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World Press Freedom Review
1999 World Press Freedom Review
Media freedom in Sri Lanka continues to dwell under the shadow of murder, assault, intimidation, and far-reaching censorship.
Anura Priynatha Kooray, a journalist with the public broadcaster Independent Television Network, and Indika Paththiniwasam, a cameraman with the television station Sirasa, were killed on December 18 during a suicide bombing at a rally of the ruling party in Colombo. President Kumaratunga was delivering a speech at the conclusion of the rally, which was organised in the context of presidential elections scheduled for December 21. The bomb killed 21 people and injured some 50 others, including the state leader. Police suspect separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of being behind the attack.
Anthony Mariyadas, a freelance radio reporter working with the state-run Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation, was shot dead in Vavuniya on December 30. Mariyadas was outside a church covering a midnight mass when he was murdered.
An unidentified gunman killed Atputharajah Nadarajah and his driver on November 9. Nadarajah was Chief Editor of Thinamurasu and was also a member of parliament for the Jaffa district for the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), which belongs to the ruling People's Alliance coalition. Nadarajah, 38, avoided contact with the public and few people even knew what he looked like. Over the past year his weekly had changed, veering towards Tamil nationalism and supporting the Tamil Tigers.
Rohana Kumara, editor of a pro-opposition (United National Party) newspaper Satana (Battle), was shot dead by unidentified assailants in a suburb of Colombo. He was travelling home from his office in a taxi late on September 7, after his wife had telephoned to tell him that their house was being attacked. His colleagues and family believe he was murdered because of his reports alleging government corruption over the granting of a licence for a new terrestrial television channel. Kumara’s newspaper adopted an aggressive reporting style and was often involved in libel battles.
A well-respected lawyer and civil rights activist, Dr Neelan Thiruchelvam, was murdered in Colombo on July 29 by a suicide bomber. Neelan was a moderate Tamil and his murder was considered to be the work of the LTTE, who are fighting for an independent Tamil state in north eastern Sri Lanka.
In May, a government-appointed committee called for changes in the existing laws relating to the media -- including the repeal of criminal defamation legislation -- in keeping with international obligations imposed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Free Media Movement welcomed the motion on 'Necessity of Reformation of Media Laws in the Country', which will soon be taken up for debate in Parliament. Extensive restrictions on reporting military operations are currently in place and all photographs, news reports and television material relating to the war must be submitted to the military censor before screening. On November 6, the government information department prohibited "the publication, broadcast or transmission of sensitive military information." The tightened restrictions came after reports of intensified fighting between government and LTTE forces, which apparently left more than 1,000 soldiers dead.
The editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, was released on bail on October 29 after appearing in court on a complaints of criminally defaming President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
ARTICLE 19 reported in February that the Minister of Internal and International Commerce and the Food Minister had threatened to bring charges of criminal defamation against the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV). The threats were in connection with CMEV’s work documenting and reporting instances of violence and violations of election law during the elections to the North Western Provincial Council. CMEV concluded that the election was fundamentally marred by a significant rise in the number of such violations.
Several cases of attacks on journalists were reported this year. Over 300 journalists took part in a demonstration in July protesting against the assault of their colleagues by presidential security guards while covering an opposition demonstration. The journalists, dressed in black and white and donning black armbands, pushed past police barricades in an attempt to march to President Chandrika’s residence. The Free Media Movement said that at the opposition demonstration 12 journalists and photographers were assaulted and their camera equipment was smashed by the president’s security guards. The police fired tear gas, water cannons and used batons to break up the opposition demonstration while unidentified men in plain clothes dealt with the media.
The defence correspondent for the weekly Lakbima, Srilal Priyantha, was kidnapped and severely beaten in a cemetery by a group of men wearing black hoods over their faces on March 14. Priyantha’s colleagues believe the attack was in connection with his reporting on the military and the police. The army’s southern commander, Brigadier Bandula Ranasinghe, was placed under military arrest following the attack after being apparently implicated in the abduction and assault.
BBC correspondent Susannah Price was told to leave the country in September or her life would be threatened. A message was left on her mobile phone giving her one week to leave. Sri Lanka’s media minister offered her protection and claimed a group, whom he did not identify, were trying to discredit the government by attacking journalists.
The house of M. W. Somaratne, provincial reporter for the daily Lakandeepa, was attacked by unknown individuals on January 28, RSF reported. The façade of his home was severely damaged. Somaratne believes the attack was in retaliation for some articles he published supporting the government's policy during a provincial election campaign.
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