For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Reporters Without Borders calls on the Sri Lankan authorities to stop blocking the Lanka News Web site at once. Sri Lanka Telecom, the country’s main Internet service provider, has been blocking the online newspaper’s access since 11 July 2009.
In an interview for Reporters Without Borders, Lanka News Web editor Chandima Withanaarachchi talks about its editorial policies and the probable reasons for the government’s persecution of the site. He also describes the press freedom situation and the difficulties for journalists in Sri Lanka.
The government has been trying to assert control over online media since its military victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels and the ensuing presidential election, which was accompanied by propaganda and intimidation of the news media. Three other independent news websites – Lanka-e-News, Infolanka and Sri Lanka Guardian – were also blocked on 26 January, shortly before the election results were announced. Lanka News Web is the only one that is still inaccessible inside Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka was on the list of “countries under surveillance” in the latest Reporters Without Borders report on “Enemies of the Internet.” Read the Sri Lanka chapter: http://en.rsf.org/surveillance-sri-lanka,36672.html
Can you tell me more about your website, Lanka News Web? What sort of topics does it cover? What is the audience? How many people visit it every month?
Lanka News Web is formed by Sri Lankan journalists living in exile. It began operations on 3 March 2009, following the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of The Sunday Leader, in January 2009. At the time, the situation in Sri Lanka was highly volatile because Eelam War IV [the fourth phase of the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tigers] was at its peak. Freedom of expression was totally suppressed and everyone was censoring themselves. Our intention was to eliminate these self-imposed restrictions and minimise the fear that had engulfed our society.
From the very outset, Lanka News Web maintained an anti-war stance. We focus mainly on human rights abuses, corruption and malpractices of government officials. Since there was no other source of bold, fearless reporting, Lanka News Web became very popular within a very short period of time. We filled a big vacuum in our society.
Our popularity became a nightmare for the government of Sri Lanka. As a result, we were banned in Sri Lanka on 11 July 2009, almost one year ago.
Despite this ban, Lanka News Web gets about 3 to 4 million hits per month from within Sri Lanka. In all, we are getting 30-40 million hits worldwide every month.
What kind of stories has Lanka News Web been covering these past months? Do you believe you are being harassed today because of some stories in particular?
As I said, we mainly focus on human rights and anti-corruption issues. We recently published some photographs of a Tamil youth who was tortured to death. We got those photos from Human Rights Watch.
When we report anything sensitive about the armed forces, the Sri Lankan defence ministry gets really annoyed.
None of our national media reports malpractices in the armed forces or the behaviour of some top brass officers – how they victimise their fellow officers and so on. All these things are happening behind an iron curtain.
Since we are operating outside of Sri Lanka we can report such incidents without fear. That is the root cause for the harassment we are currently facing.
One of the state media said your website carried a totally fabricated ‘exclusive’ story claiming that the government had given a Chinese firm a contract to clear dead bodies from the Nanthikadal lagoon in Mullaitivu? How do you respond?
We challenge the government to prove that it is a fabricated story. Our reporters cited highly reliable diplomatic sources. Anything we report that does not reflect well on the government and its officials is branded as fabricated.
If we report anything erroneously, the aggrieved parties are able to exercise their right of reply. That is guaranteed on our website. We will always defend and adhere to the finest ethics of journalism.
Some say you are the victim of political witch-hunt. Can you tell us about that? What kind of accusations have been made against you and why?
The Sri Lankan Government is out to get us. That is pretty clear. After failing to get the website by banning it, they turned on me. They reported me to Interpol, alleging that I failed to appear in a court case in the Colombo high court.
I left Sri Lanka 10 years ago. Suddenly, they trumped up a criminal charge against me, accusing me of forgery and counterfeiting. I voluntarily ceased my notarial practise in Sri Lanka a long time ago. I would be more than happy to face any trial as long as it was fair and impartial.
Since the attorney-general’s department is currently under the president, there could be more indictments against not only me but also other anti-government activists in the future.
Do you see this prosecution as a way of intimidating reporters and activists?
It is pretty obvious. This is a clear intimidation. There are people who smuggled billions of people’s money from various institutions. The Sri Lankan courts have repeatedly issued warrants for them. But the government never tried to execute those warrants through Interpol. They have targeted me because of my political stance.
What is the next legal step? What kind of sanctions do you face if convicted?
I have already started correspondence with Interpol. My lawyers are making further representations to Interpol in this regard. I have further consulted my lawyers in Sri Lanka with regard to my high court case.
Under this regime, you cannot expect a fair trial, just a conviction. We are already facing sanctions.
How would you describe the Sri Lankan press freedom situation today? What role can websites and online journalists play in keeping people informed?
Press freedom in Sri Lanka is an appalling and horrifying topic. There is no press freedom at all. The latest victim of media suppression is freelance journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who disappeared five months ago. There is still no clue of his whereabouts. Most journalists have fled the country.
Press freedom is just a lovely memory of days gone by. The only ray of hope, the only glimmer of hope for press freedom in Sri Lanka, is preserved through websites. Most of these websites are operating from overseas. Lanka News Web and Tamilnet have been banned.
What can human rights organisations and the international community do to help you and the independent media, especially the new media?
This is an excellent time for the international community, human rights organisations and media institutions to extend their support and solidarity to the people who are fighting against this injustice within and outside Sri Lanka. We may see some foreign countries trying to mend relations with Sri Lanka, which deteriorated during the war. We do not mind if they mend their relationships, but they must insist that law and order prevail in the country.