As the Sri Lankan government steps up its war with the LTTE, assaults on journalists are on the rise. So are suspicions that the government is complicit in these attacks.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, February 23, 2009
Sri Lanka’s journalists are under intensive assault. Authorities have failed to carry out effective and credible investigations into the killing of journalists who question the government’s conduct of a war against Tamil separatists or criticize the military establishment. Three attacks in January targeting the mainstream media drew the world’s attention to the problem, but top journalists have been killed, attacked, threatened, and harassed since the government began to pursue an all-out military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in late 2006. Many local and foreign journalists and members of the diplomatic community believe the government is complicit in the attacks.
The lack of credible investigations into these crimes is in keeping with a long history of impunity for those who attack journalists in Sri Lanka. With a failure to investigate and a realistic suspicion that government actors are complicit in the violence against journalists, the time has come for the international community to act.
On January 6, on a quiet road on the outskirts of Colombo, the country’s main independently owned TV station, Sirasa TV, was raided at 2:05 a.m. by 15 to 20 masked armed men working with military precision. At 2:35:31 they detonated an explosion, possibly a claymore mine, a military-style antipersonnel mine set off by an electrical charge through wires leading to the device. The room’s two synchronized clocks both stopped at the time of the explosion. The attackers fired the weapon after stringing the detonating wire about 200 yards (183 meters) from the control room through the station’s corridors to the driveway outside the station’s main front door, according to Sirasa staff.
Staff shied away from describing the weapon specifically to CPJ after one of them had identified it as a claymore in an internationally broadcast interview with CNN on the morning of the attack. Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa denounced that staffer as a “terrorist” during a January 7 interview with the government-run Independent Television Network (ITN). Other knowledgeable sources with military experience who visited the station told CPJ that the damage was consistent with that of a claymore. The explosion wiped out the recently upgraded main control room that kept the broadcaster’s three TV channels and four radio stations on the air. At 6 a.m. on the day of the full attack, Sirasa was broadcasting live shots of the wreckage to early morning viewers—staff had patched together some of the old analog broadcasting equipment.
Claymores are regularly used by both sides in the country’s civil war, the government and the LTTE, but the government has denied that the weapon was a claymore mine and strongly denied involvement in the attack; the reaction has been interpreted by critics as indicative of the government’s connection.
Defense Secretary Rajapaksa’s denial came in the two and a half hour television interview with ITN on January 16. In a translation of the transcript supplied to CPJ by a human rights organization that asked CPJ not to be identified, he accused the owners of Sirasa of carrying out the attack as part of an insurance fraud scheme. He also said the government is investigating the incident.
The second January attack came at around 10 a.m. on January 8, when the editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickramatunga, was killed in his car on his way to work on a busy street in a mixed suburban and semi-industrial suburb of Colombo. According to his brother Lal Wickramatunga, chairman of the paper’s parent company, Leader Publications, the editor had been receiving anonymous death threats by phone for months. Lasantha Wickramatunga’s wife, Sonali Samarasinghe-Wickramatunga, told the CBC that they had been followed earlier in the morning by two men on a motorcycle as they ran errands, and that threats had been on the rise in recent days. Phone calls and text messages came in threatening to kill him if he did not stop criticizing the government. Samarasinghe-Wickramatunga eventually left Sri Lanka after her husband’s death. She has asked that her location not be revealed. The couple had married about two weeks before the attack.
Wickramatunga was killed by a hit squad of eight helmeted men on four motorcycles, according to local newspaper interviews with witnesses at the scene of the crime. He died in the hospital a few hours later. The attack happened about 200 yards (183 meters) from a checkpoint at the large Ratmalana Air Base, but a bend in the road would have kept the attack out of the sight of soldiers manning that post. Nearby shop owners who became aware of the attack after it started told CPJ that the motorcycle-riding attackers rode off in the direction of the checkpoint, adding to the suspicion of some sort of official involvement.
