Sri Lanka on State Department's radar

By Bob Dietz/Asia Program Coordinator on April 3, 2009 3:48 PM ET

The dire situation for journalists in Sri Lanka who have fallen out of favor with the government has not gone unnoticed at the U.S. State Department. On March 23, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a letter to Senator Robert Casey, who chaired the Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on Sri Lanka on February 24. Seven senators had written to her about their concerns in Sri Lanka after the meeting.

Clinton addresses the full range of human rights abuses in the country, and at the end of her letter she specifically tackles the issue of attacks on journalistsA pdf of the letter is here, but here's also an excerpt:

"I share your concerns about the need to protect Sri Lankan journalists and freedom of speech and the State Department has taken steps to assist those who have been threatened. Our latest Country report on Human Rights documents a broad decline in fundamental human rights and the failure of the government to prosecute abusers. However, because it is based on the 2008 calendar year, the report does not document the targeting of journalists since January 2009. Our embassy in Colombo continues to raise publicly and privately--with the government of Sri Lanka--the need for media freedom and the end to human rights abuses." 

The U.S. Embassy and many other diplomatic missions have been leaning on the government about the treatment of journalists, but the effect is hard to measure. There have been no more hit motorcycle-mounted hit squads attacking journalists in their cars, and no other bomb attacks on broadcasters, so maybe the message has been heard. But the government hasn't backed off from its anti-media strategy.

WickramatungaOn April 2, the magistrate hearing evidence in the pre-trial hearing for Lasantha Wickramatunga's murder on January 8 continued the case until April 16. There has been little movement, despite the government's claims that it's moving ahead with due diligence.

The suspect said to have stolen Wickramatunga's phone was remanded into custody until April 16. A friend messaged me from Colombo, saying that the Mount Lavinia police told the court that "their investigations were not over and they were still probing the telephone numbers recorded in Wickramatunga's mobile phone." However, it's interesting that Moratuwa University--Sri Lanka's best engineering university--said the police have not bothered to collect its telephone data report, which was nearly completed in early March. The police had earlier asked Moratuwa's lab to extract as much information as it could from Wickramatunga's SIM card and phone memory.

And, for the record, there has been no movement in the investigation into the January 23 attack on Upali Tennakoon either. Police have said they are at a dead end.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan journalists who have come under attack or faced harsh criticism have stepped back for fear of their lives. We know of about nine Sri Lankan journalists who have withdrawn from public life and their careers. Some have fled Sri Lanka, others are still in the country. Many of the Sri Lankan journalists who have been silenced have asked that their names not be mentioned--requests we are continuing to honor.

Sonali Samarasinghe Wickramatunga, Lasantha Wickramatunga's wife, who has been keeping a very low profile, told me earlier this week after I asked her why she wasn't playing a more public role these days:

"On the morning of Feb 13, our neighbor alerted my sister that two persons on a motorbike very like that which had followed Lasantha on the day of the murder was seen watching our house for quite some time. The neighbors also revealed that, on the morning of the murder, they had seen a black motorbike and two persons leaving our premises one wearing a black bandana on his head, 'as worn by the army security personnel guarding VIPs.' They said it was only later that they connected that with the murder. Of course Lasantha and I also saw a black motorbike with two persons in black wearing black helmets whiz past our car as we stopped in the driveway [on the morning Lasantha was killed]."

And my friend in Colombo friend said yesterday, when I asked about the ongoing situation overall:

"[T]he government offensive against journalists seems to be continuing. It has appointed a Parliamentary Select Committee to probe the writings and the contributions of pro-LTTE Sri Lankan journalists who have been contributing articles to foreign non-governmental organizations, which might be deemed detrimental to the interests of Sri Lanka."


If this happened in an anti WESt country, US UK and all these west will dshout. Since it is in SL they don't bother. I just talk in friendly manner.

After the world cry on attacks on journalists and destruction of TV studios many clandestine works are going on in the North. The editor of Uthayan was abducted and kept in detention after man handling him. Now things are done behind cameras. Not a single case of gross human rights abuses was properly investigated or culprits brought to justice during the entire period of Mahinda Rajapakse's presidency.

Sri Lanka is battling the world's most dangerous terrorist outfit. The fBI placed the Tamil Tigers ahead of Al Qaeda and Hamas.

