Attacks against media in Sri Lanka: Whither democracy?


1st July 2008: The Free Media Movement (FMM) notes with dismay the dramatic and irrepressible decline in media freedom in Sri Lankan since 2005 under the Rajapakse administration. We have for years repeatedly spoken out against the attacks against media and journalists by the LTTE in areas under its control. It is well known that the LTTE does not and cannot tolerate diversity of opinion and viciously clamps down on free expression and critical dissent. What is of greater concern today is the increasing attacks against independent journalists with complete impunity in areas under government control.

The facts are indubitable and very disturbing and point to the Government’s egregious complicity in violence against free media. 14journalists/media workers have been killed since 2005. 07 have been abducted. More than 25 have been forced to leave Sri Lanka. Noted journalists and defence correspondents such as Iqbal Athas have stopped writing altogether because of sustained hate speech campaigns openly conducted by the Ministry of Defence. The Government has shut down entire media establishments for spurious reasons. Government Ministers repeatedly and openly verbally and physically attack journalists with absolutely no disciplinary action taken against them. 13 journalists have been arrested by police. Senior columnist and news website editor J.S. Tissainayagam, and printer and manager of the Jaseharan and his partner Valarmathi  has been in detention  Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) since 7th March without being charged. There are disturbing reports of torture and psychological abuse of journalists detained by the Police. Ironically, instead of investigating and preventing attacks against journalists, the Police have themselves attempted to abduct journalists. Several journalists live in fear of their lives and have been forced to bunker in safe houses. Tellingly, the Chairman of the State controlled Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation (SLBC) openly called for the death of a senior journalist in June. The Army Commander Major Gen. Sarath Fonseka has repeatedly named and shamed several journalists as traitors and enemies of the State. The Defence Secretary and brother of the President Gotabaya Rajapakse, named by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) as a media predator in its Annual Report, has repeatedly and viciously threatened senior journalists and Editors with complete impunity.

The recent abduction of Keith Noyahr, defence columnist and Associate Editor of The Nation newspaper and the brutal abduction attempt of journalist Namal Perera on 30th June are two significant markers of a regime unable and unwilling to stop violence against journalists. Both were mercilessly beaten and were lucky to escape with their lives. There are no credible investigations into these attacks. Further, the lack of critical voices in the media has created a dangerous context for the few journalists who dare to speak out – a general public fed by the partisan rhetoric and propaganda of the State can no longer appreciate independent voices that interrogate the war. Insincere and essentially useless mechanisms to protect human rights in general and the rights and security of journalists set up by the Government attempt to pull wool over the eyes of the international community on the appalling conditions facing independent journalists on the ground.
The situation is already untenable yet getting worse. The on-going war in the Northern front is an all-consuming exercise that trucks no dissent or critical investigation. Monumental allegations of corruption involving the highest levels of government including the defence officials, the deplorable erosion of human rights, the rise of extra-judicial killings, disappearances and abductions and the silencing of journalists through outright terror are disturbing features of Sri Lanka’s flailing democracy. Aiding and abetting intolerance, racism and violence is the modus operandi of the Sri Lankan regime and it’s refusal to sincerely address the incontestable decline of media freedom, the freedom of expression and human rights rightfully contributed to the loss of its seat at the UN Human Rights Council this year.

Yet even this loss has not resulted in progress. The FMM flags the growing desperation of independent journalists and other voices of dissent in Sri Lanka. We are under attack and our voices are being permanently silenced. We urgently call upon the  international community to help us stop this erosion of democracy and ensure the full restoration of media freedom and the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.


US condemns attack on reporter, British embassy official

Indo Asian News ServiceTue, Jul 1 07:57 PM

Colombo, July 1 (IANS) The US Tuesday condemned the assault on a journalist and a British high commission officer and asked the Sri Lankan authorities to bring the perpetrators to book at the earliest.

‘The US condemns the brutal and unprovoked attack on a member of the British high commission staff and an official of the Sri Lankan Press Institute June 30. We call on the authorities to bring the perpetrators of this crime swiftly to justice,’ the US embassy said in a statement.

Media rights groups here said that Mahendra Ratnaweera, political officer of the British mission, was severely injured in the Monday evening attack in Colombo. His friend and freelance journalist Namal Perera also suffered serious injuries when a group of men, who came in a van, blocked the car in which they were in and assaulted them.

‘We are deeply concerned by a series of recent incidents involving members of the Sri Lankan media. We note the recent formation of a ministerial committee to ensure the independence of the media, inquire into complaints of harassment and death threats against media personnel and intervene where warranted, and hope this leads to a more conducive environment for the practice of journalism in Sri Lanka,’ the US embassy statement said.


Kidnap attempt condemned by media

Five main media organisations are expressing their shock at the assault and attempted kidnap of the journalist Namal Perera who is also the acting head of the advocacy division of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.
In a media release, they say that Namal Perera, a defence correspondent and defence analyst, has been responsible for co-ordinating several recent media protests.
Namal Perera and his friend, Mahendra Ratnaweera, working for the British High Commission in Colombo, were driving between Narahenpita and Kirulapone in the evening of June 30th when they were blocked by a white van and assaulted.
Namal Perera and Mahendra Ratnaweera told the media organisation that they were followed by a motor cycle before being blocked and then attacked them breaking the glasses of the vehicle they were travelling.
“It is you (Namal) we want to kidnap”, told the attackers while assaulting, they said.
The media organisations said that they are condemning this assault as another development of the continuing oppression of media and journalists.
“We do not consider this an isolated incident”, they said.
Suspected movements
On the day of the attack, by noon, two suspected motorbike riders in army uniform had come near the Sri Lanka Press Institute and gone back, Institute’s security has reported.
Similarly on May 27th, a group people in army uniform had come to the Institute and inquired about the staff working in the Institute, which the Army spokesman refused by saying no team from the army was sent there.
Namal Perera had filed a complaint at the Narahenpita Police Station that after journalist Keith Noyahr’s kidnapping, suspected motorcyclists were seen near his house, the Media organisations say.

‘Dinamina’ news report
The Media organizations say that a news report on the 23rd of June in the state owned ‘Dinamina’ newspaper which said that the Press Institute was involved in sending LTTE members abroad is an attempt to create the background for this attack.
Appealing all those democratic forces and citizens to protest against this oppression on media, the five media organization – Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, Free Media Movement, Sri Lanka Tamil Journalists Association, and Federation of Media Employees Trade Union, say that it is a challenge before the newly formed ministerial panel to investigate this incident and reveal the culprits.