The shop owners said they did not hear gunfire on the morning of the killing, and police told reporters they did not find shell casings. On the day of the murder, staffers at Wickramatunga’s paper told CPJ by phone that the men had used pistols with silencers, which CPJ reported. We also reported that the car’s windows had been smashed, apparently with a heavy object. With no coroner’s report, there is no official explanation for the cause of death. But reliable sources are emerging who say the attackers may have used a different murder weapon.
Wickramatunga’s brother Lal spoke with the doctor who treated him before he died in Colombo’s Kalubowila Hospital. The same doctor also took part in the autopsy, Lal said, though he was not the judicial medical officer (JMO)—the Sri Lankan equivalent of a coroner. That doctor told him there was neither a bullet nor an exit wound in his brother’s skull. There was only an entry wound on his right temple, caused by a weapon that crushed its way through the skull and left two closely spaced punctures. Sonali Samarasinghe-Wickramatunga described a similar wound to the CBC.
Lal said he saw the magistrate’s order describing the cause of death, and it said there had been a gunshot injury to the brain. He said he thinks the coroner’s report has not been released because of the discrepancy in the description of the cause of death. He also said a police forensics expert found no chemical traces of a weapon being fired in the car, or shell casings at the scene. Two diplomatic sources in Colombo told CPJ that Wickramatunga’s right temple had been crushed and that there was no bullet found inside the victim’s brain.
The coroner’s report was scheduled to be released on February 5. The local press later reported that the release date had been moved up to February 16, but it has yet to appear. Police told the media that they are waiting for the government to release the account, which, in their words, “would contain the scientific evidence” they need to proceed. CPJ has received the same formulaic response as it has continued to contact the police. “The belief here is the JMO’s report is being tampered with,” one journalist told CPJ by e-mail when asked for an update.
The next hearing in Wickramatunga’s case is scheduled for March 19 at Colombo’s Mount Lavinia Magistrate’s Courts. The JMO’s report could be released then, along with the report of the government analyst who determines whether a crime has been committed and how to proceed with the case. Until then, all records are closed to the public.
On January 29, CPJ traced Wickramatunga’s route from his home to his office at The Leader, and found that there are many quieter spots than the main road on a busy morning near a military installation where he could have been killed. The route to the paper passes many factories with high walls or fences on lightly traveled roads. There is little or no pedestrian traffic in much of the area.
CPJ went to the site of the attack around the same time of day it had taken place three weeks earlier. The road was bustling with traffic. Shop owners pointed out the spot where the car was left standing after the four motorcycles had forced Wickramatunga’s car to the side of the road, straddling a marked street crossing. When CPJ visited the workplaces of the two men who, according to media reports, had testified at the coroner’s inquest, their employers said they had stopped showing up, and they did not know what had happened to them. It is hard to tell whether they were telling the truth or protecting the witnesses’ identities for fear of retribution from the killers.
The third January attack came at around 6:40 a.m. on January 23, according to Upali Tennakoon, editor of the Sinhala-language, pro-government weekly Rivira and his wife, Dhammika. The couple was driving to his office when motorcyclists forced their car to stop and smashed its window. One attacker used a metal bar with a single sharp point to hit Tennakoon in the face and in his hands when he put them up to defend himself, he said. Both hands received puncture wounds. Another attacker reached into the car and stabbed at him with a knife, but only nicked Tennakoon’s stomach. His wife fought back too, and threw her body over her husband to protect him, the couple said. The attackers fled. On January 27, while Tennakoon was still in Colombo’s General Hospital, the couple told CPJ they were mystified by the attack.
Tennakoon said he did not know the men—this time there were four on two motorcycles, all wearing helmets. Tennakoon’s wife said they used one of two wooden poles they were carrying to break the window of the car and the pointed metal bar to attack her husband. The pointed bar, she said, was somewhere between 2 and 3 feet (60-90 centimeters) long. They aimed for his head and neck, she said.
Tennakoon and his wife said they were aware of no further investigation beyond the police questioning them about the incident. To date, there have been no arrests or announcements made in Tennakoon’s case. The government has offered a 1 million rupee reward (US$8,800) for information leading to an arrest. Fearing for their safety, Tennakoon and his wife went into hiding after leaving the hospital. Soon after, they left Sri Lanka and are now living in another country.
