For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Sri Lanka is among the most dangerous places in the world for a working journalist. During the last three years media in Sri Lanka has come under unprecedented pressure. Journalists have been killed, abducted, assaulted, arrested and labelled as traitors. Media institutions were forced to close down, set on fire, and branded as anti national.
Since 2006, 18 journalists and media workers have been killed. The most recent case was in January 2009 when Lasantha Wikramatunge, editor of the Sunday Leader was brutally killed in broad day light in South of Colombo. Of those killed in Sri Lanka, the majority were Tamil and based in Jaffna peninsula.
Last month witnessed increased pressure on the Sri Lankan media. On January 6, petrol bombs were hurled at popular television and radio station MTV/MBC network. Two days later a gang entered the station and set it on fire after destroying the control room. Just two days later Lasantha Wikrematunge was killed.
Within a week, Minster Keheliya Rambukwela, spokesperson for national security, named both Sunday Leader and MBC network as media institutions that didn’t heed to government advice on reporting defence related matters. Prominent media activists who were outspoken against these attacks received death threats. Unknown gangs visited their homes.
Two weeks later Upali Tennakoon, Editor, Rivira Sinhala Weekly was attacked. He survived as his wife covered him with her body.
On January 10, Sinhala and English language website Lankadissent.com voluntarily closed its operations. In its last editorial post it said, “
A lesson learnt, that needs no repeats to learn. This “compassionate Sinhala Buddhist land” does not tolerate “dissent”. Those who would not want to learn that living, would have to learn that in death. We, who live, would come back when “dissent” comes back as a democratic right, accepted and enjoyed in a modern land of compassion. Till then, good bye!” In the wake of these attacks at least 11 senior journalists left the country, seven of them to India. Since the beginning of 2006 more than 30 journalists have left the country.
In his first address to nation on December 2005 President Mahinda Rajapaksa made it clear that media had to take a side against the war with Tamil Tigers. Since then government did not leave any room for ambiguity. The message to the messenger was clear: there was one truth in the war against terror and that was, what came from the Media Center for National Security (MCNS) and likewise institutions.
In 2006, the government made a number official ‘requests’ for media self-censorship. In a letter to the media, the Ministry of Defense appealed: “Please be advised that any news gathered by your institution through your own sources with regard to national Security and defense should be subjected to clarification and confirmation from the MCNS in order to ensure that correct information is published, Telecast or Broadcast.”
Finally, in October 2007 the government put out a gazette prohibiting news reporting on proposed military operations in the country. According to it, it was illegal to report material “which pertains to any proposed operations or military activity as well as plans to buy equipment for security forces or the police.” Under the terms of those regulations, editors could be jailed for up to five years for breaking the censorship. But due to strong opposition the government was forced to take it back.
The systematic silencing of Tamil media has been a grave indicator of the deteriorating spaces for freedom of expression. Tamil journalists, especially in the north and east, had been subject to intimidation and harassment on a daily basis by the security forces and by armed groups. Certain Tamil newspapers, particularly in the East, had been set on fire and distributors prevented from selling them. Newspaper offices have been looted, burnt, vandalised and bombed.
Since 2006 the Tamil-populated Jaffna peninsula – under government control – has become a nightmare for journalists, human rights activists and the civilian population in general. Murders, kidnappings, threats and censorship have made Jaffna one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists to work. At least 11 media workers, including three journalists, have been killed in Northern Province since May 2006. Three media workers are missing, including one journalist.
In a recent newspaper interview, the chief editor of Uthayan, N. Vidyadharan said, “I’ve lost nine men so far – seven dead, two missing. But we’ll continue to fight.” The editor and news editor of Jaffna daily Uthayan have been living in the newspaper office itself over two years now for their personal security.
Over the past three years, army officers have summoned Jaffna based Tamil media chiefs several times to order censorship of certain events such as the speeches made by the LTTE leader V Prabakaran, the students’ strike, kidnappings, and other matters the army would prefer were not reported by journalists. This puts the Tamil media in an impossible situation because the LTTE demands they cover such topics. (LTTE pressure had been subtler, though just as effective. In areas under its control, LTTE never allowed any independent media, and brutally suppressed all dissenting voices.)
In the last three years, more than 20 journalists have been arrested all over Sri Lanka, and the majority of them were Tamils. Four Tamil Female journalists were taken into custody under emergency regulations. All of them were branded as Tiger supporters, and as suicide bombers. Well known Tamil journalist J. Tissainayagam, trainee female Journalist V. Walarmathi and her printer husband V. Jasiharan were arrested and charged under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act.
During the year 2008 press freedom bodies in Sri Lanka have documented:
• 02 cases of journalists killed
• 50 cases of journalists being threatened with death or grave physical harm
• 01 case of journalists being abducted by unidentified persons and subjected to serious mental and physical torture;
• 16 cases of journalists being attacked by unidentified assailants for reasons obviously connected with their professional work;
• 12 cases of journalists being detained
• 3 cases of media offices or other media facilities, such as delivery vans, being attacked or raided, including one case of arson that completely destroyed the office of a Colombo based newspaper;
• Dozens of instances of verbal abuse of journalists by name or of the profession in a generic sense, including the official website of the defense ministry naming some media and journalists as supporters of LTTE
• 18 cases of journalists seeking foreign exile or voluntary displacement within the country on account of direct threats to their lives.
When the authorities sworn to upholding the fundamental rights of all citizens effectively declare war against journalism, it becomes a profession virtually impossible to pursue.
The journalists’ organisations in Sri Lanka have demanded:
• Immediately halt all threats, harassment, abductions and attacks against media practitioners and outlets currently being perpetrated by all parties to the conflict;
• Undertake complete, transparent and timely investigations into the murder of media practitioners and death threats issued against media practitioners and their families;
• Halt the dangerous and irresponsible practice of publicly vilifying media practitioners;
• Reverse action already undertaken that restricts press freedom and freedom of expression and refrain from any moves to introduce any form of direct or indirect censorship
Today Sri Lanka is at the crossroads. LTTE will very soon cease to exist as conventional military force. Sri Lanka military will establish it’s over all dominance in North and East. Yet it is too early to predict wither Sri Lanka is heading. Right to dissent and free speech are not on political – military agenda at this juncture and will have to wait.
The question is how long?