By Sonny Inbaraj
BATTICALOA, Nov 20 (IPS) – For journalists on the job in Sri Lanka — considered by international media rights bodies to be the third most dangerous place to work in, after Iraq and Somalia — staying safe is a prime concern.
In a rising climate of insecurity where journalists and media workers are being killed, abducted or shot at, media practitioners have teamed up with non-government organisations to ensure that their colleagues are equipped with practical skills that will help minimise the risks they face during news coverage.
‘’Sri Lankan journalists increasingly are the subjects of political violence and other forms of intimidation in the country. Reporting on protests and demonstrations can expose journalists to high risks for which they and their assignment editors must be professionally prepared,’’ explained Sunanda Deshapriya, head of the Free Media Movement (FMM)’s safety project.
The Colombo-based Free Media Movement (FMM), in partnership with the U.S.-based Internews Network and the Paris-based Internews Europe, supported by USAID and the European Union, have begun a series of safety training programmes for journalists throughout the country.
‘’The trainings address various safety issues including personal safety, pre-deployment planning, conflict management, dealing with hostile crowds, surveillance awareness, first aid skills, building security, detention and captivity survival,’’ said Deshapriya.
Deshapriya pointed out that the trainers are senior journalists themselves who have had good experience covering conflicts in the country.
‘’These trainers will engage their colleagues in discussions and practical exercises on emergencies, how to respond to different forms of attacks, and other risks that they face,’’ he added.
According to the international media rights body The Press Emblem Campaign, Sri Lanka is the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists to work after Iraq and Somalia. Since 2005, 16 journalists and media workers were killed in Sri Lanka. The most recent case was in May in the northern city of Jaffna when ‘Maharaja TV’ reporter Paranirupasingham Devakumar was brutally killed and his body found dumped in the city’s outskirts.
In September, a gang of unidentified gunmen attempted to murder freelance journalist Radhika Devakumar in Batticaloa, in the East. The gunmen shot her three times in the abdomen, chest and shoulder, leaving her critically injured.
‘’Media in the North and East of the country have continued to bear the brunt of the worst forms of insecurity. Media access to war-affected areas is heavily restricted with journalists forced to reproduce information disseminated by the conflicting parties,’’ said the International Press Freedom Mission to Sri Lanka, on its visit between Oct. 25 and 29.
‘’Media are constantly threatened by all parties to the conflict in an effort to curtail independent and critical reporting,’’ the mission’s press statement added.
Members of the international media monitoring mission included the International Federation of Journalists, the Brussels-based International Media Support, International News Safety Institute, International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders.
More than 70,000 people have been killed since 1983 in the fighting between the Sri Lankan armed forces and rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who have resorted to a violent and brutal armed struggle to create an independent state for the country’s ethnic Tamil minority.
For Mohamed Ismail Farook, the Thinakaran daily’s Batticaloa correspondent, international support for media freedom and journalists’ safety in the country must be accompanied by training on the ground for reporters.
‘’We need safety training to better protect ourselves. Most journalists in my area are just unaware of what needs to be done to keep themselves safe from bodily harm while on the job,’’ he told IPS.
In September 2006, Farook received a threatening letter from the LTTE warning that he would be ‘’punished’’ because of his news reports.
‘’Of course I’m scared and I’m taking precautions myself,’’ he revealed.
In May 2004, Batticaloa-based journalist Aiyathurai Nadesan was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on a motorcycle. The Batticaloa police launched an investigation into the killing. However, no suspect has yet to be taken to court.
The 48-year-old Nadesan was a renowned journalist who was very critical of the paramilitary groups in the East and the Sri Lanka army in his widely read political column in the Sunday edition of the Virekasari daily.
‘’Nadesan’s killing was a turning point for journalists in Batticaloa,’’ pointed out Farook. ‘’Many felt that it was not worth reporting on political issues if a single bullet could end their lives. Also many left the profession for other jobs.’’
Farook revealed that many journalists had been forced to leave Batticaloa due to ‘’pressure from all sides’’. ‘’You only have a handful of stringers remaining.’’
According to the FMM around 25 journalists from Batticaloa have left the country due to threats and pressure, since 2004.
As verbal and physical attacks, harassment, restrictions on access and vilification of media personnel become a common feature in the lives of journalists, photographers and all those engaged in the gathering, publication and dissemination of information in Sri Lanka, these safety trainings by the FMM could be live savers.
‘’While there is no substitute for experience, training to be mindful of danger helps,’’ said the FMM’s Deshapriya. ‘’The central focus of the FMM’s safety training is to raise awareness skills. One of the most important skills that journalists can learn is how to protect themselves and each other in the field.