One freed, but what about the others silenced in Sri Lanka?

By Bob Dietz/Asia Program Coordinator on January 12, 2010 4:37 PM ET

With Monday’s release  of J. S. Tissainayagam on bail, maybe things are looking up for the media in Sri Lanka. CPJ welcomed Tissainayagam’s release from a sentence of 20 years' “rigorous imprisonment,” but called on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to extend him a full pardon, as it is within his presidential powers to do. For now, at least, Tissa, as he is known, is out of his prison cell though not free to leave the country—the appeal court that set him free demanded that he hand over his passport as part of the bail agreement. But there are many other cases still hanging in the air in Sri Lanka that will not go away, even though they are making their way through the courts.

Lasantha Wickramatunga

Last week, a friend in Sri Lanka forwarded me a story from the country’s Daily Mirror that reported from court documents about the murder weapon used in the January 2009 killing of The Sunday Leader’s editor-in-chief, Lasantha Wickramatunga. The investigation into Wickramatunga’s death is still moving ahead, glacially, in the Mount Lavinia Magistrate’s Court in Colombo. The coroner’s autopsy (in Sri Lanka it’s called the Judicial Medical Officer’s (JMO) Report) was never released, though the court had recorded the cause of death as gun shot injuries. The Daily Mirror reported:

“The JMO who conducted the post mortem inquiry had revealed Lasantha's death had been caused not due to gunshot injuries, but injuries caused to his head with a sharp weapon. The cause of death as gunshot injuries had apparently been recorded based on entries made by the medical officer who recorded his admission to the hospital.”

It may seem gruesome, but there is great significance in the specifics of how the well-known editor was killed. When CPJ first reported Wickramatunga’s death on January 8, 2009, we quoted The Sunday Leaders staffers as saying he was killed with guns equipped with silencers. They said that witnesses at the scene—he was killed at around 10 a.m. on a busy road while on his way to work by eight men on four motorcycles—heard no gunshots fired, which they would have surely heard even over the busy traffic noises at the intersection where he had been forced to pull over.

His assailants bashed in the window of the car before shooting him in the chest and head, according to colleagues and local and international news reports,” we said in our initial alert on the day he was killed.

CPJ repeated those assumptions in subsequent alerts and blogs, and it wasn’t until I got to Colombo in February that I began to be told a more horrible angle to the story. I was working on a CPJ special report, Failure to Investigate, an investigation not only into Wickramatunga’s killing, but the January 6 attack on Sirasa TV, and the January 23 attack on another newspaper editor, Upali Tennakoon and his wife, Dhammika.

Several sources, all of whom insisted on anonymity, told me that Wickramatunga was killed not by gunshots, but by piercing his skull with a “sharp pointed metal rod” and that the other weapons used were pointed wooden poles. Convinced by the sources’ access and integrity, we reported the murder weapon as a metal pole in Failure to Investigate.

The sourcing had been bolstered after I interviewed Tennakoon and his wife in the hospital room where he was recovering from his wounds—Dhammika had also been injured, but not as seriously. They said the four men on two motorcycles who attacked them used wooden and iron poles similar to those described by our sources, who were working from the evidence they had from Wickramatunga’s wounds, not from evidence at the scene of the crime. One of the attackers also stabbed at Upali with a knife, but it was deflected and only nicked his stomach.

The next hearing in Wickramatunga’s case will be on January 21.

This is a two-part blog entry. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the relevance of these cases to the elections coming up on January 26, and why it is not likely that the anti-media atmosphere that was part of the government’s all-out effort to win the war with Tamil secessionists is not likely to end soon.  


There is something unique among Sri Lanka's journalists. We may come from different ethnic groups but when it comes to freedom of expression we stand united.

Tissainayagam may have had his faults in that he chose to support an NGO championing Tamil rights. The government's ire and excuse for jailing him was he procured funds from the LTTE to do so.

I too was branded an LTTE sympathiser simply because I defied govt. censorship in visiting LTTE areas to interview LTTE leaders as to how they could air their grievances without resorting to violence.

I paid the price of being arrested in July 1995.

But it was my Sinhalese colleagues who protested to the then defence minister and I was released without charges. The Tamil journalists were too scared to support me understandably since they would also be branded as traitors.

