Following a report alleging corruption on the part of Sri Lanka Army Commander Vikum Liyanage, seen here at a ceremony in May 2022, journalist G.P. Nissanka, owner and editor of the news site Ravana Lanka News, was arrested. (Photo: AFP/ Ishara S. Kodikara)

Sri Lanka arrests, investigates journalists G.P. Nissanka, Bimal Ruhunage

New York, March 29, 2024—Sri Lankan authorities must immediately drop their investigations into journalists G.P. Nissanka and Bimal Ruhunage and allow them to report without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

On the evening of March 5, officers with the Sri Lanka police service’s Criminal Investigation Department arrested G.P. Nissanka, owner and editor of the news site Ravana Lanka News, from his home in the Pallebedda area of the southern Sabaragamuwa Province, according to news reports and the Media Organizations Collective, a group of Sri Lankan organizations advocating for press freedom and freedom of expression.

Amila Egodamahawatta, Nissanka’s lawyer, told CPJ that the journalist was held in police remand until he was released on bail March 20. His mobile phone, seized during his arrest, remains in police custody as of Friday, Egodamahawatta said.

Nissanka’s arrest followed a complaint by Vikum Liyanage, commander of the Sri Lankan army, after Ravana Lanka News published an article accusing the commander of corruption and malfeasance.

Separately, on March 6, police arrested freelance journalist Bimal Ruhunage from his home in the Kurunegala district of North Western Province, according to the Media Organizations Collective statement, as well as the journalist and his lawyer Keerthi Dunusinghe, who spoke to CPJ.

Police also seized Ruhunage’s mobile phone and wallet, which were returned to his wife later that day, the journalist said.

Ruhunage said he arrived at a local bus station four days prior, wearing his press identification card, to interview a mother seeking to give her child up for adoption. However, a police officer attempted to stop the journalist from filming them. Ruhunage continued to film as the officer took the mother and child to a police station in a three-wheeler taxi, footage of which was published by the U.S.-based news website Boston Lanka.

Following his arrest, Ruhunage was held in police remand until March 11, when he was released on bail, according to the journalist and his lawyer. Ruhunage has been ordered to appear in court on May 13.

“The arrests and criminal investigations launched into Sri Lankan journalists G.P. Nissanka and Bimal Ruhunage are unacceptable reactions by authorities and could create a chilling effect on the media,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna. “Sri Lankan journalists should not fear detention, seizure of their devices, or criminal cases for their work ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections to be held later this year.”

Egodamahawatta and Dunusinghe told CPJ that their clients were remanded into police custody despite being investigated for bailable offenses.

Nissanka stands accused of violating section 6 of the Computer Crime Act related to offenses committed against national security and a section of the police ordinance related to spreading false reports to create alarm and panic, Egodamahawatta said.

Separately, Ruhunage said that police informed him at the time of his arrest that he was being investigated for obstruction of police duties. However, the police complaint filed in court cited a section of the penal code pertaining to the use of criminal force to deter a public officer from discharge of duty, according to the journalist and his lawyer.

Ruhunage told CPJ that a police source informed him that the journalist was suspected of authoring a Voice of Sri Lanka report alleging that a senior police official did not disclose his ownership of a hotel in what may be an ethics violation.

Ministry of Defense spokesperson Nalin Herath did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment. CPJ also called and messaged police spokesperson Nihal Thalduwa for comment but did not receive any response.