On July 4, 2021, police officers in Batticaloa, in eastern Sri Lanka, visited the home of journalist Punniyamoorthy Sasikaran and told his mother that he was under a preliminary investigation for suspected terrorism, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.
The officers summoned Sasikaran, a freelance Tamil journalist and treasurer of the Batticaloa District Tamil Journalists Association, a local press freedom group, for questioning on July 6, according to the journalist and a report by the Tamil-language news website Tamilwin.
During that questioning, officers asked Sasikaran about his personal and family background and accused Sasikaran of organizing two political events, which he denied, he said. He told CPJ he contributed coverage of a January 27 event paying tribute to Indian fisherman who died in Sri Lankan waters to the local newspaper Virakesi, and covered a February 3 to 7 protest march calling on the government to resolve issues facing Tamils in the country for News First, a local broadcaster.
He said the officers also asked if he was a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a group that the government classifies as a terrorist organization, which he also denied, saying he had no connection to that group. Police released Sasikaran after about four hours, he said.
CPJ was unable to determine if authorities have formally opened an investigation into the journalist under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the journalist said he had not seen any police document or news report indicating that a formal investigation has been opened. CPJ emailed U.P.A.D.K.P. Karunanayake, the deputy inspector-general of the Batticaloa district police, for comment, but did not receive any reply.
On July 15, Sasikaran filed a complaint to the Batticaloa office of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka seeking protection from arrest, according to a copy of that complaint posted to Twitter by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, a local press freedom group.
Sasikaran has covered politics, corruption, and human rights for the daily Tamil-language newspapers Tamil Thanthy and Virakesari, the new websites LankaSri and TamilWeb, and the broadcast news channels Shakthi TV, Sirasa TV, and News First, according to the journalist and Ruki Fernando, an executive committee member of the Free Media Movement, a local press freedom group, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.
Sasikaran told CPJ that he sometimes contributed writing and videos to these outlets anonymously, and added that he had suspended his journalistic activities in July because of authorities’ harassment.
Previously, police visited Sasikaran’s home on February 1 and 2, 2021, and served him a court order restraining organizers from moving forward with the protest march on February 3, according to the journalist and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. At the time, the journalist told police that he was not involved in organizing the protest march and only planned to cover it as a reporter, according to those sources.
On March 2 and 17, officers with the Batticaloa district’s Criminal Investigation Division interrogated Sasikaran about the January and February events in two four-hour questioning sessions, and he again denied participating in them, according to Sasikaran and Muthalvan News.
Sasikaran formerly lived in exile in Australia from 2012 to 2016, after he felt threatened by members of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal, a former paramilitary group that supported the Sri Lankan government during the country’s decades-long civil war, he told CPJ.
When he returned to Sri Lanka on January 20, 2016, authorities detained Sasikaran for 48 hours upon his arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport, and officers of the Terrorism Investigation Division interrogated him about his departure from Sri Lanka, his activities in Australia, and if he was a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which he categorically denied, according to the journalist and reports by Sri Lanka Brief and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka.
Authorities charged Sasikaran with illegally leaving the country, and a magistrate court granted his release on bail on the condition that he appear at the Criminal Investigation Department head office in Colombo for monthly check-ins until the investigation concluded, according to the journalist and Fernando. Authorities dropped that investigation into Sasikaran in August 2019 and ordered him to pay 50,000 rupees (US$250) according to a copy of the bail receipt, which CPJ reviewed.
Separately, in January 2020, unidentified people circulated leaflets in Batticaloa that said Sasikaran and six other journalists would be “given death punishment” for writing critically about the Sri Lankan government, according to the journalist and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka.
Also, on July 12, 2021, police officers with the Batticaloa district’s Terrorism Investigation Division interrogated Selvakumar Nilanthan, a freelance Tamil journalist and secretary of the Batticaloa District Tamil Journalists Association, and demanded the details of his Facebook, Whatsapp, email, and bank accounts, as CPJ documented at the time.