As Sri Lanka’s civil war escalates, so do attacks on its journalists

By BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI,

 AP

Posted: 2008-06-19 03:47:30

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – With civil war raging in Sri Lanka, the journalists trying to cover the conflict find themselves increasingly under siege.

They have been hounded by the government, attacked by unknown assailants and accused of aiding the rebels. Many reporters have been arrested or fled the country, while others have resorted to self-censorship, journalists said.

Rights groups blame much of the intimidation on the government, saying that since fighting with the Tamil Tigers flared more than two years ago, pressure has grown on journalists to report the official line.

When media don’t comply – reporting higher troop casualties or alleging corruption in arms purchases – “they are branded as traitors,” said Sunanda Deshapriya of the Free Media Movement.

“The government does not accept that media can play a watchdog’s role,” he said.

Media Minister Anura Yapa denied the government was intimidating the media or orchestrating the assaults.

“We have no intention of suppressing media freedom. Why should we attack journalists and get our image tarnished?” he said.

For their part, the rebels allow no independent media at all in their de facto state in the north, which they run as a dictatorship. The rebels also have been accused of killing journalists critical of them in the violence-plagued Jaffna peninsula.

Pressure on the media has grown along with the fighting. Both sides have been accused of exaggerating victories and downplaying defeats, while the government has restricted access to the war zone, making independent reporting difficult.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa recently summoned top media officials and warned them that the rebels, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, could be using their reports on the war to predict future military operations.

“I said that such information is a blow to the country at a time when we are trying to weaken the LTTE militarily,” Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times.

Last year, two private newspapers critical of the government were closed down after the government accused them of links to the rebels, the printing press of the Sunday Leader, a pro-opposition newspaper was torched by unknown attackers and a radio station was forced off the air after falsely reporting a rebel assault.

At least 100 reporters have been attacked, 25 journalists have fled the country and several others have gone underground, said Deshapriya of the Free Media Movement.

Many have been arrested, including J.S. Tissainayagam, a Sunday Times columnist who has been jailed without charge since March by the government’s anti-terror squad.

Keith Noyahr, defense reporter for The Nation newspaper, was abducted by a group of men outside his home on May 22. Six hours later he was released, beaten and bloody.

No one has been charged with the attack, which came several weeks after Noyahr wrote a column about controversial military promotions.

Noyahr’s colleagues said he and his editor have fled the country. The colleagues, who declined to give their names out of fear of repercussions, refused to provide contact details for either man, and calls to their mobile phones went unanswered.

In a letter to Rajapaksa last week, Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, accused the government of stifling war reporting and doing nothing to protect reporters.

“Those who wish to harass, harm, or even kill journalists can operate with relative impunity in Sri Lanka,” he wrote.

Days later, Rajapaksa established a committee of government ministers to look into the complaints.

In the face of the violence and intimidation, many journalists said they have stopped reporting information that might embarrass the government.

“We don’t want to be pet-poodles of the government, (but) neither to antagonize the military,” said Ranga Jayasuriya, defense columnist at the Lakbima News newspaper.

Iqbal Athas, a high-profile defense columnist for the Sunday Times who is routinely threatened, said this was the “worst period” in his 42-year career.

The government withdrew his security detail after nine years last year when he reported on irregularities in the purchase of fighter jets. The Ministry of Defense Web site accused Athas of working for “the pro-terrorist propaganda machine” and trying to sow “disloyalty, suspicions, disobedience, rumors, etc.” among troops.

“It’s clear that what they want to do is silence me to not write anything they dislike,” Athas said.

This week, he suspended his column.

 

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