The government has strongly denounced the attacks. Chief government spokesman and Minister of Mass Media and Information Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Minister of Mass Media Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena told Colombo newspapers there was a “massive conspiracy” to discredit the government by destabilizing the country with attacks on prominent figures and a “comprehensive inquiry” would be carried out to find the attackers in all three January cases. The comprehensive inquiry has not happened and the police report little movement in the cases, a pattern that has been seen in past killings, assaults, and attacks on media facilities.
On January 27, President Mahinda Rajapaksa met with the editors of mainstream newspapers and promised a thorough investigation of all the attacks. He also said a breakthrough was coming in Wickramatunga’s case. Two days later, police announced the arrest of two drivers of three-wheeled motorized cabs. According to newspaper reports, one of the drivers was found with Wickramatunga’s cell phone, the other was accused of selling it to him. The two drivers remain in detention. A few days after that, the police told the media that they had found a motorcycle ditched in a canal that they suspect might be one that was used by Wickramatunga’s attackers. They have not released any more information.
When CPJ tried to contact the inspector general of police, Jayantha Wickramaratna, his office said they had no comment to make about any of the cases. The spokesman’s office for the superintendent of police said its statements were all a matter of public record and that it had nothing more to add. The Ministry of Defense told CPJ that its positions on the killings and attacks on journalists are part of the public record, and available on the ministry’s Web site.
With the help of the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington, CPJ spoke by telephone from New York to Attorney General Mohan Peiris in Colombo on February 20 and with Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama on February 23. We asked Peiris about the delay in releasing the JMO’s report in Wickramatunga’s case and of any movement in the investigations of the Sirasa and Tennakoon attacks. Peiris said that investigations are ongoing in all the cases, and said that arrests have been made.
“Our position is that the government is very, very keen to ensure the perpetrators are brought to book,” Peiris said. “There has certainly not been an ebb in our enthusiasm to do so.” He said the cases were proceeding slowly because the facts “have to be verified perfectly.”
Foreign Minister Bogollagama responded in a similar manner. He discussed all three cases individually and in depth. Every aspect of the attack on Sirasa is under investigation, he said, and given that the attack was not a “novice operation,” and to avoid bringing “half-baked cases before court,” the government is proceeding very deliberately. “I’m confident very soon that we will have the evidence that is warranted in order to sustain a prosecution against the perpetrators of this crime,” he said.
The Wickramatunga case is also being pursued, Bogollagama said. Investigators “are taking their time because we don’t want fingers pointed at the government in terms of failing to conduct a fair investigation or to conduct a proper trial,” he said. “To get to that stage we must proceed step by step.”
In Tennakoon’s case, the last attack in January, Bogollagama saw the culmination of a string of events designed to discredit the government—a “sinister group” working to ensure that “the finger of accusation is pointed at the government in order to sustain accusations that there is no media freedom in Sri Lanka,” he said. “That is why we are taking the time to go after a proper investigation.”
Historical precedent undercuts denials
The government’s responses and the arrests in Wickramatunga’s case are dismissed by the non-state press as part of an arrogant, blatant cover-up. One senior editor sardonically told CPJ that there was no need for a government investigation into the Sirasa bombing, Wickramatunga’s killing, or the attack on Tennakoon. “Why should they investigate?” the editor asked. “They already know who did it.” The editor, a long-time newspaperman, asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution from the government.
In addition to journalists outside the pro-government media, diplomats also reject the government’s denial of involvement. On January 19, six former U.S. ambassadors to Sri Lanka wrote an open letter to President Rajapaksa:
Mr. President, we speak frankly because in our dealings with you we have always found you to have an open mind and to respect the truth. Some have suggested that these events have been carried out not by elements of the Government, but by other forces hoping to embarrass the Government. We do not find such arguments credible. . . . We believe it is imperative that these actions stop, and that those who have carried them out be prosecuted.
