Alarming Increase in Hostile Rhetoric, Threats of Reprisals against Journalists in Sri Lanka

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.”

For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +612 9333 0950

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 134 countries

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Mervyn indicted on nine counts

(Sunday Leader 16th Nov)

Labour Minister Mervyn Silva and three others were indicted on Friday by the Attorney General in the High Court of Colombo on nine counts of unlawful assembly, mischief, robbery and assault involving Sirasa journalists at Peliyagoda on August 4.

The assault and removal of the camera equipment took place when the journalists Waruna Sampath and Saliya Ranawaka went to cover a public event at the invitation of the organisers of the event.

Silva, Dulan Hettiarachchi, Prasanna Ranaweera and Nihal Chandrawansa alias Manchi Nihal were indicted on charges of assault, unlawful assembly, mischief and robbery. They have been indicted under nine counts.

Charge one in the indictment relates to the removal of videotapes from the two journalists.

Charge number two in the indictment states that a camcorder worth Rs 1,239,500 was removed from the Sirasa video journalist Waruna Sampath, and another worth 102,500 from Saliya Ranawaka, according to charge number three. They have also been charged on count four with assaulting Sampath and causing him injuries intentionally. The four have been indicted with damaging the cameras in charges five and nine.

Mervyn confronts SIRASA TV


Labour Minister Mervyn Silva and his supporters have yet again confronted a Sirasa TV crew at an official function. On an invitation by the Ministry of Highways, the electronic media institution had sent a crew of two this morning to the opening of second phase of the flyover at Thorana Junction in Kelaniya.
As Minister Silva is known to be hostile towards Sirasa TV, the Highway’s Ministry’s Media Secretary Shirantha Premawardena had given an assurance that its employees would not come to any harm.
However, the minister and his bodyguards had assaulted correspondent Thushara Saliya Ranawaka and video cameramen Waruna Sampath and seized their cameras.
Before the commencement of the function, Minister Silva had inquired about the presence of Sirasa TV and upon identification, had ordered the cameraman to remove the tapes.
Thereafter, the bodyguards had snatched another camera in their possession, while the other had been damaged in the scuffle, the correspondent told ‘Lanka Dissent.’
He also said that there had been a large VIP and police presence at the scene, including top officers, but none had intervened.
The television crew has lodged a complaint with the Peliyagoda Police.
This is the third instance involving the Kelaniya flyover where Minister Silva had confronted and chased away Sirasa TV crews.

Another nail in the coffin: The open militarisation of State owned media in Sri Lanka

21st March 2008, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Free Media Movement (FMM) is outraged that the government has appointed retired Army Major General Sunil Silva as Additional Director General (Administration) of the State controlled TV station Sri Lanka Rupavahini Cooperation (SLRC).  Major General Sunil Silva retired in January 2008.

This appointment beggars belief, especially less than 48 hours after a key meeting with the President of Sri Lanka and SLRC Trade Union leaders and journalists on the spate of brutal physical attacks against colleagues who stood up against the brutish intrusion by Government MP Mervyn Silva into its premises late last year. No one at this meeting was consulted about or told of this appointment.

Though retired, the appointment of ex-military personnel to a key post in the SLRC is particularly revealing. The militarisation of State apparatus under this regime is not new, but this is the first time it has extended to the media. Not only does this set an extremely disturbing precedent, it irrevocably vitiates the independence of State media from regressive party political patronage, influence and coercion.

The FMM vehemently protests this appointment on a point of principle. We have nothing against Major General Sunil Silva. We are deeply concerned that the office of a civilian is now in the hands of someone from whom independence and impartiality is simply too much to ask or expect. This is a damning indictment of the President’s bona fides to support and strengthen media freedom and a chilling indicator of the regime’s duplicitous nature.

We believe that this appointment was made in the context of SLRC journalist unions threatening trade union action if the government did not take action to hold the deranged Government MP Mervyn Silva accountable for his actions in a court of law. Given that on the 17th of this month military and police cordoned off SLRC premises to prevent any trade union action we are in no doubt that this military appointment is directly linked to the emerging crisis situation within SLRC and intended to intimidate the institution’s journalists and other staff.

