Sri Lanka got special mention in the statements of world leaders marking World Press Freedom Day, May 3. It's not surprising. The government in Colombo has coupled an all-out effort to end its war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam with an assault on critics in the Sri Lankan media. U.S. President Barack Obama's statement mentioned the egregious case of J.S. Tissainayagam, on trial in Colombo and accused of terrorism because of his writing.
Obama cites this and other cases as examples of press freedom abuses worldwide.
Emblematic examples of this distressing reality are figures like J.S.Tissainayagam in Sri Lanka, or Shi Tao and Hu Jia in China. We are also especially concerned about the citizens from our own country currently under detention abroad: individuals such as Roxana Saberi in Iran, and Euna Lee and Laura Ling in North Korea.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Adam Schiff, one of the founders of the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press, also mentioned Tissa, among several others, in his remarks for World Press Freedom Day. "His trial is set to resume on May 6, but it is our hope the Sri Lankan government will drop these baseless charges and release J.S. before the trial resumes," the California congressman said.
In a May 2 message, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also turned his attention to Sri Lanka, calling on the government to ensure that those responsible for journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga's murder are found and prosecuted.
Ban cited CPJ's statistics to press the government for a full investigation into Lasantha's death: "According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 11 journalists have been killed in the line of duty so far this year. Among them was Lasantha Wickramatunga, a prominent Sri Lankan journalist assassinated in January on his way to work," Ban's statement said.
And on May 3, the United Nations posthumously awarded Lasantha its UNESCO 2009 World Press Freedom Prize for his work. The decision to name Lasantha was made in April, by a global panel of 14 judges.
Lasantha's wife, Sonali Samarasinghe Wickremetunge, did not attend the UNESCO ceremony in Doha for what she said were "unavoidable circumstances." But her statement was read by her niece, Natalie Samarasinghe. (We've posted her full statement here) Her eloquence is fitting for the nature of the award and as a way to commemorate her husband's killing and her country's suffering:
The free Sri Lanka in which I was born no longer exists. Our country has entered a Dark Age characterized by tyranny and state-sponsored terror, where the government publicly, cynically and unapologetically equates democratic dissent to treason. The sinister white van in which the state abducts its perceived enemies including journalists, many of them never to be seen again, has become a symbol of untold dread. Yet, we need to remember that violence against journalists is only the tip of the iceberg. Tens of thousands of ordinary Sri Lankan civilians--men, women, children, and the aged--have been herded into concentration camps where they are held against their will. There they languish in the most horrible of conditions, trapped behind barbed-wire fences and beneath the radar of a world which, perhaps rightly, is more concerned with the arguably greater tragedies unfolding in places such as Darfur.