By IPS Correspondents
COLOMBO, Mar 17 (IPS) – While Sri Lanka’s armed forces battle Tamil Tiger rebels in the north, sections of the country’s media are embroiled in a war of a different kind — a fight to pursue their mission as journalists.
Three unrelated events involving men and women working for television, print and an on-line publication have brought this dire situation into sharp focus. In all cases, spread over the past two weeks, media practioners have been under fire, triggering outrage from local and international media rights groups.
The attacks that have attracted the widest attention here are those on media workers attached to Rupavahini, the government-owned TV channel that has the widest coverage in the South Asian island-nation. On Mar.14 morning, Anurasiri Hettige, an employee of the state television corporation, was attacked with an iron club as he waited for a bus in a Colombo suburb.
He was the fifth employee of the channel to be attacked or threatened in the last three months. Media rights groups say that the attacks are linked to an incident on Dec. 27 last year, when government minister Mervyn Silva stormed into Rupavahini and abused senior staff over a news programme. Silva was assaulted and daubed in paint by angry Rupavahini employees as he was escorted out under military protection.
‘’All these incidents are linked to the what happened on December 27,’’ Poddala Jayantha, secretary of the working journalists association, told IPS. ‘’The attacks on Rupavahini employees continue because authorities have been slow to go after those responsible… instead Rupavahini workers are being questioned on the December 27 incident.’’
Jayantha, too, was threatened by unidentified men, who had come to his house in the middle night soon after the Rupavahini incident. He was present in the Rupavahini compound when Silva was escorted out and spoke out against the government minister for trying to intimidate media.
‘’Sri Lanka’s government must take concrete steps to ensure the safety and protection of journalists in the conduct of their work, starting with public reprimands for government members who verbally and physically attack the media, and give directives to local authorities to investigate and act on attacks against journalists across the island, including the attacks on Rupavahini staff,’’ Jacqueline Park, Asia Pacific director of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), said in a statement soon after the latest attack.
On the same day that Hettige was attacked, an unidentified gang stormed the home of journalist M. Parameshwari in Gampola, central Sri Lanka.
Parameshwari had spent three months in detention last year after being taken into custody by the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID), a state investigating branch that has wide powers to detain any citizen without charges.
She was held on charges of allegedly associating and helping the Tigers who have been waging a separatist campaign for over three decades to create a homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority community on the island’s north and east. But Parameshwari was released by a court order after the arresting authorities failed to prove their case.
‘’My family has been receiving threats from some people in the area who say that I am helping the Tigers,’’ says Parameshwari, who has lived in the capital Colombo since her release due to fear over her personal security.
An equally disturbing incident for the local media was the arrest of five media workers, both from the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil community, for their links with ‘Outreachsl.com’ a recently launched website focusing on current affairs related to the on-going ethnic conflict. Among those detained by the TID is Jayaprakash Tissanayagam, a columnist for the ‘Sunday Times,’ a respected independent English-language weekly, and the editor of ‘Outreachsl.com’.
Tissanayagam has been held by the TID since Mar. 7, along with four others who were involved with the website. No formal charges have been pressed and access to legal representation has been denied. Press reports in Colombo said that the five have been held for alleged links with the Tamil Tigers, including receiving funds from the Tigers or fronts operating on their behalf.
But local and international media groups have condemned the arrest and said that funds for the on-line project were received from legitimate sources. The Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters without Borders (RwB) said that funding for the website had come from FLICT. Tissanayagam had received 12,000 Euros ( 18,800 US dollars) in November 2007 for the operation of the website, it added.
FLICT, which stands for Funding Local Initiatives in Conflict Transformation, is backed by the German development agency German Technical Cooperation, or GTZ. ‘’The anti-terrorist police are accusing the journalists of receiving money from the Tamil Tiger rebels, but after investigating, we can confirm that the funds in question came from a German foundation and from Tamil exiles,’’ RwB said. ‘’We condemn the fact the some of these journalists were badly beaten during their first few days in detention, and that this was clearly done to extract confessions from them.’’
In fact, the websites of two government institutions — the ministry of constitutional affairs and national integration and the secretariat for coordinating the peace process — have openly backed the many projects launched under the FLICT initiative.
According to RwB, V. Jasikaran, one of the five detained in the website case, had received money from members of the Tamil exile community in Germany, to help students in the east of the island.
The current attacks on media freedom in the country will only add to Sri Lanka’s worsening rights record. In 2006, for instance, the island had dropped to 141st in the annual media freedom rankings published by RwB, from an impressive 51st ranking in 2002, when there was a ceasefire in operation.
The government, however, sees the reality in different light. ‘’President Mahinda Rajapakse yesterday asserted that there was absolute media freedom in the country and the government is not bound to be answerable for isolated incidents as and when they occur,’’ said a front-page story in Saturday’s edition of the ‘Daily News,’ a state-run English-language paper