How times change in Sri Lanka, and how they don't

By Bob Dietz/CPJ Asia Program Coordinator on June 4, 2012 12:48 PM ET

Iqbal Athas. (AP/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

For a good historical perspective on the abuse of journalists in Sri Lanka, Iqbal Athas, the recipient of a 1994 International Press Freedom Award from CPJ, wrote a center-page spread for the 25th anniversary edition of the Sunday Times, a popular weekly in Colombo. Athas, a critical journalist who specializes in defense issues, works as an associate editor and defense correspondent for the Times.

The lede to his article recounts a 1998 incident in which armed men invaded his home while he, his wife, and their seven-year-old daughter watched television. After the men left, the story spread, and all night, they received phone calls from friends and acquaintances inquiring about their safety. In his article, Athas describes how one of the callers was then-Minister of Fisheries Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa was trying to make a name for himself as a champion of human rights and offered his support to the Athas family.

But Rajapaksa, who was elected president in 2005, has a long and alarming record of intolerance to criticism, according to CPJ research. Journalists have been attacked, assaulted, abducted, and killed during his administration, CPJ research shows. In a 2008 letter to Rajapaksa, CPJ voiced concern about government officials repeatedly calling journalists "traitors" in public. At least nine journalists have been murdered in the Rajapaksa era, all of them unsolved, CPJ research shows.

Athas' piece is a reminder of how long conditions have been bad for journalists in Sri Lanka. The anniversary edition of the Sunday Times is posted as a PDF, and you can find Athas' piece on pages 25 and 26.

And congratulations to all the staff at the Sunday Times for making it this far in such a hostile media climate.


Iqbal is the finest, integlligent, astute and intrepid journalist Sri Lanka ever had. He bowed to no powers and he should be held in the highest esteem. But the government likes sycophants.

I cut my teeth in journalism under this worthy journalist at the Independent Newspapers. His nose for news far surpasses those who now proclaim to be journalists. I hope he makes a comeback in Sri Lankan journalism. Iqbal is a treasure Sri Lankan journalism cannot forfeit.

CNN and other international media swear by him.

I wish him well.

Pearl Thevanayagam

Iqbal was writing about Sri Lanka's fight against terrorism for many years. He was one who promoted the Idea that the SL armed forces will neverce able to match the military brilliance of the Tigers. I am glad he was proven wrong !

prasanna srinath June 4, 2012 2:51:09 PM ET

Sings of the Time: Iqbal Athas's by line has disappeared form Sunday Times columns, is it another white van abduction ?

It was soldiers not journalists who brought peace to Sri Lanka. We love the soldiers not jurnalists.

Today the journalists working in Sri Lanka have to work under self imposed censorship. Anyone who crosses the line will be abducted, tortured and then disappear.
Organizations like CPJ must work to protect the journalists who are working in that hostile environment. Also, CPJ must write about the atrocities that are taking place under this government.

The Great journalist Iqbal Athas was right.
SL armed forces would never able to match the military brilliance of the Tigers. If they they fought the war, tha way a war should fought.
Had the SL forces fought the war you think Prasanna? No, They just urged the civiliens to move to N F Z and aerial bombed,artilery fired.
UN have found traces of Cluster bombs too, and claims lives even three years after. SL armed forces used poisius Nitrogen gas to kill Tigers commandos, Which forces in the World can not win the war this way? I A might have thought
S L-forces were disiplined and genione.

Iqbal Athas has been an A-class journalist, always wrote what he saw. In Sri Lanka only government supporters has freedom of speech and others express air the news or their views at their own peril. There are abductions, beatings, torture and extra judicial killing of people for what they said or did. None of the perpetrators of these crimes was apprehended or investigated under the present regime headed by Mahinda Rajapakse.

Kajen, it looks like you are blinded by your own lies. You forget to mention rather conveniently that the Terrorists were holding the innocent civilians as human shields. Are you trying to infer that the Tigers were fighting with honor ? through abducted child suicide bombers and bombing civilians in buses trains and buildings ??? Tiger terrorist leaders were cowards encouraging these brain washed followers to ingest cyanide rather than surrendering but the leaders were calling journalists and tring to surrender to third parties.
For your Information it was the tigers who were using chemichael weapons whithout much success. UN has not found any Cluster bombs & report you cite has been thouroghly discredited.

@ Kajen:
Due respects to Athas as a niche journalist. SL forces are indeed disciplined, genuine AND professional.However, look in the mirror, be genuine to yourself and ask if the war fought was one staged under conventional terms or that led by a murderous brute thirsting for blood and carnage. Your biased interpretation needs an honest answer from your mirror and for the sake of alleviating the inner voices in your mind I hope it gives you a genuine one.

Mammalay Marikkar June 4, 2012 8:37:26 PM ET

do you think Sri Lankan forces should offer flowers and candy for bunch of brutal terrorist group? get a life instead of talking bull..

Prasnna does not know the meaning of Peace!!!

Sri Lanka never won the war. It massacred men,women,children, old and the infirm. Starved, raped, tortured, robbed, abducted, disappeared civilians into oblivion!!

It was not "at least 9 journalists murdered" but 36 during the Rajapakse regime so far, including Lassantha Wickrematunge. Truth has been the biggest victim in the island. Unless and until there is an independent and credible investigation by the UN into these murders, like all other mass murders and gortesque crimes committed mostly by governments and state agents, under cover of the PTA, not only the journalists but ordinary citizens will continue to be killed and bruised in a land without justice, rule of law and restitution.

It was not Iqbal alone thought that the LTTE could not be defeated by militarly.There were at leaset three Presidents and a Prime Minister of Sri lanka who opted for negotiations with LTTE than fight with them.They were not only the heads of government those times, but were the commanders of armed forces while they were in office.The State can win wars as gurilla outfits not able to match the superiority of fire and man power as states do.Thats what happened in Iraq and Afganistan.

Thusitha Watawala June 6, 2012 2:16:50 AM ET

I am a big fan of athas. Since he left ST I stopped reading any defence column in SL . If he was still there he would have certainly brought the true picture of the final stages of the war . Unlike the rogue journalists fredrica he aspired to bring the truth . When you read his article it's like watching a suspensed thriller and eager to know what's next . Really miss him but good he got out of the shit land.

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