January 9, 2008
His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa
President of Sri Lanka and Minister of Defense, Public Security, Law and Order
Via facsimile: +94 11 2430 590
Dear President Rajapaksa,
As your government prepares to withdraw from its 2002 cease-fire agreement with Tamil separatists, the Committee to Protect Journalists is greatly concerned by reports that members of your government have tried to intimidate journalists in the Sri Lankan media in recent weeks. In at least two instances, an official used the word “traitor” against a journalist, which is decidedly inflammatory in a country that has seen civil war rage since 1983.
We fear that when the end of the cease-fire officially goes into effect on January 16 and fighting resumes, your government will seek to further intimidate Sri Lankan journalists who might report critically on activities of the government or the Sri Lankan military. These fears are not unfounded, given recent incidents such as these:
At a press conference on January 7, Minister of Social Services and Social Welfare K. N. Douglas Devananda called the well-respected senior journalist Sri Ranga Jeyarathnam a “traitor” and accused him of being in league with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Minister Devaada made his remarks because he was angry about a documentary Jeyarathnam had aired on his program on the private Shakthi TV channel about the assassination of Tamil opposition politician T. Maheshvaran on New Year’s Day, it was widely reported in Sri Lanka’s media.
On January 2, in an interview published in the state-controlled Sinhala daily Dinamina, the commander of the Sri Lankan army, Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, called unnamed journalists “traitors” and referred to the “treachery” of the media. According to a translation of Fonseka’s remarks supplied by the Sri Lankan media rights group Free Media Movement, he said: “The biggest obstacle [to fighting Tamil separatists] is the unpatriotic media. I am not blaming all journalists. I know 99 percent of media and journalists are patriotic and doing their jobs properly. But unfortunately, we have a small number of traitors among the journalists. They are the biggest obstacle. All other obstacles we can surmount.”
We wrote to you on October 2, 2007, about written and verbal attacks that appeared on the Ministry of Defense’s Web site about Iqbal Athas, consultant editor and defense correspondent for The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka. The accusations effectively equated Athas’ journalism with terrorism, after he reported on setbacks the army faced in fighting with Tamil secessionists. The lengthy attack on Athas’ reporting accused him of “insulting our soldiers’ sacrifices” and claims his reporting “has been assisting in the psychological operations of the LTTE terrorists.” The article claims that “promoting terrorism had become a lucrative business” for Athas. Athas was awarded CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 1994.
On December 27, Minister of Labor Mervyn de Silva accompanied by a large group of men, stormed the state-run television station Sri Lanka Rupavahini Cooperation and assaulted the station’s news director, T.M.G. Chandrasekara. The station’s staff held the minister and his supporters while police were summoned, and videotaped the minister’s apology for his actions on camera. De Silva was apparently angry because a speech he had delivered the previous day was been fully reported by the station. The government has made no mention of the ugly incident, nor has it apologized to the station’s staff for the behavior of one of its cabinet ministers.
As Sri Lanka apparently prepares to resume military action against the Tamil separatists, we call on you and members of your government to respect the vital role journalists play in an open democratic society. Verbal, written, and physical assaults on journalists are attacks on the very fabric of a democratic society. We call on you to make to ensure that members of your government refrain from such acts of intimidation.