4 May 2008, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The FMM is outraged to note that the Sri Lankan Government launched another vicious attack against The Sunday Times Consultant Editor and Defence Correspondent Iqbal Athas, ironically on the United Nations designated World Press Freedom Day.. In an article published on the Ministry of Defence website http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20080502_06) the government accuses him of concocting facts regarding the debacle faced by the Sri Lankan Army recently in Muhamalai, thereby setting himself up as a stooge of the LTTE.
“…his great skill in misleading the public, desire to demoralize troops, and the need to give propaganda mileage to the terrorists. This is why the LTTE has possibly used people like Mr. Athas to write a heavily wired story like this…”
“…the overtones of bias and partial or complete falsity which are attached to it. We consider his work as seriously offending to the soldiers who are fighting valiantly at the battlefront, as well as to the people who supports them at heart.”
This is not the first time Iqbal Athas has been called a terrorist and traitor by the Government for his courageous reporting of the on-going war. In October 2007, in a lengthy article captioned Mr. Iqbal Athas, stop insulting our soldiers’ sacrifices also posted on Ministry of Defense website, the Government charged that “Mr. Athas’ recent work raises doubts whether he has been assisting in the psychological operations of the LTTE terrorists” and goes on to note that “Whoever attempts to reduce public support to the security forces or attempts to damage the loyalty of the soldiers towards their commanders at this moment can only be considered as those who serve the cause of the terrorists.” ( http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20071001_06).
The FMM unequivocally respects freedom of expression, and the Government”s right to give its version of events on the on-going war. However, it cannot be deemed to be the only truth.. It is the inherent right of a journalist to sift fact from fiction, the truth from propaganda, to keep the public informed and educated. Journalists cannot be named and shamed as terrorists, at the will and pleasure of the Ministry of Defence or officials who conduct the ongoing war. To do so is an affront to professional journalism and a tragic denial of the public’s right to information.
In our opinion, these vicious attacks against Iqbal Athas by the Government are clear attempts of harassment, intimidation and the incitement of hatred. They are a chilling warning to the media community, both local and foreign, that the Government cannot and will not tolerate any dissent, criticism of its policies or actions related to the on-going war. Any independent view expressed by other journalists will only earn them the dubious title of “terrorst” – a sinister mud slinging campaign. It seems a strange co-incidence that the latest campaign against Athas comes in the backdrop of a eerie backdrop.
As Iqbal Athas notes in his column on 4th May 2008 ( ttp://www.sundaytimes.lk/080504/Columns/sitreport.html),
“Suspicious characters wielding pistols or grenades stalk outside their homes. When the Police discover them, superiors who then identify themselves offer seemingly convincing alibis. They are stranger than fiction. It is made out that those involved were on an “official mission” though the resources they use, like motorcycles for example, are in the names of civilians. Sometimes the stalkers provide unsolicited escort when one travels. They want to find out whom one visits and what for. It is a regular occurrence.”
This is highly disturbing situation and a well calculated attempt to prevent the media from reporting only Government propaganda. . A Janus faced Government that viciously quells voices of dissent and at the same time has the audacity to claim that it supports media freedom is the most significant challenge facing independent journalists in Sri Lanka today. Athas told FMM, he was convinced that the aim of all these attacks was to silence him. This is clearly a bad omen.
We have repeatedly noted that media freedom is essential for democratic governance. We have repeatedly called upon this government to stop abusing media personnel and journalists who provide vital and independent analyses. The Government continues to turn a deaf ear.