In World War2 the press core and journalist did their jobs in a responsible manner. They didnt even call the German Shepard(Dig) a 'German Shepard' because they were at war with Germany. A bit extreme I know. But journalist in Sri Lanka due to their affiliation with opposition political parties have threatened national security by reporting outside of the parliament approved censorship. We all respect democracy right? So opposing the censorship or not, it was passed in a democratic manner.

Journalist should heed to national security over political interest.

That being said, the government sponsored assassinations and the government turning a blind eye and not pursuing Lasantha's killers is shameful.

Yes the sitaution is dire for jouranalists and indeed very grave for Tamil citizens because of teh murderous genocide taking place in the Wanni on teh island. Both dangers need to be oepnly recognised and acted upon by the international community and the UN under intearntional hnumna righst and humanitarian laws.

Sri Lanka is behaving like a genocide bandit with scant regard for justice and the rule of law. War crimes are perpetrated openly. And yet silence is the word from all sides.

Why is this so brazenly being perpetuated?

Lasantha is my friend,we have to press the court to invite the Prasident of srilanka because Lasantha before he died he wrote a letter (I red this letter in internet) saying that my death is by the Prasiedent so the court must call him for questioning.I have read few attical of Lasanthas by internet so everbody must give their comment to help his family and to his frinds to give more information.Please do this on behafe of Lasanthas ash.thank you.

Eventhough Iam a TAMIL born in jaffrna but schoolig in colombo,Kotahena but now in Swiss any way my dear Lasanth is known to me in school and as well as his house in kotahena.I am asking all his friends to give more evedents to his family so they can produice in courts.I have red a statment before he died through the TAMILNET.Lasantha have wrote that he is a good friend of MAHINTHA RAJAPACSA the Presidant of sri lanka (now he is a BLOOD SUCKER) and some times he visit to president house and he has written that my death will be done by the precent government.My oppenean is this statment might have red by the President.The statment given by dear Lasantha is about seven pages.So as I am a tamil(sapoter for Tamil tiger in swiss) asking all the people and his friends who have red his arrtical please give some evedents to his family to procide the case as fast as possible.Do not afaride to any body.We all must help to his family.What I can say is for Lasantha`s death there are some MP`speacialy and the President of sri lanka are behind for again I am asking to give some evedents to his family.Onbehalf of Lasantha`s ash please heip.As iam in swiss I canot help only thing is I can read the news from TAMIL NET or from I have red some news on the 4th of April the Mrs.Hillary Clinton have wrote to the President to proside the case as fast as possible.So my dear friends I am asking onbehalf of my friend Lasantha`s ash if you know any news about his death please inform to his family .Again I am reminding you that I am a sapoter of TAMIL TIGER in swiss but I am sad my friend Lasantha`s death.

Lasantha turned 51 today. Sunday Leader has put out a special supplement. We should not let Lasantha's murder fade from international media eyes.
Also, plans are afoot among my colleagues in London and human rights organisations to somehow secure the release of Tissainayagam and Vithyatharan who are languishing in jails and immediately send them abroad since there is genuine fear their lives are in more danger when once they are released (only by miracle)than where they are now.
I hope CPJ will continue to pressurise the government in securing their release.

Pearl Thevanayagam April 5, 2009 10:49:32 AM ET

The government of Sri Lanka may defeat the military representation of Tamils, in Tamil Eelam today, but that means nothing in terms of the struggles of the Tamils in the country. In alliance with many powerful countries such as India, Pakistan, China, Japan, Russia, Czech Republic and others, victory of large military combatants over a small group of 'freedom fighters' is not unfeasible. That is far away from calling the battle as being "over". LTTE is just one group which emerged out of the continual atrocities experienced by the Tamils since the time of independence. The kinds of disastrous massacres and genocides in the recent past have only escalated, and are continuing to escalate in intensity, with cluster bomb and phosphorous gas attacks that are against practices of war. Will eliminating LTTE in the name of "fighting a war on terror" leave the Tamils of the island any more peaceful? Or will the combating continue may be in a different style? In a different name? With the death toll rising in unimaginable numbers, the devastation suffered by the Tamils in the island will only amplify into rage. Right now with over 80 000 families are trapped in a 100-people-occupying strip along the coast. One can only imagine the blood bath and casualties as the battle field closes in on them, let alone the tens of thousands of others surrounded by barbed wires in the name of "safe zones", and those deteriorating in the aftermaths of earlier shelling and cluster bombs deprived of basic necessities. With over 90 million Tamils living in over 58 countries around the world pleading the UN and other countries to condemn the acts of the Sri Lankan government, not one country successfully saved a single life from the massive evil acts of violence (including all practices against the laws of war). "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends" Martin Luther King. Just as they openly requested the world NGOs to leave the country, of course, the government of SL had not allowed any independent journalists with all that they have to hide. Yet, nothing effective was done about it. Will the international media flock down to do a 'juicy' coverage when the government of Sri Lanka invites them? It can make a nice cover story and may be even special episode with "survival stories" (like today's: "Rwandan survivors recall genocide" on Toronto Star) given there are people left to tell tales. Given the historical victories and intricacy of LTTE intelligence, deciphering their tactics and understanding their work may prove to be challenging, yet fascinating. But how cooperative can you expect Tamils to be (not just in Sri Lanka but all around the world), having given very little attention and support (if any)? The continual large-scale protests by Tamils around the world themselves are living proofs that the revolution is not over, and will not be, until and unless an acceptable long-term peaceful resolution is attained !!!