We demand that this appointment is immediately rescinded. The media community represented by our organisations will accept no alternative and will not negotiate on this matter. It is simply a point of principle – the militarisation of media institutions is tantamount to the curtailment of media rights. The President had, at the conclusion of the recent meeting with journalists, promised to look into the unprecedented intimidation of media personnel in Sri Lanka.

Sadly, this appointment is grossly incompatible with that promise.

Fresh attack sparks Rupavahini protest

Assistant Director and union leader seriously injured as Mervyn Silva drama continues

By Yohan Perera, Sandun Jayasekera and Senaka de Silva

The drama surrounding the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation continued yesterday with the staff  suspending live broadcasts last morning except for the news bulletins after two men on a motorbike allegedly assaulted another SLRC official.

Arunasiri Hettige, the Assistant Director Supplies and a trade unionist, was allegedly assaulted with an iron rod while waiting for a bus at Kotikawatte.

“I was waiting for a bus to get to office in the morning at a bus halt between IDH Junction and Kotikawatta. At about 8:50 am a pillion rider on a motor cycle that rode past me hit me with an iron rod. Taken unawares I received the full force of the blow on my neck and some passers by rushed me to the emergency ward of the National Hospital,” Mr. Hettige said from his hospital bed.

He was admitted to the National Hospital with a deep neck wound that required 10 sutures and was placed under observation with a scan being done to determine the treatment and the extent of his injuries, Hospital Director Dr. Hector Weerasinghe told the Daily Mirror.

“He will be kept under medical observation and treatment prescribed after we look at the scan report,” a medical officer at the Emergency Service said.

Following the incident which the staff believe could be another episode in the Mervyn Silva drama, the SLRC Program Producers Union President Chanchala Marasinghe said they had decided to stop all Rupavahini programmes except for news bulletins until such time President Mahinda Rajapaksa intervened to end the string of attacks on SLRC employees

The SLRC Union earlier warned it would go on an all-out work stoppage if the government failed to provide better security.

The Union had requested Deputy Inspector General M.K. Ilangakoon to carry out an investigation and arrest the culprits while the Police Chief was scheduled to meet to unions to discuss the latest crisis.

Mr. Hettige is said to have attended a discussion the Rupavahini Trade union representatives had with Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and DIG Ilangakoon on Thursday over threats faced by SLRC employees.

The Welampitiya police have started investigations and statement recorded from eyewitnesses.

This is the fourth in a series of attacks on various SLRC employees following the incident where non cabinet labour minister Mervyn Silva and his bodyguards stormed into the SLRC on December 27 and allegedly assaulted its news director over the failure to broadcast Mr. Silva’s speech.

Meanwhile Non Cabinet Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene said the assault was regrettable as it was only three days ago that a meeting was held with the Rupavihini unions where the they agreed to work with the government in providing security to all SLRC employees.

The Minister said he and Media Minister Anura Priyadharashna Yapa met the President and discussed this matter and he instructed the Defence Secretary to direct all police stations to carry out immediate investigations and arrest the miscreants.

Continuing attacks against journalists in Sri Lanka require Presidential intervention

14th March 2008, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Free Media Movement (FMM) is outraged at yet another murderous attack on a journalist at the State owned Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) today. Journalist Arunasiri Hettige, Assistant Director (Supplies) of SLRC, was attacked early this morning on his way to work at a bus stop near Kottikawatta, a Colombo suburb.  A club affixed to a sharp object on his neck was used to attack him. He was admitted to the Colombo National Hospital for emergency medical treatment.

Journalist Hettige was a represented the SLRC Workers Union at a meeting held on 13th March with the Defence Secretary, Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the Police Spokesperson N. K. Illangakoon, the Chairman of SLRC Ariyarathna Athugala and other Union Leaders regarding the infamous Mervyn Silva incident in December 2007.

The continuing attacks against journalists who were part of a spontaneous resistance against the unprecedented and brutish intrusion by Government MP Mervyn Silva and his posse of thugs on 27th December 2007 at SLRC beggars belief.

