For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Media Release: Sri Lanka
The IFJ joins its affiliate the Free Media Movement (FMM) in calling for the immediate release of Lanka-e-News news editor Bennett Rupasinghe, who was arrested on March 31 on charges related to an arson attack on the news portal’s office earlier this year.
In the early hours of January 31, unknown arsonists destroyed the Lanka-e-News offices in Malabe, near the capital Colombo, causing around USD 135,000 worth of damage. At 2:30am the same night, Rupasinghe, 68, received a call from an unknown person threatening to kill him if he did not stop his work.
Police arrested two suspects soon after the incident but the men were released on bail because police failed to produce evidence upholding their guilt. It is alleged that Rupasinghe threatened one of the men’s brothers at gunpoint and also threatened one man over the phone. However, police told the Kaduwela Magistrate’s Court they were unable to find the weapon that Rupasinghe allegedly used.
According to the FMM, Rupasinghe was arrested by police after being summoned to Wellampitiya police station to record a statement. He is also accused of withholding information from Sri Lankan officials. Rupasinghe’s lawyers told FMM that they believe the police are turning him into a suspect of the arson attack for political reasons.
“This arrest appears to be yet another attempt to silence media organisations and journalists who are openly critical of the Government of Sri Lanka and must be called into question,” IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said.
“The authorities must ensure that a thorough investigation into the Lanka-e-News arson attack is conducted swiftly, so those responsible are brought to justice.”
The FMM reports several other Lanka-e-News journalists have been under surveillance since the arson. Journalists Sanjaya Dasanayake and Shantha Wijesooriya reported being followed to work recently and Lanka-e-News lawyer Manjula Pathiraja was also threatened.
Lanka-e-News editor Sandaruwan Senadeera blamed the Government of Sri Lanka for orchestrating the arson attack to silence his dissenting website, an AFP report said. Senadeera fled to Britain after receiving death threats in January 2010. Cartoonist and columnist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who has been missing since January 24, 2010 also worked for the organisation until the time of his disappearance.
Rupasinghe is being held in custody until a hearing on April 7.