Freedom of Expression Awards 2009 shortlist announced

17Mar09 - 14:58

Index on Censorship today announces the shortlist for the 2009 Freedom of Expression Awards.

The awards, presented in association with the Economist, the Guardian, Bindmans and the Robert Gavron Trust, honour those who have furthered the cause of freedom of expression and battled censorship around the world.

Prizes are awarded in five categories: books, film, journalism, and law and campaigning.

Previous winners include Arat Dink, Anna Politkovskaya and Edward Said.

This year's shortlist includes Sri Lanka's Sunday Leader newspaper, Ma Jian's novel Beijing Coma, and Steve McQueen's film, Hunger.

The awards will be presented on 21 April at Kings Place, London. The ceremony will be hosted by Index on Censorship Chair Jonathan Dimbleby, with a keynote speech by Sir David Hare.

Index on Censorship Chief Executive John Kampfner commented: 'The Freedom of Expression Awards focus attention on activists, writers and film makers around the world who actively promote free expression, often in the most difficult circumstances. Index on Censorship is delighted to recognise their efforts at this increasingly high-profile annual event.'

To book your tickets for the awards show, and to learn more about the nominees, go to or alternatively contact Ade Lukes at [email protected] or Padraig Reidy at [email protected]

The full short lists for 2009 are:

The T R Fyvel Book Award nominees are:
Rebel's Hour by Lieve Joris (Atlantic Books)
Bejing Coma by Ma Jian (Chatto and Windus)
Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker (Simon and Schuster)
A Field Guide for Female Interrogators by Coco Fusco (Seven Stories Press)

The Bindmans Law and Campaigning Award nominees are:
Gamal Eid, Egyptian human rights champion and regional campaigner for freedom of expression.
Harrison Nkomo, a human rights lawyer defending journalists in Zimbabwe.
Harry Roque, a campaigner for human rights and media freedom in the Philippines.
Malak Imtiaz, a human rights lawyer and activist and the current president of the National Human Rights Society (HAKAM) of Malaysia.

The Index on Censorship Film Award nominees are:
Hunger, Dir. Steve McQueen (Pathe).
The Devil Came on Horseback, Dir. Ricki Stern (Dogwoof).
Terror's Advocate, Dir. Barbet Schroeder (Artificial Eye).
On the Verge, directed and distributed by SchMovies.

The Guardian Journalism Award nominees are:
The Sunday Leader, a platform for some of Sri Lanka's most outspoken journalism despite its editor's assassination.
Sanjuana Martinez, an award-winning freelance journalist investigating and exposing corruption in Mexico.
Tamer Almishall, the youngest reporter for the Arabic television network, Al Jazeera, who reported from the recent invasion and bombardment of Gaza.
Sakit and Genimet Zakhidov, who are both serving prison sentences for their dedication to freedom of speech after writing articles and poetry critical of Azerbaijan's authoritarian government.

The Economist New Media Award nominees are:
Global Voices Advocacy, an international network for bloggers and activists.
Psiphon, a computer programme and network created to circumvent censorship, Canada.
Hossein 'Hodder' Derakhshan an Iranian blogger.
Mizzima, a Burmese-exile run news website.

My solidarity to Sonali. We met in Norway, last year. Only now I learned what happened to her husband three months ago. Hope you're reading this. I've just prepared here a mug of that tea. Get in touch, if you can.

What a legend lasantha was

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