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In Sri Lanka’s version of the “war on terror,” it is the media that has paid the highest price.


 by Kshama Ranawana

July 4, 2008

The message is simple. Report on matters perceived as national security and you will be considered an enemy of the state.

That’s the warning on the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry website, in an article entitled, “Deriding the war heroes for a living – the ugly face of ‘Defence Analysts’ in Sri Lanka,” posted in early June. The article warns journalists against “criticism of military operations, criticism of promotion schemes in the armed forces, criticism of military procurement and using ‘unethical’ measures to obtain information.”

Successive governments in Sri Lanka and competing militant organizations have attempted (and often succeeded) to suppress the media and stifle professionalism with a combination of violence and legal constrains. Yet, those acts fade into insignificance when compared with the unprecedented attacks on media workers in the past two years.

Much of the curbs on rights and freedoms in Sri Lanka stem from the country’s seemingly intractable civil war, which pits the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – also known as the Tamil Tigers – against the state. The LTTE wants a separate state in the north and east for the minority Tamils who complain their basic rights have been violated by the majority Sinhalese community. The latter dominate the government and the armed forces.

In the south of the country as well, two insurrections, fuelled by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) with a larger membership comprised of the economically disadvantaged Sinhalese youth, were fought in 1971 and in the late 1980s. While the 1971 insurrection was swiftly put down by the government of the day, the second revolt lasted nearly four years and was the country’s most horrendous era, with both the government and the revolutionists accused of gruesome forms of killings. Several of those killed during that time were journalists.

Despite a war, the period between the early 1990s and 2005 could be described as relatively calm. Sporadic killings and intimidation, especially of Tamil journalists in the north and the east of the country, continued. In April 2005, well known columnist Dharmaratnam Sivaram – an ethnic Tamil who wrote for the English language press – was abducted in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. His body was found the next day.

Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapakse won office that same year on an election platform that promised an end to LTTE “terrorism,” a militaristic approach to the national issue and pacts he signed with Sinhalese nationalist parties, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the JVP. His brother, Gotabhaya, an ex Sri Lankan army officer domiciled in the U.S., returned to Sri Lanka to take up the post of Defence Secretary and has since acted as the Defence Czar of the administration.

With the resumption of hostilities between the government and the LTTE, Gotabhaya has increasingly adopted a zero-tolerance attitude towards the press and any discussion of the war. Unless it is supportive of government actions, it is perceived as unpatriotic.

Citizens are bombarded with press advertisements, billboards and posters promoting the forces. The president and defence secretary are hailed as saviours of the nation and likened to – almost mythical – warriors of past Sinhala glory!

And, in Sri Lanka’s version of the “war on terror,” it is the media that has paid the highest price in terms of preserving its professionalism and role of being communicators. In December 2006 the introduction of Emergency law (Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities) effectively narrowed down the space in which the war could be reported. Under its provisions, those against whom action could be taken for alleged misrepresentation of facts includes not only editors, news managers and reporters, but also the owners and directorates of the media organizations.

In detention without a charge to date are: J. Tissanayagam, a columnist and editor of a website and fellow colleagues N. Jesiharan and his fiancé Valarmathy, who were arrested by the Police Terrorism Investigation Division in March of this year.

Reports on the war are now limited to releases from the government. Those claiming anything contrary meet with intimidation, as do the defenders of media freedom. In a statement released on June 7 this year, Reporters Without Borders said it had added the defence secretary to its list of “Predators of Press Freedom.”

At least 12 media workers, many of them from the Tamil majority areas, have been murdered since 2006, while newspaper distribution vehicles and printing presses have come under arson attacks. Banning the transportation of newsprint to the north and the east was another tactic adopted.

The pattern of violence includes Sinhala and English language journalists as well. Abductions, brutal assaults and threats have resulted in at least two defence analysts suspending their columns, while several others have left the country. That the perpetrators of these attacks continue to roam free is indicative of the impunity they enjoy.

In December last year, Sri Lankans witnessed live coverage of a government minister intruding into the state-owned television station, where his “bodyguards” beat up the news director for failing to report one of his speeches. To date no action has been taken against the minister, though protesters against the assault have been subjected to physical violence allegedly by underworld hit men connected to the politician.

Journalists are also split between those supporting the government and those seeking greater press freedom. Independent journalists’ trade union leaders have been summoned before the Defence Secretary and warned that he would be “unable to protect them” if those supportive of the armed forces were to attack them. Other journalists in cahoots with the ruling elite routinely slander their colleagues as agents of the LTTE, making life doubly dangerous for those committed to free expression.

With the last six months witnessing violent incidents against the media almost weekly, 29 International Freedom of Exchange (IFEX) members from around the world wrote to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in June, stating, “Under terms of UNSCR 1738, on the protection of journalists in conflict, we write to draw your attention to the alarming situation in Sri Lanka, where statements associated with the government and the military have, in our view, put journalists in grave danger.”

Rather belatedly, a presidential sub-committee of cabinet ministers has now been appointed to look into media grievances. Yet, hot on the heels of its appointment and official inauguration come allegations by a state-controlled Sinhala newspaper that the Sri Lanka Press Institute sent “tigers” masquerading as journalists for training to Denmark prompting a probe by the National Intelligence Bureau. Meanwhile, an employee of the Institute along with a local official of a foreign embassy was subjected to a violent attack on June 30.

With a press effectively gagged, independent monitors shown the door and calls for transparency and accountability in military spending and a negotiated settlement to the ethnic issue being ignored, the Sri Lankan state is free to pursue its military solution, squander scarce resources and violate human rights.

Kshama Ranawana is a freelance writer, media ethics trainer and activist. During the past two years she has been a Complaints Officer of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka and also Manager of Advocacy and Media Freedom of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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