The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), as part of the third visit of the International Press Freedom Mission to Sri Lanka between October 25 and 29, has joined a statement expressing concern at the deterioration in the situation since the last visit in June 2007.
Among the most serious developments that the mission encountered was the use of terrorism legislation, for the first time in the democratic world, to punish journalists purely for what they have written. J.S. Tissainayagam, B. Jasiharan and V. Vallarmathy have been detained since March 2008 and in the case of the first-named, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was invoked well after the period of 3 months stipulated for bringing charges.
Tissainayagam was a well-regarded columnist for the Sunday Times and the editor and publisher of the North-Eastern Herald, a monthly magazine that has in recent years carried some trenchant commentaries on the Sri Lankan government’s offensive against the Tamil separatist insurgency in the country. Jasiharan, who is charged under the PTA for the crimes of inciting racial animosity and aiding and abetting terrorism, is the printer of the magazine, and Vallarmathy is his fiancée.
The mission has placed on record its concern at the dangerous precedent the prosecution of Tissainayagam, Jasiharan and Vallarmathy sets for all media nationally and internationally.
In recent months, the mission found, journalists and media institutions seeking to report independently on the ongoing conflict have been attacked and intimidated in a seeming effort to limit public knowledge about the conduct of the war. They have also been explicitly pressured on multiple occasions, to reveal their sources. This, the mission has held, is a gross violation of the public right to know and the accepted norm that media sources should be protected.
Media in the North and East of the country continue to suffer from the worst forms of insecurity. Days before the mission visit, the office of Tamil Alai, a weekly newspaper published from the eastern provincial town of Batticaloa by the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puli (TMVP) – the party that controls the provincial government — became the site of an armed confrontation between rival factions. As tension rose within the newspaper premises, the local police intervened to award control to one of the TMVP factions.
The mission was told lives of journalists in the eastern province of Sri Lanka, are constantly threatened by all parties to the conflict in an effort to curtail independent reporting. Aside from the security forces, which function with complete impunity, the main Tamil insurgent organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), remains active. With the rival factions of the TMVP also locked in bitter confrontation, the threats that journalists face are four-fold in their origin.
The mission condemned the murder of P. Devakumar, a journalist with the Sirasa TV channel, in Jaffna in May 2008.
Quite apart from the threats to the life and liberty of media personnel, the mission found in evidence a legislative effort to curb media independence. Media rules gazetted on October 10 by the Sri Lankan Government provide for a number of contingencies under which broadcasting licences could be cancelled, including seven different grounds related to broadcast content.
Broadcast channels will now have to apply annually for licence renewal.
A popular broadcast channel has since been put on notice that it is to submit transcripts of news broadcasts “to be carried” every week as of October 28. The majority of the media community in Sri Lanka has read this as a transparent attempt to impose prior restraint on the content of news and current affairs programming. Concurring with this reading, the mission condemned the effort to impose censorship under another name.
The mission placed on record its dismay at the repeated instances of elected representatives and high officials of the Government using violence and inflammatory language against media workers and institutions. The mission found that state-owned media, including the website of the Ministry of Defence, have contributed to the vilification of independent media. Such actions were quite transparently, aimed at discrediting independent media. They contributed to a climate of intolerance and hostility towards media institutions perceived to be independent, posing a clear and present danger to the lives and safety of journalists.
The IFJ and the mission team applaud the solidarity and resolve shown by the five organisations of journalists in Sri Lanka – the Free Media Movement, Sri Lankan Working Journalists’ Association, Federation of Media Employees’ Trade Unions, Sri Lankan Tamil Media Alliance and Sri Lankan Muslim Media Forum – in a tough and challenging situation.
Moreover, the mission expressed its sense of appreciation for the solidarity displayed by media owners and editors in seeking to bring the perpetrators of recent attacks to justice.
The mission process is coordinated by International Media Safety, Copenhagen, Denmark and it includes 12 international professional organisations. The first visit to Sri Lanka of the mission, occurred in October 2006, followed by a second visit in June 2007. The delegation for last visit comprised the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Media Support (IMS), International News Safety Institute (INSI), International Press Institute (IPI), and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The IFJ has been part of all three visits.
Members of the last mission delegation met with the President of Sri Lanka, Government Ministers, political parties, media owners and editors, journalists and media workers, human rights and legal experts, and the international community.
Further details on the mission process in Sri Lanka can be found at the website of International Media Support: http://www.i-m-s.dk.