It is quite clear that law enforcement agencies are unable and unwilling to stop these series of attacks or arrest the culprits. While the journalists who stood up against the outrageous actions of the Government MP have been attacked, questioned and detained by the Police – the chief culprit enjoys complete immunity from the rule of law.

This is an untenable situation. The FMM holds the President directly accountable for the actions of those in his Government and the safety and security of all media personnel, particularly those who took part in the agitations against MP Mervyn Silva at SLRC. Further, we hold the President directly responsible for the safety and security of these journalists given the inability and the unwillingness of the Police to bring the underworld gangs responsible for these attacks to book.

At a time when the such attacks are taking place with complete impunity and in broad daylight, it is laughably tragic and grossly inappropriate that the Government even contemplates a national media policy without first ensuring the security of journalists and through it, the freedom of expression and media freedom.

This is an open and urgent appeal for Presidential intervention in a situation already out of control. It is only a matter of time before another journalist is attacked and pays for standing up for democratic values and media freedom with his or her life.

We also call upon all journalists, especially those at SLRC, to unite and stand together in solidarity against those who seek to silence them through fear and intimidation. We note that it is only through the transformation of SLRC to an institution able to provide accurate, impartial and fair news and information without State control that incidents of this nature can be prevented in the future.

IFJ urges Sri Lankan Government to act on SLRC Attacks


Media Release: Sri Lanka
March 14, 2008

Sri Lankan Government Urged to Act on SLRC Attacks

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) demands that the Government of Sri Lanka order the police to take immediate action against perpetrators of a series of attacks against staff of the state-owned Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), as the Free Media Movement (FMM) reported yet another violent attack on an SLRC journalist.

The FMM, an IFJ affiliate, said Anurasiri Hettige was beaten with an iron rod by an unidentified gang on March 14.

It was the fifth physical assault or attempted attack on an SLRC employee since Labour Minister Mervyn Silva assaulted SLRC news director TMG Chandrasekara in a melee at the broadcaster’s office on December 27.

“The attack on Anurasiri Hettige is a clear indication that all SLRC journalists and staff who protested against the intrusion into the station by Minister Silva on December 27 are facing a real threat,” the FMM said in a statement.

“The Government’s silence on this series of attacks and its failure to act to end the violence and threats allegedly linked to a member of the government must end now,” IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said.

Journalists and staff of SLRC have been targeted with threats and intimidation in an apparent link with media coverage of the Minister’s actions at the SLRC office on December 27.

January 25: Lal Hemantha Mawalage attacked by two armed men, suffered severe cuts to his arm; also received death threats on his phone on March 4.

January 29: Attempted attack on Duleep Dushantha by two armed men at his home; Dushantha’s mother threatened with death for informing of the incident.

February 27: Priyal Ranjith Perera, Assistant Director of News Camera, attacked by unidentified armed gang at his home.

March 5: Ranjani Aluthge, SLRC librarian, stabbed with razor knife on public bus.

As many as 10 journalists, media workers and journalists’ leaders from other television stations and media also have been reportedly targeted for their involvement in covering the December 27 incident and the subsequent media staff protests against Minister Silva.

Poddala Jayantha, a senior journalist with Silumina and the secretary of the Sri Lankan Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA), an IFJ affiliate, endured an attempted abduction by armed assailants at his home on January 7.

Death threats were made to leading personnel at the MBC TV and Radio network: MTV head Chevaan Daniel, Sirasa director Kingsley Ratnayaka and Sirasa news director Susil Kedelpitya. Kedelpitya reports that his house and whereabouts are being watched by suspicious people.

Threats also have been delivered to media activists including SLWJA president Sanath Balasooriya and Dharmasiri Lankapeli, the general secretary of the Federation of Media Employees Trade Union, also an IFJ affiliate.

The IFJ joined the FMM in calling for journalists and democratic forces to make a united stand against orchestrated violence and intimidation intended to prevent journalists and media institutions reporting in the public interest.

For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +612 9333 0919

The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries