Army Commander calls journalists traitors

4th January 2008, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Free Media Movement (FMM) is deeply disturbed to note that the commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Major General Sarath Fonseka, has named sections of the media and journalists as traitors. In an interview published in the State controlled Sinhala daily Dinamina on 2nd January 2008, Major General Fonseka said that this was the only obstacle the military could not surmount in its fight to defeat the LTTE.

He said:

“The biggest obstacle is the unpatriotic media. I am not blaming all journalists. I know 99% media and journalists are patriotic and doing their job properly. But unfortunately we have small number of traitors among the journalists. They are the biggest obstacle. All other obstacles we can surmount. “

Major General Fonseka does not go on to define who the treacherous and unpatriotic journalists are. Based however on a series of abominable statements and actions against media personnel, particularly in the embattled Jaffna peninsula, by sections of the Government and the Sri Lankan Army, the FMM believes this pointed reference is made against journalists who question government war propaganda and report in the public interest aspects of the ongoing conflict through investigative reports.

The FMM has repeatedly noted that media has a responsibility to report critically on policies and actions of those in power, especially at a time of war. The FMM notes with regret that reports of significant corruption and gross lapses in security, that have deeply embarrassed the government, resulted in the naming and shaming of courageous and professional journalists as traitors, pariahs and supporters of the LTTE. For example, in October 2007, in a lengthy article captioned “Mr. Iqbal Athas, stop insulting our soldiers’ sacrifices” and 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.” It further says “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).

Given the context of wanton violence across Sri Lanka and the culture of impunity, the FMM is gravely concerned that this latest statement by the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army is an open warrant to incite hate and harm against journalists in Sri Lanka. We firmly urge the Government and the Sri Lankan Army to desist from such statements and respect the rights of journalists, the freedom of expression and media freedom.

Since imprecise statements and veiled threats are easy to make and harder to justify, the FMM urgently requests Major General Fonseka to provide names of the media institutions and journalists he considers “traitors” and the criteria he used to come to this understanding.

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