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IPI Watch List
IPI Watch List Report
In Sri Lanka, where the conflict between the government and the Tamil rebels has recently escalated, journalists have been specifically targeted because of their reports. In many occasions, authorities have threatened the media not to publish "unpatriotic" reports, and physical attacks and other forms of harassment are commonplace. Attacks on journalists, including murder, remain unpunished, with no apparent official investigations being conducted into such crimes.
Sri Lanka was placed back on the IPI Watch LIst and the IPI Board Meeting in Mainz, Germany, on 17 November 2007. Sri Lanka was first added to the IPI Watch List in October 2000. However, the Board removed Sri Lanka from the Watch List in September 2003, after an IPI delegation travelled to Sri Lanka and received committments to respect press freedom from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and other ministers.
June 2008 Update
Sri Lanka’s media environment has further degenerated in the past six months, making the country one of the most dangerous for journalists. Numerous authority statements have specifically threatened the media not to publish "unpatriotic" reports, and physical attacks and other forms of harassment are commonplace.
On 27 November 2007, five editorial staff members of the Voice of Tigers, the radio station of the Tamil Tiger rebels, were killed in an air strike carried out by the Sri Lankan Air Force in the northern province of Vanni, just two hours before the broadcast of the annual "Heroes Day" speech by Tamil Tiger leader V. Prabhakaran.
On 27 December, Minister Mervyn Silva and several other men entered the state-run television station Sri Lanka Rupavahini Cooperation (SLRC), and assaulted its news director. The Minister was allegedly upset that a speech of his was not broadcast. While this incident was widely condemned by political parties and civil society, no official apology was issued, and Silva has continued to verbally threaten journalists. In the meantime, SLRC journalists who protested the harassment by showing it on television were attacked and forced to flee the country for their protection.
At least three journalists and media workers are currently detained. Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam, the editor of a website, and two colleagues were detained on 7 March by Sri Lanka's Terrorist Information Department (TID). They have been held for over two months, reportedly in connection with their website, without charges having been filed.
The 22 May abduction of editor Keith Noyahr was only the latest in a series of similar assaults. Noyahr, a journalist and deputy editor of the weekly The Nation, was abducted and severely beaten, reportedly as a consequence of his independent coverage of the ongoing conflict in the North. Noyahr was also tortured, with his abductors asking him to reveal his sources, and he and his family threatened.
Several days later, Ministry of Defence officials summoned two senior journalists who had helped organise a protest demanding an inquiry into Noyahr's case, telling them journalist criticism of the armed forces was unacceptable. The government also said that it could not prevent "actions" taken against journalists should they continue to criticise government policy.
Attacks on journalists, including murder, remain unpunished, with no apparent official investigations being conducted into such crimes. Many journalists were also forced to flee the country after repeated threats against them.
On 28 May, Paranirupasingham Devakumar, a television correspondent, was stabbed to death. He was one of the few journalists still working in Jaffna, the second most dangerous city in the world for journalists, behind only Baghdad. A notorious battle zone between Tamil Tiger rebels and the government, attacks against the media in Jaffna have become so common that many journalists have either left or given up their jobs out of fear for their lives.
Press freedom also remains heavily restricted by regulatory means, particularly measures passed in connection with the on-going conflict, such as the Emergency Regulations of August 2005 and the Prevention of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities Regulations of December 2006. The Official Secrets Act, Press Council laws, and broadcasting laws also fail to meet international standards on press freedom and freedom of expression.
International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression Mission to Sri Lanka
Fearful Symmetry: A War on Two Fronts
September 2003 Update
With the peace talks appearing to stall, there has been a return to some of the media violations last seen when the government forces and the LTTE were still at war. Death threats, hand grenade attacks, verbal assaults, pressure by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and violent assaults by political thugs all show that the violence which often characterises Sri Lankan society is never far from the surface.
During December 2002, an assault was made on journalists who attended an election: two of them were hospitalised as the result of their injuries. The attack occurred two months after a similar assault by political thugs took place at Higurakgoda.
In early January, a grenade was thrown by unknown persons into the house of S. Jayamanthamoorty a vice president of the East Lanka Journalists Association and a free lance journalist. Local press freedom organisations called for the government to hold an inquiry into the matter.
February saw IPI undertake a press freedom mission to Sri Lanka. After meetings with the Sri Lankan Prime Minister and other ministers, the members of the mission reported, "We found a warm atmosphere of hope and progress on press freedom in Sri Lanka. Of course, nothing can be guaranteed. Governments change. The President here, who has the right to veto any bill she chooses, is still no great lover of the press. But the… PM impresses us all as a sincere man who… is determined to see those freedoms further prosperity to his country."
Before the IPI Mission arrived in Colombo, on 20 February, police water cannons fired on journalists attempting to report a People’s Liberation Front anti-peace demonstration. A journalist with the Upali group was admitted to hospital following the attack. FMM also reported that cameras were damaged during the struggle.
