For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Stewart Bell, National Post
Published: Thursday, March 19, 2009
Vithyatharan Nadesapillai, the editor-in-chief of Uthayan and Sudar Oli newspapers, has been arrested and is being held for questioning in Sri Lanka.
MARKHAM, Ont. — Suba Nadesapillai has hardly slept for three weeks, not since the night he learned his younger brother, a prominent newspaper editor, had been forced into a white van in Sri Lanka.
Now, when night falls on his newly minted subdivision, Mr. Nadesapillai gets on the phone to Colombo, hoping to prevent his brother, Vithyatharan Nadesapillai, from becoming another casualty of Sri Lanka’s civil war.
“It’s a nightmare, actually,” said the Markham civil engineer, whose minivan sports Stop the Genocide bumper stickers, in protest of what he views as a government campaign against Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority.
Vithyatharan, 49, is editor-in-chief of the Uthayan and Sudar Oli newspapers, both staunch advocates of Tamil interests – which has made them targets for bombings, grenade and gun attacks as well as threats and police grillings.
Shortly after Vithyatharan was taken away on Feb. 26, police said he had been abducted but later confirmed he had been arrested for questioning about phone calls he made on Feb. 20, the night two Tamil Tigers rebel planes were shot down over Colombo.
Following the arrest, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa called Vithyatharan “a terrorist” during an interview with Dateline, a current affairs show on the Australian network SBS. “He’s involved in the recent air attacks,” the Defence Secretary said. “We have definite information on that.”
On Wednesday, a Sri Lankan court gave police permission to detain Vithyatharan another 90 days while they question him further.
Reporters Without Borders issued a news release that day calling on the UN Human Rights Council to intervene.
Bandula Jayasekara, the Sri Lankan Consul General in Toronto, said the case remains under investigation and Vithyatharan will be released if he is cleared and charged if police find evidence of crimes. The fact that Vithyatharan is a journalist was irrelevant, he said. “Nobody is above the law.”
But Mr. Nadesapillai said the suspicions were the result of a police mistake. He said on the night of the rebel air raid, a friend was scheduled to arrive from France. When the Colombo airport closed due to the attack, Vithyatharan had called Paris to find out where the friend’s flight had been diverted.
Police listening in on Vithyatharan’s phone misread the discussion and suspected he was helping the rebel planes, he said. “They thought that they were talking in code words,” Mr. Nadesapillai said.
The editor is also accused of communicating with the spokesmen for the Tamil Tigers, which are banned in Sri Lanka, but his supporters say that as a journalist, Vithyatharan’s job was to talk to all sides and the phone calls are simply an excuse to silence a journalist who refused to toe the line.
On Monday, thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils demonstrated in downtown Toronto, some of them waving flags bearing the militaristic emblem of the Tamil Tigers, a banned terrorist group under Canadian law because of their frequent suicide bombings and their extortive fundraising methods in Toronto and Montreal. A smaller number held counter-demonstrations, holding banners that read: “Protect Canada! Stop the Tamil Tigers.”
Mr. Nadesapillai was among those who took part in the former protest. A few days later, he sat in his living room in Markham, his phone ringing constantly, and recalled how his brother started out in journalism in Jaffna, where he studied law and played goalkeeper for soccer clubs.
In 1985, Vithyatharan helped found Uthayan in Jaffna City. After a sister paper, Sudar Oli, was launched in Colombo in 2000, he moved south to run it, while still managing Uthayan from afar.
As the papers endured threats and attacks, Vithyatharan took to travelling only by motorcycle, reasoning that in a car he would be a sitting duck in the Colombo traffic.
Family and friends urged Vithyatharan to leave Sri Lanka. Norway apparently offered him refuge. But during a visit to Toronto last fall, Vithyatharan told friends to stop asking him to flee.
“If he wanted, he could have lived in any other country, but he preferred to stay there,” Mr. Nadesapillai said. He figured if he left, there would be nobody to publish news from a Tamil perspective. “He is a very determined person.”