The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) strongly deplores the alarming escalation in hostile rhetoric and the barely concealed threats of reprisals that have been made against some of the country’s leading journalists and human rights defenders by representatives of the Sri Lankan government and by state-owned media outlets.
This follows the adoption of a resolution by the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on March 22, in which the Sri Lankan government was censured for rampant human rights violations during the last phases of the country’s long civil war and urged to initiate urgent measures of reconciliation to ensure a durable peace between the country’s main ethnic groups.
“We observe that state-owned media has in the days since the U.S. made known its intention to table a censure resolution against the Sri Lankan government, been rapidly ramping up the tone of its attacks on the country’s journalists and media freedom defenders,” said the IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park
On January 26, Dinamina, the Sinhala-language daily from the state-owned Associated Newspapers (or Lake House) group, carried a story quoting senior minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, to the effect that exiled journalists who had taken up the campaign for human rights and reconciliation were “traitors” who were bringing the country into “disrepute”.
Later, the English-language daily from the Lake House group, the Daily News, reported that human rights defenders, including journalist and press freedom campaigner Sunanda Deshapriya, were betraying Sri Lanka and continuing to work with the terrorist rump of the defeated Tamil insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
In an editorial on March 16, Dinamina described human rights defenders as “degenerates” and denounced Deshapriya as a “mouthpiece of the LTTE”. It warned that in a country like Iran, “these kinds of bastards would be stoned to death”.
Dharmasiri Lankapeli, one of the veteran leaders of the Federation of Media Employees’ Trade Unions (FMETU) has also been targeted by the state-owned media. The attacks have become particularly harsh since the country’s main professional media associations and journalists’ unions joined hands for a “black January” observance this year, to protest against the continuing climate of impunity for attacks on the right to free speech.
The attacks have also extended to social scientists and political commentators such as P. Saravanamuttu, Nimalka Fernando and Sunila Abeysekara, and prominent figures of the church who have argued the cause of national reconciliation and accountability for human rights abuses since the end of the civil war.
The government-controlled ITN TV channel has been a platform for severe verbal assaults against journalists and human rights defenders. Between January 9 and 24, the channel carried no fewer than five programmes in its daily slot titled “Vimasuma” attacking journalists who had been present during the nineteenth regular session of the UNHRC, for having allegedly “betrayed” the country.
The IFJ learns that vivid and graphic photo-montages have been circulated by various political actors, which represent journalists and other prominent human rights defenders as terrorists and traitors, working at the behest of alien forces.
On March 23, Sri Lanka’s Minister for Public Relations, Mervyn Silva addressed a public demonstration against the UNHRC resolution, threatening to “break the limbs” of any of the exiled journalists if they dared set foot in the country again. Among the journalists mentioned was Poddala Jayantha, who suffered a brutal assault in Colombo city in June 2009 that left him with permanent disabilities, and has lived in exile since January 2010.
Silva has been known for several bruising encounters with the media in recent years and was in July 2009, credibly reported as publicly claiming credit for the murder of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunge in January and the assault on Jayantha in June.
Though he later disavowed the statement attributed to him, Silva’s record as a baiter of journalists committed to human rights and free speech, has continued to cause deep unease.
“We fear that the hostile climate created by the stream of rhetoric from government spokespersons and state-owned media, could engender serious hazards to those who dare to speak up in Sri Lanka for peace and national reconciliation,” said Ms Park.
The dangers are clear and imminent and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has issued a public warning against reprisals that target Sri Lanka’s journalists and human rights defenders.
“We call on the top political leadership in Sri Lanka to promptly distance itself from the manner of hostile rhetoric that has been seen and heard over the last three months,” said Ms Park.
“We urge that serious consideration be given to the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission which recently submitted a comprehensive report pointing the way forward for post-conflict Sri Lanka, after being invested with a wide-ranging mandate by the President of the country.”
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