In a serious press freedom violation, a death threat was issued against BBC correspondent Ponnaiah Manikavasagam following the broadcast of his interview with a Tamil separatist leader of the LTTE. The threat was the first of its kind since the cease fire in the war between government troops and the LTTE.
On 3 July, IFJ protested another death threat against journalist Poddala Jayantha, of the Silumina newspaper. Jayantha received death threats by telephone against him and his family. They appear to be linked to an article written by Jayantha exposing corruption in the state banking sector.
The Sri Lankan government was also called upon to distance itself from the comments of Fisheries Minister Mahinda Wijeskera, after he threatened to kill Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of the weekly The Sunday Leader. The minister’s death threat followed the newspaper's publication of articles accusing him of corruption. Wijeskera allegedly claimed he had the Prime Minister's support in making the threat.
In August, there was condemnation of the LTTE’s persistent attempts to silence the Tamil-language weekly Thinamurasu. On 7 August, a distribution truck was ambushed by armed LTTE activists who torched 5,000 copies of the newspaper after forcing the truck to stop. Afterwards, the newspaper filed a complaint with the Norwegian observers in charge of monitoring the truce between the LTTE and the government.
December 2002 Update
"I want to forget the past and look to the future", said Ranil Wickremesinghe after being elected Prime Minister in December 2001 following a strong victory by his United National Party (UNP). The victory was a blow to the People’s Alliance (PA) and left President Chandrika Kumaratunga a lonely and isolated figure.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe has made good on his statement and instituted a number of changes that may produce long term benefits for Sri Lanka. One of his first acts in power was to initiate a dialogue with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and to agree on a ceasefire. As a result, aided by Norwegian monitors, the two sides are actively discussing a means of bringing the war to an end and reaching a political solution.
With regard to the media, on 25 April Sri Lanka’s cabinet approved the repeal of the harsh defamation laws. The decision was widely welcomed by press freedom organisations and brings to an end the criminal prosecution of journalists for defamation. Significantly, the decision was seen as the first step in a new approach to the media - an approach that arose out of a January meeting between Wickremesinghe and media representatives. At the meeting, Wickremesinghe said he would introduce a right to information act, replace the press council with an independent body and set up an independent media training institute. There is also a move to amend the constitution in order to revoke the controversial power of the President to dissolve parliament.
However, despite these advances, there were a number of press freedom violations. In February, journalists covering a peaceful march of Buddhist monks were threatened and prevented from using their cameras. On 30 March, three masked men broke into the offices of Sarah Cithara, a correspondent in Attala (north of Colombo) for the English-language newspaper Daily Mirror and the Singhalese daily Lankadeepa. The three assailants threatened his wife, who was alone with their child, demanding that she give them a tape containing a controversial speech made by President Kumaratunga.
Misgivings with regard to the present situation in Sri Lanka are also shared by other countries and Wickremesinghe is facing pressure at home. This year, Japan stated that the country must improve, "governance, accountability and transparency in project implementation in order for it to continue as a constructive development partner". Furthermore, the discussions between the government and the LTTE are also at a critical stage and both sides are being severely tested. In addition, during April, the opposition held large opposition rallies and Kumaratunga has said she could halt the peace protest if she so wished.
Due to the above, Sri Lanka is going through a critical period and this is impacting upon the media environment. Though not directly related to press freedom, the high numbers of deaths during the election campaign and on election day are a strong indication of the continuing problems in Sri Lanka. Until the civil and political violence ceases, Sri Lanka will remain a dangerous country for reporters to practice their profession.
November 2002 Update
There have been momentous changes in Sri Lanka over the last year which have benefited the media. New prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is making good on promises to introduce wide-ranging media reforms and the continuing peace negotiations with the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Ealam (LTTE) has led to a decline in violence against journalists.
A court case in the early part of the year showed that the judiciary no longer tolerates violence against the media. In February, a Colombo court sentenced two air force officers to nine years’ imprisonment for an attack on a journalist’s home. The attack was designed to silence Iqbal Athas, the award-winning defence correspondent for The Sunday Times.
Speaking of the case, Judge Sarath Ambepitiya said, "In a democratic country like Sri Lanka, newspapers have a right to expose the corruption of anyone." Noting that violent attacks against journalists undermine press freedom, the Judge added, "If crime is used to suppress [this right], then stern action should be taken." The Judge’s speech reinforced the view that the days of judicial indifference over assaults against journalists has ended.
On 18 June, Parliament unanimously passed an act repealing the country’s criminal defamation laws from the statute books. Since the 1970s, successive governments have used this law to harass newspaper editors and impose serious constraints on the media. The decision should be seen as a huge advancement, and as a positive indication that government sponsored repression of the media is now at an end. For this reason, there are real hopes that Sri Lanka will emerge with an open and independent media environment.
