For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
State Department cites “deteriorating atmosphere for media independence”
By Stephen Kaufman
Washington — For many Sri Lankan journalists, January ushered in a climate of fear with a series of attacks and threats against news media personnel and outlets that have been critical of the government in Colombo.
The United States is appalled by the attacks, State Department acting spokesman Robert Wood said in a January 23 statement. He called on the Sri Lankan government to protect all of its citizens “by enforcing law and order, preventing intimidation of the media, and by conducting swift, full and credible investigations into attacks on journalists and other civilians.”
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the violent acts included the January 8 murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of the popular Sunday Leader newspaper; a January 6 attack by gunmen on the studio of the Maharaja Television/Broadcasting Network (MTV/MBC); and the attempted murder of the weekly Rivira newspaper’s editor and his wife on January 24.
In addition, RSF reported, the Lankadissent news Web site suspended its operations January 10 due to “the climate of fear,” and at least five Sri Lankan journalists recently fled the country or went into hiding.
“These serious reports are disturbing indicators of the deteriorating atmosphere for media independence in Sri Lanka,” Wood said, adding that a free and independent media are “vital to ensuring the health and continuation of any democracy.”
Vincent Brossel, who is in charge of the Asia desk at RSF, told America.gov the attacks are a new development for a country that until recently has been a regional leader in press freedom and development. He said the situation is connected to the Sri Lankan government’s long battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), known as the Tamil Tigers.
BROADENING PRESSURE ON NEWS MEDIA
In the past, pressure has been mounted mainly against Tamil journalists, but now some in the Sinhalese and English news media are being attacked and threatened as well.
“[They] were enjoying a sort of natural protection because they were from the majority community and protected by the establishment, and because there was sort of a democratic environment in Colombo especially,” Brossel said. But “nobody is safe now if … you are criticizing the government.”
He described some of the pressured journalists as those who have defended “a pro-peace approach” in the past. But now “it’s not in their interest to say it openly.”
Brossel said he doesn’t know who is behind the violence, but he suspects it is supporters of the government. The incidents are coinciding with the government’s successful military campaign against the LTTE, in which it has captured the last main base and stronghold of the rebels.
“My analysis of the situation is that the government, because they have a great military achievement in the north against LTTE, feel they can do whatever they want because public opinion will accept everything,” Brossel said. The government is enjoying broad popular support because it appears to be winning a war “that many other governments have failed to finish.”
Many nations, including the United States, condemned the LTTE as a terrorist organization, but Brossel says the Sri Lankan government is taking advantage of the situation “to crack down on all of the dissident voices and all the people who … don’t like the government that is ruling the country.”
The murder of Wickrematunga, whom Brossel described as a “very prominent journalist and editor,” occurred in downtown Colombo and shows that “anything can happen.”
He said the MTV/MBC station that was attacked by gunmen was also popular. “They were a real problem for the government because, in fact, they were covering news, not making propaganda. And I think that’s why they have been attacked.”
Many Sri Lankans rely on foreign broadcasts, such as the BBC service in Sinhalese and Tamil, for news. The BBC had paid Sri Lanka’s central broadcasting service to rebroadcast its programs for local listeners, but Brossel said that recently the daily programs have been reduced to mostly weekly airings and have been subject to censorship.
“When there is any specific and sensitive topic, they shut down,” he said.