CPJ counts 10 journalists killed by premeditated murder since 1999, with no prosecutions or convictions. The Rajapaksa government and its predecessors must at least be held responsible for the impunity that surrounds attacks on journalists. Most of these killings came while Rajapaksa served as prime minister from April 2004 and since he became president in November 2005. According to CPJ’s records, since Rajapaksa took high office in Sri Lanka, eight journalists have died of what CPJ considers to be premeditated murder. No one has been brought to trial in any of these cases, according to CPJ research.
Most of those killed were Tamils. And, according to Ananth Palakidnar, a former president of a journalists’ organization called the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance, about 20 to 25 other Tamil journalists have fled the country since the killing of Sivaram Nadesan, who wrote a defense column under the pen name Taraki for the Sunday Times. In April 2005 he was abducted in Colombo; his body was found near the Parliament building the next day.
In his February 20 phone call with CPJ, Attorney General Peiris dismissed the idea of impunity for those who attack journalists: “I can tell you we have a policy of zero tolerance, zero tolerance,” he said. “There is no question of the government or the attorney general’s office accommodating or making concessions for criminals or criminal activities.” Some cases may have been delayed for lack of sufficient evidence, he said.
January’s assaults are part of a broader pattern of attacks against critics of the government, Tamil, Sinhalese, or Muslim. In a string of online postings, the Defense Ministry’s Web site has charged specific journalists with “treachery.” Defense Secretary Rajapaksa uses the government-run television and radio stations to denounce journalists by name, and dismisses allegations that the government is behind the attacks. In June 2008, with the government’s campaign of assaults, harassment, and arrests of journalists in full swing, a chilling statement appeared on the ministry’s Web site:
Whoever attempts to reduce the public support to the military by making false allegations and directing baseless criticism at armed forces personnel is supporting the terrorist organization that continuously murder citizens of Sri Lanka. The Ministry will continue to expose these traitors and their sinister motives and does not consider such exposure as a threat to media freedom. Those who commit such treachery should identify themselves with the LTTE rather than showing themselves as crusaders of Media Freedom.
The ministry’s Web site accused specific media outlets of such behavior, and all have since come under violent attack: Sirasa TV; The Sunday Leader, The Morning Leader, and Irudina (the Sinhala-language Sunday weekly of The Leader group). After The Daily Mirror wrote a series of articles on the Tamil refugee situation, the defense secretary called the paper’s editor, Champika Liyanarachchi, in April 2007 and told her that neither she nor the reporter who wrote the articles should expect government protection if they are attacked, which CPJ reported at the time. The Sunday Times’ defense columnist, Iqbal Athas, has stopped writing and fled and returned to Sri Lanka several times after numerous threats and harassments, he told CPJ. The Times’ Tamil columnist J.S. Tissainayagam has been jailed on state security charges since March 2008—he told the court in his pretrial appearances that other prisoners were beaten in front of him and that he had agreed to sign a false confession. He was not beaten because he has detached retinas in both eyes and his captors feared they would blind him, according to his wife. The Web site Lanka Dissent voluntarily stopped publishing on January 10, citing fears of retribution; and the owner and chief editor of Lanka e-News, Sandaruwan Senadheera, told CPJ in January in Colombo that he has been frequently called in for questioning by the Criminal Investigation Department since a series of articles about the activities of military and police intelligence started running in February 2008.
Independent coverage from the front lines with the LTTE has been stifled for years. Yet far from the battlefields, critical reporting from the capital on the conduct of the war has been quashed, and Sri Lanka’s once-vocal opposition media is facing more repression than under any preceding government. At least seven well-recognized journalists, many of them who worked for the media organizations targeted by the Defense Ministry, have stopped writing; one prominent figure, Tissainayagam, is in jail, and several others have left the country, including Tennakoon. Some have fled and returned, and stopped reporting. This list is not all-inclusive, but among those affected are:
- Namal Perera, a freelance defense analyst, was attacked by men wielding wooden poles as he traveled in a car with a senior British High Commission official in June 2008. They had been followed by two men on motorcycle before Perera’s attackers jumped out of a white van and smashed in the windows of his car and assaulted him, Perera said.
- Iqbal Athas, defense correspondent for The Sunday Times, said he stopped writing his weekly column as a result of threats. Athas also reports from Colombo for CNN and is a correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly. In mid-2008, a pro-government radio station broadcast for weeks, on an almost daily basis, vituperative statements denouncing him, he told CPJ, and the Defense Ministry’s Web site published attacks on his character. On June 3, 2008, on both the state-run Rupavahini national television network and the state-owned Independent Television Network, Defense Secretary Rajapaksa faulted Athas by name for his independent reporting.
- Keith Noyahr, associate editor of the English-language weekly The Nation, was abducted from his home’s garage, held overnight and severely beaten, CPJ reported in May 2008. The assault remains uninvestigated and unprosecuted. Noyahr eventually fled the country. The Nation is owned by Rivira Media Corporation, which also owns the paper for which Tennakoon worked.
- Parameswaree Maunasámi, a Tamil reporter for the Sinhala-language weekly was arrested in November 2006, and held for four months without charge or trial under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, CPJ reported at the time. She was the first reporter to write about white Toyota HiAce vans with tinted glass and no number plates that had been used to pick up Tamils. A similar van was used in the attack on Perera. In his January 16 ITN television interview this year, Defense Secretary Rajapaksa mentioned her by name, again accusing her of being a “terrorist.” The enterprising young reporter no longer lives in Sri Lanka.
When read this list over the phone, Foreign Minister Bogollagama said, “If they were proper journalists, today they would be journalists somewhere [else] in the world, if they had just left the country for their safety.” He went on to ask: “We have so many opposition journalists in this country, why is it only them” who have fled?
“Their so-called writings have affected our destiny and our pursuit of counterterrorism,” he added.
The international community has responded strongly to January’s attacks, and those that preceded them. CPJ wrote to President Rajapaksa last year, calling for him to address the attacks on the media. This year we called for an independent inquiry into the attack on Sirasa TV and, after the killing of Wickramatunga, we called for forceful action from Colombo’s diplomats. Other press freedom and human rights groups have spoken out against Sri Lanka’s media attacks.
The government has come under a barrage of criticism from the diplomatic community, but diplomatic sources say they have little purchase when meeting with the president and his advisors, and at times have been treated dismissively. Some said they fear being marginalized as the government pursues its military solution in the north, which is supported by widespread popular approval in the rest of the country. In Colombo, a disturbing analogy is being frequently used by journalists and some diplomats: There is concern that Sri Lanka is heading in the direction of becoming another Zimbabwe or Burma, countries run by governments resistant to pressure to live up to global norms of human rights.
To the international community:
- Engage with the Sri Lankan government, particularly the president’s office, to address what has become a protracted assault on journalists and media houses.
- Insist that the government rein in its security forces, which are believed to be behind not only the spate of attacks in January of this year, but the assaults on journalists critical of the government that increased in late 2006.
- Point out that Sri Lanka’s international image has been tarnished, and insist that attacks must be fully investigated by police and the judiciary, unhindered by government pressure. No matter what viewpoint the government holds in its attempts to end the fighting with the LTTE, members of Sri Lanka’s civil society who dare to criticize the government must not be treated as the enemy.
To the government of Sri Lanka:
- Provide adequate protection and security for any journalist who is threatened.
- Ensure that those journalists who have fled in fear of their lives or liberty can return home to Sri Lanka in safety.
- Ensure an independent, thorough, and timely investigation of all attacks on journalists.
- Release the full autopsy report on Lasantha Wickramatunga.
To the U.S. government:
- The American Embassy in Colombo is deeply concerned about these attacks on journalists and has often acted in their interest. CPJ calls on the State Department to work with the embassy to consider ways to offer temporary refuge to Sri Lankan journalists who decide to flee their country in fear for their safety, and to encourage other countries to do the same. None of these men and women want to abandon their homeland, their families, and their careers, but they deserve some sort of temporary refuge.