For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
By Kaleb Warnock
“They threw my unconscious body in a ditch and left me to die.”
Poddala Jayantha begin_of_the_skype_highlighting end_of_the_skype_highlighting is a Sri Lankan journalist who was nearly killed because of his investigative reporting with regard to alleged human rights violations executed by the Sri Lankan government. He spoke of his experience last Thursday as part of the First Amendment Day celebration in the Cardinal Room of the Memorial Union.
“I stand here today as a political asylum as a Sri Lankan journalist,” said Jayantha through a translator. “I was forced to leave Sri Lanka to save my life. There are so many other journalists who live there in fear. Most of them are living in exile.”
In his presentation, Jayantha told a room full of future journalists of the role and influence of media in Sri Lanka and how the struggle has caused extreme censorship of the media. He speaks primarily on behalf of the Tamil minority against the human rights violations enacted during the civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan government.
The government tightened restrictions on the media following the end of the civil war in 2009, according to the Human Rights Watch report of 2010.
“As pressure mounted for an independent investigation into alleged laws of war violations,” the report said, “the government responded by threatening journalists and civil society activists, effectively curtailing public debate and establishing its own commission of inquiry with a severely limited mandate.”
Many of the threats were realized, Jayantha said.
“The first shots after the war was over were fired at the journalists and free media,” Jayantha said. “They virtually crushed the free media institutions, and they only have the pro-government media to assassinate the character of the people who oppose them, or they actually use death squads to kill them.”
As a matter of fact, Jayantha was the victim of a death squad, and he suspects they were motivated to silence him for speaking out against human rights violations.
“I was tortured and my left leg was broken,” he said. “And today I’m walking with the assistance of steel rod that has been placed there. They poured acid on me. They also cut my beard and hair and put it in my mouth and forced me to inhale, which caused severe problems in my lungs subsequently. They thew my unconscious body in a ditch and left me to die.”
Following the June 2009 attack, he was in the hospital for nearly a month and was unable to walk for six more. His case is not an exception, as many other journalists have been attacked and several have paid the ultimate price.
Jayantha said since this administration took over in 2005, five leading media institutions have been burned down, 35 media employees have been murdered and six journalists have been kidnapped. Five have been released due to public opposition, but one is still missing and has been since January of 2010.
There has been no ensuing investigation to many of these cases, including Jayantha’s, and his attack remains unsolved.
“Every atrocity committed against a journalist and the media since April 20, 2005, to Dec. 8, 2009, the day that an editor of a newspaper was murdered, is being gradually covered by the dust that invaded through time,” Jayantha said.
However, he continues to speak out against the Sri Lankan government and hopes to continue to fight for human rights in his home country. He called on journalists and the international community to fight for free speech and seek the truth and hold the government accountable for its actions.
“That’s why I’m appealing to journalists. … Don’t let this freedom die.”