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World Press Freedom Review
by Naomi Hunt
The country, marred by conflict for decades, has witnessed increased violence during the past two years, which in January of this year culminated in the government’s official withdrawal from a ceasefire with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As in the past, the conflict took a heavy toll on journalists.
Sri Lanka’s media landscape reflects communalism and partisan politics. Authorities reportedly favour the majority Sinhalese media organizations based in Colombo, although no publication is free from scrutiny. This pro-Sinhalese bias has frustrated many Tamil- journalists, who feel their safety and ability to report are threatened by the authorities and other interest groups. Impunity remains of great concern.
The Emergency Regulations of 2005, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 2006 and other laws that give authorities broad and vaguely-defined powers to shut down those reporting on "sensitive" topics continued to serve as tools for persecution.
One widely-publicized instance of detention without charge involved Tamil-speaking journalists V. Jasikaran, his partner, and J.S. Tissainayagam. All three have been held since early March under anti-terrorism legislation, reportedly tortured and ill-treated by authorities in Colombo.
On 6 March, Jasikaran, who owns E-Kwality printing works and reports for the news website Outreach Sri Lanka, and his wife, were arrested by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID). On 7 March, Sunday Times and Outreach Sri Lanka journalist Tissainayagam was arrested after visiting the TID to ask about his imprisoned colleague. It is believed they were targeted for their analysis of clashes between government forces and the LTTE.
Tissainayagam was not charged until late August, when he was indicted for allegedly violating the PTA by "bringing the government into disrepute" with articles published between June 2006 and 2007 in North Eastern Monthly magazine (a now-defunct pro-Tamil English-language publication); and violating the Emergency Regulations by "aiding and abetting terrorist organizations" through the raising of money for the magazine. In November, Tissainayagam was moved without explanation to the notorious Magazine prison in Colombo. As of December, he is awaiting trial, and is said to have made a confession under duress.
It is unclear if Jasikaran and his partner have been charged, but Jasikaran was in prison as of late November, when his family received calls threatening that he would be harmed in jail.
A.R.Vaama Loshan, of Vettri FM Radio, a Tamil radio station, was also arrested under the PTA by the TID in November. However, he was released without charge or explanation within eight days.
Violence against journalists was widespread throughout the year. On 22 May, Keith Noyahr was abducted and severely beaten. The journalist and deputy editor of weekly magazine The Nation was allegedly targeted as a result of his independent coverage on the conflict in the north. Noyahr was tortured by his captors. Journalists attempting to organize a protest against the lack of government action were reprimanded for their criticism, and warned that their own security could not be guaranteed if such criticism were to continue.
Paranirupasingham Devakumar, a television correspondent, was stabbed to death on 28 May in Jaffna. He was one of the few journalists still working in Jaffna, a battle ground between LTTE and army forces, and, after Baghdad, the world’s deadliest city for journalists.
On 30 June, Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) journalist and deputy chief Namal Perera and his friend were brutally beaten in a failed abduction attempt. Apparently, Perera was targeted in the wake of a scandal between the SLPI and the government mouthpiece Dinamina. Dinamina had printed an earlier story alleging that the SLPI aided several LTTE terrorists who travelled to Norway on the pretence that they were journalists. The SLPI was considering legal action against the newspaper, calling the claims "baseless, misleading and factually incorrect," when Perera and his friend were attacked.
High-ranking officials contributed to the hostile media environment with both their words and their actions. Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka implied that reporters who are attacked have only themselves to blame, stating in a 20 July interview with the state-run Sunday Observer, that for journalists who "damage" his organisation or individuals, "it is natural that they should live in fear."
Sinhala-language publications were not immune. On 5 August, Fonseka warned Lankadeepa reporter Indika Ramanayake that he would no longer cooperate with the publication unless it shut down two weekly columns that analysed military defence affairs.
Labour Minister Mervyn Silva was even more aggressive. On 4 August, Silva physically attacked two journalists during the opening ceremony of a flyover bridge in Kelaniya. MBC Network’s Sirasa TV had sent the reporters to cover the event. The Highways Ministry, which had invited Sirasa TV, promised that Silva would not abuse the press. But Silva and his cohorts lashed out as police security watched. Sirasa TV footage shows the minister muttering that he would have to "break the Buddhist teaching of not taking any person’s life."
Three days later, senior police superintendent Ranjith Gunesekara defended Silva’s right to stop people from filming him. The police chief insisted that Sirasa TV should not have covered the event, since they knew that the minister is hostile toward their station.
On 11 August, the minister took his antipathy towards Sirasa TV further. Silva reportedly bussed around 100 men, women and children from his constituency into Colombo to act as protestors. "Demonstrators" then shouted slogans claiming they were the "indomitable force" of the Sri Lankan president, and that Sirasa TV is pro-LTTE.
Encouragingly, an indictment was issued against Silva in November in connection with his many run-ins with Sirasa TV, accusing him of several charges, including assault and robbery.
Not surprisingly, attacks by civilians also occurred. On 28 August, three journalists were assaulted while conducting interviews with teachers’ union protesters. First, Yamuna Harshani and photojournalist Janaka Galappaththi of Lankadeepa newspaper were attacked by three medical students at the Colombo University Medical Facility, in full view of police security, who did not intervene. When the two journalists called a third to come record the event, he was also assaulted.
In a particularly vicious attack, journalist Radhika Devakumar was shot three times at point blank range by a group of unknown assailants. The men arrived at her house in the early evening of 8 September, and fired shots into her shoulder, chest and abdomen. Her life was saved by immediate medical attention after family members rushed her to the hospital. She had been working as a Tamil-language journalist for numerous publications and broadcasters. Like many journalists in Sri Lanka, she also worked in politics.
Journalists reporting on the conflict also risk being killed in the crossfire. On 1 October, journalist Rashmi Mohamed died along with 26 other people when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the office of the United National Party in Anuradhapura.
Towards the end of the year, BBC’s Sinhala service was repeatedly interfered with. The Defence Ministry website also singled out the station for criticism for reporting on civilian deaths in war zones, and the state-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation (SLBC) in August began broadcasting programs right after BBC programming to present the government’s views on its reports.
Population: 21.1 million
Domestic Overview: This island nation, located 28 km off of the Indian coast, has been independent since 1948. In 1972, its name was changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, and the protection of Buddhism was constitutionalised. Tensions worsened between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the large Tamil minority living in the north and east. Partially in response to Sinhalese nationalism, separatist Tamil politicians and armed groups emerged, notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who use force to seek an independent state.
The killing of 13 Sinhalese soldiers in 1983 by the LTTE marked the beginning of the largest spate of communal violence. Tamil areas became a warzone, and tens of thousands fled as refugees to India. There have been several unsuccessful attempts to negotiate peace, including offers from the government to give Tamil areas increased autonomy. Fighting in the north has persisted with few breaks. In January 2008, the government announced its unilateral withdrawal from a 2002 ceasefire and stepped up attacks.
Despite terrorist attacks in Sinhalese-majority areas, including the capital, fighting is limited primarily to the north and east. The majority of the island is stable and secure, allowing development. Tourism is a major sector in the Sri Lankan economy.
Beyond Borders: Sri Lanka is an active developing country in the United Nations, and was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement. It is a member of the Commonwealth, the IMF, the World Bank and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
The LTTE has been designated a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States.
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