29 October 2008, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Free Media Movement (FMM) is extremely disturbed to receive a letter from the Managing Director, Mr. E. Saravanapavan of the Uthayan daily newspaper printed and published from Jaffna, noting that paramilitary groups in the embattled city were preventing the distribution of the paper and posed a grave risk to the safety and security of newspaper staff.
Armed cadre of the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP), a group that is part of the incumbent government and led by Mr. Douglas Devananda, who is a Cabinet Minister, disrupted the distribution of the paper on 23rd October 2008 and prevented newspaper staff from leaving their homes to report to work.
Mr. Saravanapavan notes in his missive that that Mr. Devananda allegedly told him the Army was ‘very angry’ with Uthayan, for reasons that are not given but not hard to guess. As the International Press Institute (IPI) in an open letter to the President of Sri Lanka on this matter notes, “As one of the very few sources of information for the inhabitants of Jaffna, Uthayan is of vital importance, particularly because it carries news about the security situation in the province. In times of conflict and other dangerous situations, the importance of access to timely and accurate information and news is undeniable.”
Uthayan has operated in the embattled peninsula under extremely challenging circumstances. It’s staff live in fear of death and some are virtual prisoners in the offices of the newspaper. In January, Mr. Saravanapavan received death threats over the phone. As the RSF notes in their 2008 Annual Report, “A gunman on a motorbike killed a young reporter, Selvarajah Rajivarnam, who was riding his bike near the office of Jaffna’s biggest selling daily Uthayan at the end of April. He covered criminal cases, going into police stations and the hospital to obtain information about murders and disappearances. Several sources in Jaffna said members of the EPDP could be behind the killing.”
The FMM regards the disruption of Uthayan’s distribution and the overt pressure on staff to refrain from working as attacks against the freedom of expression and the worst kind of strong-arm tactic, tellingly by a constituent party of the incumbent government, to stifle independent media.
We call for the President’s urgent attention into this matter, and hold Mr. Devananda directly accountable for any action taken by the EPDP against Uthayan and its staff. Only strong condemnation of brutish measures to curtail the freedom of expression can assure a skeptical public of the bona fides of this regime to strengthen media freedom in Sri Lanka.