However, there are two continuing problems in the country – violence and the threat of violence. This continues to blight the country and there is a need for police to work harder at investigating the claims of journalists. In June, A.J.A. Abeynayaka, a provincial journalist connected to the Sinhala language daily Divaina, received threats stemming from his reports on a torture case. Also in June, Sarath Yatawara, Kurunagala provincial correspondent of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation – a state owned TV station – was threatened by the Officer-in-Charge of the Wariyapola Police Station while he was covering a road accident in which two children were killed.
Attacks on the media continued in August when an unidentified group of five people forcibly entered the Thinakkathir newspaper offices at around 11 p.m. on 8 August. They tied up and blindfolded the staff and stole office equipment. There are claims made by local organisations that this may have been carried out by dissident members of the LTTE, however, the LTTE headquarters condemned the raid.
The case of journalist Nishanta Kumara, a correspondent for the daily Ravaya newspaper, is another worrying example of the pressure on individual journalists. In July Kumara was attacked on a bus by three men, one of whom carried a knife. Journalists were also targeted when governing party supporters attacked a peaceful protest against the felling of illegal timber. During the struggle a number of cameras were seized from cameramen.
At present, the media scene in Sri Lanka is being transformed and there are great hopes for the future. The decision to repeal the defamation laws is the first step in a projected plan that will make Sri Lanka one of the freest and most open countries in Asia. It is to be hoped that the prime minister continues with his reforms. However, violence and intimidation are still problems and more needs to be done in this important area.
December 2000 Update
Despite being engaged in a bitter war in the north of the country with the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga found time this year to centre another group firmly in her cross hairs, the independent media. Unable to manoeuvre as well as her traditional enemy and totally lacking in camouflage, the independent media made an easy target and was subdued by a series of legal and political assaults. In addition, the caustic and irresponsible language used by the government may have stoked the fires of hatred among the Sri Lankan populace, causing a number of civil disturbances.
By deciding to open up a war on two fronts, the president was able to use one of the most powerful weapons at her disposal - censorship. Although censorship in Sri Lanka has existed since 1983, the new measures enacted under an extraordinary Gazette of 3 May, in accordance with Chapter 40 of the Public Security Ordinance, introduced a raft of new measures designed to silence the media after the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) was forced to retreat from the Elephant Pass, near Jaffna. It is worth remembering, however, that the imposition of the emergency laws served a dual role in that they not only prevented criticism of the government’s strategy in fighting the LTTE but also enabled the president to strike back at her fiercest critics in the media.
Reptile of Destruction
Recorded on 3 January, the interview provides an insight into the president’s views on the media and reveals her deep-seated antagonism towards certain individuals who have criticised or slighted her in the past. In the opening part of the interview, the president articulated her view that she is vilified by the media, "my analysis is that a political leader has never before been collectively attacked by the media in history. Basically, all the media attack me. The Maharajah Organisation, Ranil’s brother’s TNL TV and Radio, Ranil’s uncle’s Lankadeepa and Times Newspapers, Ranil’s uncle’s ("Bappa") Divaina newspaper, the [Sunday] Leader newspaper, and the Peramuna newspaper, Yukthiya, Ravaya and Lakbima newspapers. None of these newspapers published a single word of truth about the work we have done."
After discussing claims made by a lawyer on MTV, owned by The Maharajah Organisation, that she had suffered psychological damage, the president went on to say that all of the independent media failed to mention how badly wounded she was after the assassination attempt on her life in 1999. Instead, the president claimed, "they put some lunatic on TV and told the people not to vote for me".
In the middle part of the interview, the president discussed how the opposition party, the UNP, has exerted an influence on the media, "this venomous reptile of destruction has creeped (sic) into a place which is somewhat beyond the government’s control- the media." The president then went on to say that the media is "sacred" but they have "commenced prostituting themselves shamelessly. Why? Because those elements who inject venom in to parts of our body politic were behind them."
Furthermore, the president stated, "I have been subjected to brutal media attacks ever since I joined the SLFP in 1991 by Times, Lankdeepa and Divaina. Then, that piece of paper called [the Sunday] Leader was not in existence." The president also made an ominous statement that had a bearing on events later in the year, referring to the UNP parties influence over the media she said, "during the recent polls they [the media] worked against us. We’ll see to that later." Finally, the president made a series of accusations against Victor Ivan of the Ravaya newspaper.
Obviously, the setbacks in the war against the LTTE were a major factor in the introduction of the censorship laws; however, it is hard not to see the interview as a statement of intent or as a foreshadowing of events that were to occur later in the year. In addition, aside from the president’s intensely personal view on the press, an attack was made on two of the journalists mentioned in the television interview for their alleged collusion with the LTTE.