If Tissa had indeed procured funds from the LTTE for his own personal benefit then there is the regular judicial procedure.

But the irony is there are no evidence to accuse him of mis-appropriation. Only hearsay evidence and conjectures.

Tissa has obviously been granted bail to show the world before elections that this govt. is democratic and it could exonerate itself from the war crimes and other HR violations the EU, US and UK are insistent on investigating.

The election gimmicry in allowing Tamils in detention camps to be freed, pardoning suspected LTTErs are show-piece gestures of the govt to win Tamil votes.

The Tamils are forced at gunpoint by Tamil para military groups opposed to the LTTE and who have chosen to support the ruling govt. to vote for the current President or else.

Whether it is the current president or his former army chief who is contesting him media freedom cannot be achieved until the international community places some kind of economic embargo and instigate thorough investigation into the atrocities committed against Tamils in the last few months of the onslaught.

Lasantha,Sivaram alias Taraki in 2005, and the very first journalist Richard De Soysa who was murdered by armed gunmen in 1990 for sending videotapes to a foreign news agency of the massacre of 70,000 Sinhala youth believed to support Marxist rebels in 89/90 were too outspoken that they were considered dangerous to the ruling parties' autocratic governance.

Should the international community is hoodwinked by the government's conducted tours to chosen rehabilitation camps and pacified by dis-information counsellors the powers that would take the presidency will continue to enjoy privileges which would be denied to the minorities.

Pearl Thevanayagam January 12, 2010 5:55:19 PM ET

Pearl Thevanayagam wrote: "Tissainayagam may have had his faults in that he chose to support an NGO championing Tamil rights".

Pardon? I think that's a fundamentally flawed statement. It's not his "fault", it is his right and duty to stand up for human rights, which he so courageously performed.

Secondly, the title of this article, "One freed, but what about the others silenced in Sri Lanka?" is inaccurate in that Tissa is not "freed". He's merely out of prison. There is a difference. One can only hope he won't be harmed.

Nothing is ever black and white Nancy. Until Tissa is proven innocent beyond all reasonable doubt and I hope he could we need to look at all aspects of why he was singled out and ergo became a target for this govt. which is bent on jailing Tamil journalists.

I am not in Sri Lanka and therefore I cannot vouch for the reasons why Mahinda was able to imrison Tissa.

News I hear is that there are international NGOs who pay for journalists to take a stance against the govt.

Whetther Tissa tok money from the LTTE or these international NGOs need to be verified.

My aim is that journalists should not become fodder to either the govt. or foreign interests to satisfy their own agenda.

It is so easy to fall prey to these monetary gains particularly when journalists are paid a pittance which hardly sustain them.

I did re-iterate there is no such evidence against Tissa.

But journalists have been forced to succumb to finanical pressure in accepting donations from well wishing NGOs.

Pearl Thevanayagam January 13, 2010 5:35:51 PM ET

The brutal suppression of media freedom has undermined Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions and governance.

In fact, all ethnic communities are suffering from the collapse of the rule of law. Disappearances and political killings associated with the government’s counterinsurgency campaign have been greatly reduced since the end of the war but not totally eradicated. Even the upcoming election does not necessarily provide meaningful hopes for Tamil minority as both candidates play the card of patriotism in the expense of Tamils' freedom and human rights.

As part of post conflict reconstruction, international community is more than willing to assist. But, U.N. agencies and nongovernment organizations should have full access to monitor the programs to ensure international money is spent properly and people receiving aid are not denied their fundamental freedoms.

Let me conclude my letter repeating powerful words from Lasantha Wickramatunga's "letter from grave" : " “No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism”.

This has been an extremely vicious conflict that has stumped experienced schollars and experts in conflict resolution for decades. It has been so conviluted that there is a huge part to be played by investigative journalists to unravel some of the convolutions in order to resolve the conflict.
Example, the behaviour of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon - his election and withdrawal of Sri Lankan candidate.

Ganes Selva wrote: "But, U.N. agencies and nongovernment organizations should have full access to monitor the programs to ensure international money is spent properly and people receiving aid are not denied their fundamental freedoms." - Agree with your statement. I guess the U.N. should be more pro-active to asks their rights to monitoring the programs by themselves. If not, I don't see that the Sri Lanka government won't asks the U.N. for that one.

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