FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION SRI LANKA

For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya

Murdered Tamil Journalist, a Symbol of Courage

Darmaratnam Sivaram

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 3, 2005 (IPS) – For Sri Lanka’s reporters, World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday took on added poignancy this year due to one name, Dharmeratnam Sivaram – the South Asian island nation’s best journalist on Tamil affairs.

On the night of Apr. 28, the 46-year-old Sivaram was grabbed off the street by four men and bundled into a vehicle soon as he stepped out of a bar in the heart of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo.

His body, with gunshots to the head, was found the following morning by the side of a marsh within close proximity to the country’s parliament. The police also recovered a spent cartridge from a 9 mm pistol and a napkin, which had been used to gag him.

The implications of his murder cut across the broad spectrum of that island’s troubled political landscape. For one, it places the Sri Lankan government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga under pressure to find Sivaram’s killers as a mark of its commitment to upholding press freedom.

But there is little reason for the island’s media to feel sanguine, since the Kumaratunga administration has failed to arrest and put on trial suspects linked to the murders of journalists before Sivaram’s. Among those victims during the past five years were Mylvaganam Nimalarajan, Aiyathurai Nadesan, Rohana Kumara, Nadarajah Atputharajah, Anthony Mariyanayagam and Bala Nadarajah Iyer.

That comes on top of Colombo’s record of harassing sections of the media, the worst year of which was 2000, when there 29 assaults on journalists, states the Paris-based media freedom watchdog Reporters sans Frontiers (RSF).

Sivaram, in fact, was a victim of such heavy-handedness on, of all days, Press Freedom Day last year. Police visited his house in a suburb south of the Sri Lankan capital to conduct a search based on questionable reasons. A similar act of police intrusion, without a search warrant, happened again to Sivaram in late July.

Yet such intimidation from the state failed to deter him from his trenchant analysis of Sri Lanka’s political developments. Nor did he waver in his writings following threats levelled by a break-away faction of the Tamil Tiger rebels against the lives of Tamil journalists from the country’s eastern province, where Sivaram hails from.

His courage to stand for what he believed in was best demonstrated in the line he took on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict that has pit government troops against the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels. He was unequivocally behind the rebels’ cause to create a separate state of Tamil Eelam in the north and east of the country for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority.

He brought a level of insight about the political agenda of the Tamil Tigers that was without peer. These accounts, written under the nom de plume ‘Taraki’ in the ‘Daily Mirror,’ an English language newspaper, and the ‘Virakesari,’ a Tamil language daily, were grounded in facts not many had access to.

His grasp of the undercurrents within the world of Tamil politics in the island also flowed in the website he helped set up in the mid-1990, ‘TamilNet.’

Such achievements will, undoubtedly, make his absence excessively painful for his following among Sri Lankan Tamils living overseas and those who have followed his views on the conflict, which has killed over 63,000 people, or the current peace process, at home.

His murder brought to an end the best interpreter of the ground realities in the war-torn northern and eastern Sri Lanka. What helped him become one was the fact that Sivaram was, literally, a rebel with a cause before he took up the pen. In the 1980s, as a young man in his twenties, he trained as a militant for the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), one of the many rebel groups that sprang up to advance the Tamil nationalist cause.

And when he drifted out of that movement, having served as head of PLOTE’s political wing, Sivaram turned his attention to writing, including filing dispatches for IPS in the late 1980s from Sri Lanka.

But as a friend and colleague Rajpal Abeynayake recalled, it was the weekly columns Sivaram began writing on the Tamil militancy in a Sunday English language newspaper that announced his arrival as a unique journalist among the local crowd.

”The level of curiosity was at fever pitch about the man who had so much inside-dope on the militancy of the Tamil movement. Who the hell was Taraki, they all asked?” Abeynayake, a columnist on ‘The Sunday Times’ in Colombo, wrote in a tribute to Sivaram.

It was a writing that also catered to those with a keen eye for military strategy, philosophy, Tamil culture and the history of Batticaloa, the town in eastern Sri Lankan where Sivaram was born.

Yet that paper trail created a list of enemies among sections of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority in the country’s south. To them he was a ”terrorist,” as articulated recently by Omalpe Sobitha Thera, general secretary of a political party of Buddhist monks. That spark of enlightenment has also been evident when Sivaram ran into trouble in the mid-1990s, including being thrown into jail for a brief period, due to his writings.

Where others may have chosen to flee Sri Lanka or hide due to such threatening conditions, Sivaram did not. He opted instead to live life fully with his wife, Herly Yogaranjini, and his three children, Vaishnavi, Vaitheki and Seralaathan.

On the night he was abducted he had demonstrated such a will to live, too. He was in a bar drinking beer and talking politics with friends. (END)

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