COLOMBO, Feb 20 (IPS) – Gemunu Amerasinghe, a photographer with the international news wire Associated Press, was shooting earlier this month in downtown Colombo for an innocuous assignment — or so he thought.He had just finished taking pictures of students near the Isiphatana Vidayalaya and was about to leave after thanking soldiers stationed nearby, when he was suddenly confronted by members of the Civil Defence Committee (CDC), a vigilante group, at the school.
They threatened him and accused him of working for the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The media accreditation from AP and the Sri Lankan Department of Information, that registers all journalists working on the island, did not impress the CDC.
He was handed over to police who released him two hours later, after recording his statement. The CDC and staff of the minister Douglas Devnanda, whose office happened to be located near the school, suspected Amerasinghe of taking pictures of the minister’s office.
“The police said that next time I wanted to take pictures, they will send a constable with me,” Amerasinghe later told IPS only half jokingly. His ordeal is but a mild example of the fast shrinking reporting space in Sri Lanka, according to journalists and activists.
They warn that the media freedom has been on the slide since December 2005 when violence between government forces and the LTTE intensified. With the collapse of a five year ceasefire between the two this January, their fears have now reached panic levels.
“What we have seen is that media freedom has been clearly diminishing these past two years,” Sunanda Deshapriya, convenor of the Free Media Movement (FMM) told IPS. “We have raised this at so many forums, even with President (Mahinda) Rajapakse, but there has not been any improvement. Now with the fear of attacks in public places high, even members of the public have begun to disregard their right to information.”
Official attitudes may best be seen in the Sri Lankan defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s call on Jan. 27 to censor the media and reintroduce criminal defamation laws. Rajapaksa, who is the brother of the Sri Lankan President, told the ‘Sunday Lankadeepa’ that he advocated press censorship, harsh punishments for critical reporting on the military and military expenditures, and a criminal defamation law.
The Paris based media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) describes Sri Lanka as one of the countries where the press is under severe threat. It said that there were serious concerns over the safety of journalists covering the conflict similar to those faced in Chad, Somalia and the Occupied Territories. “The authorities in Sri Lanka systematically blocked investigations into murder cases involving the press. Police made no attempt to probe further when suspects were indicated or vital clues found,” the group said in its annual report released earlier this month.
The lobby said access to conflict ridden areas had been severely restricted forcing the reporters to become mouthpieces for one or the other sides. “Access to conflict zones is virtually impossible for journalists and the war of words and statistics between the government and the LTTE spilled over into the press,” RSF said.
“Since no independent journalist was able to reach the scene, the majority of the Sinhala and English language press in Colombo carried the government account without being able to check it, while Tamil news websites and media carried news and footage put out by LTTE,” RSF said of the reporting of an air raid inside Tiger areas in January. The government said that the raid was on a Tamil Tiger base while the latter said it had targeted civilians.
Two days after Amerasinghe’s run-in with the CDC, hundreds of journalists were joined by civic activists and others in a march in Colombo seeking an end to media repression.
“The people have a right to know the dirty side of the war; it is the job of the journalist to tell the truth. And the people of this country have a right to know, no one can take that away,” veteran trade union activist Bala Tampoe said at the march.
Observers feel that government authorities have turned a blind eye to attacks against the media by groups such as the CDC.
“Reporting has become difficult while clashes between government forces and the Tigers increased, now there is a full war and no access,” FMM’s Deshapriya said. “No access means no information, no information means that the country is in the dark or there is only partial truths available to them.”
On every occasion that the media has come under attack, the FMM and other media rights groups have taken to the streets, now they see a need to widen the campaign and join with other civic groups.
“If the press is muzzled then what happens? People’s right to information is what is being targeted here,” Sanath Balasooriya of the local Working Journalists Association told IPS.
Balasooriya feels that if the campaign for wider media freedom does not garner popular support, their battle will be harder. “Ordinary people have to realise that this affects all of us… they may not see this now, but with time they will,” he predicted.
Since 1999, at least 14 journalists have been killed according to the FMM. Last year a newspaper printing press was set on fire, several journalists fled the country temporarily or suspended their writing for a short time following threats. One newspaper, the Uthanyan, in northern Jaffna Peninsula, was left to print on brown wrapping paper after newsprint ran out.
Members of the Sri Lankan media has shown amazing resilience in the face of heavy odds.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has highlighted Sri Lankan media’s feisty character. “Journalists in countries under duress realise that a free and open society is something grander than journalism. They also know that without journalism — even when it is flawed, or biased, or self-censored — a free society cannot truly exist,’’ it said referring to the situation in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.