he expected every media institution to conduct “favorable media reporting” to uphold the country’s reputation, according to news reports.
“The number of attacks against the media within weeks of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s inauguration is extremely alarming,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher. “Rajapaksa has said the media will not be hindered under his administration, and he must prove that by ensuring that recent attacks against journalists are thoroughly investigated and those responsible are swiftly brought to justice.”
De Silva told the BBC that he had recently been threatened over his reporting on an illegal liquor production company.
Fernando alleged that his attackers belonged to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna trade union, a pro-government union, and attacked him because of his political beliefs, according to news reports.
The chairperson of the union, Chandana Bandara, denied that any union members beat Fernando; he said members went to the Resa office simply to talk to Fernando, who was editing a video that Bandara alleged was critical of Rajapaksa, according to a report by Sri Lankan outlet News First.
In the two weeks following Rajapaksa’s inauguration, police questioned Thinappuyal newspaper director Sakthivelpillai Prakash about his outlet’s coverage of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on November 22, and Voice Tube editor Thushara Vitharana about a recent broadcast from the outlet on November 28, according to news reports. On November 26, police questioned The Leader video manager Sanjaya Dhanushka for several hours, according to news reports, which did not specify the motive for the questioning.
Thinappuyal, The Leader, and Voice Tube all supported Sajith Premadasa, Rajapaksa’s opponent, in the November election, according to a report by exiled human rights group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka.
On November 26, police raided the offices of News Hub, a local news website, and searched the outlet’s records for references to Rajapaksa, according to news reports.
CPJ emailed the Sri Lankan Information and Communication Technology Agency for comment, but did not receive any response.