Mud that Sticks
As well as attacking the media on television, the government of Sri Lanka pursued a potentially fatal policy of accusing individual members of the media of treason. In January, senior government ministers and other public officials accused Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader, and Victor Ivan, editor-in-chief of Ravaya, of conspiring with the LTTE. The accusations were subsequently picked up by the state owned press and carried in a series of articles. None of the allegations were ever substantiated by any investigation. Such attacks placed both editors in considerable danger, particularly in light of "vigilante" and "death squad" reprisals that have occurred in Sri Lanka’s recent past.
In a protest issued on 20 January, the International Press Institute (IPI), condemned the published accusations against the two newspaper editors and called upon the government to ensure that independent journalists are allowed to exercise their profession without fear or harassment or attack. IPI also urged the government to initiate the legal reforms necessary for ensuring the right to free expression and access to information.
Bearing in mind the poisonous atmosphere that already existed in Sri Lanka towards the media, the defeat of the SLA in the Elephant pass, which left 35,000 troops almost surrounded in the Jaffna region, provided an adequate excuse for the government to tighten its censorship laws.
Censored, Censored, Censored
Enacted on 3 May, the introduction of the extraordinary Gazette gave the government wide-ranging powers to control the media. Although censorship had been applied to local media for a considerable period, the new law was applied to the foreign media for the first time; previous lax censorship laws were tightened up and the independent media found itself being heavily restricted.
Significantly, the Gazette allowed the government to issue a proclamation under Chapter 40 of the Public Security Ordinance, No. 25 of 1947.
By virtue of this law, the government was able to ban live broadcasts of all television and radio programmes; ban newspapers and seize their means of production; as well as ban meetings of more than five people, trade union action and criticism of the president and the government.
On 12 May, BBC and CNN reports about the military crisis, which were carried on the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation’s (SLBC) Channel One, were taken off the air and blocked with the word "Censored". During the same day, Sinhala and Tamil news programmes by the BCC World Service, carried by SLBC radio were taken off the air. According to SLBC chairmen, Janadasa Peiris, "implementing the recent measures concerning the broadcasting of military news was more important than respecting the company’s contract with the BBC".
In a further move against the independent media, on the evening of 19 May, authorities closed the offices of the Uthayan newspaper, the only Tamil newspaper published in Jaffna. According to news reports, soldiers forced all employees from the premises and then locked the building. The appointed government censor, Ariya Rubasinghe, justified the decision by accusing the newspaper of "acting maliciously".
A television station was also threatened with closure. The private television station network (TNL), which is owned by the brother of opposition leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe, was criticised for its coverage of a 17 May bomb attack. TNL editor, Namal Perera, was visited by police at his home and interrogated over the media outlet’s coverage.
Speaking of the incident, Perera said, "we did not report the incident, but all we told our viewers was that we were unable to bring the news of a bomb attack because the censor had not cleared our report. We did not violate the censorship."
On 22 May, police closed down the facilities of the printing house operated by Leader Publications (Pvt.) Ltd., owner of the English daily newspaper, the Sunday Leader. The action was taken in order to prevent the publication of the newspaper which the previous day had published an article entitled "War in Fantasyland" criticising the new censorship laws. As a result of this article, the Sunday Leader was banned from printing for six months, although this decision was subsequently overturned by a court and reduced to four months. The closure of the printing house also prevented the publication of the Irida Peramuna, the sister paper of the Sunday Leader.
Although the ban on Foreign media outlets was lifted in June, the local media continued to be censored. In a bid to overturn the strict law, a number of newspapers appealed to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Justice Denied
Launched in June, the Supreme Court action, led by the editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, sought to overturn the censorship laws by contending that they were illegal. On the 30 June, the Supreme Court agreed with the submissions by the newspapers and found that the censorship laws imposed in May and the ban on Leader Publications (Pvt.) Ltd. had no foundation in law. In reaching its decision, the court held that Chief Censor, Ariya Rubasinghe, was without the legal authority to enforce the censorship laws.
Commenting on the decision of the court, Lasantha Wickrematunga said, "not just this paper (the Sunday Leader), but all Sri Lankans should breathe a sigh of relief that justice has prevailed". However, Wickrematunga added a note of caution, "even as we write no doubt plotters are plotting and planners are planning on how best to silence the media and keep far from the public’s ears the many truths that await the telling".
In a decision that was seen as an act of revenge for Wickrematunga’s attacks on the government, on 5 September, the editor of the Sunday Leader was sentenced to two years imprisonment, suspended for five years, for criminally defaming the president. The charge of criminal defamation was laid against Wickrematunga in response to a September 1995 Sunday Leader article criticising the president for failing to carry out election promises. During the trial, state prosecutors argued that the article, titled "Promising Government", insinuated that the president was corrupt.
Reacting to the decision to prosecute, IPI described the sentence as a callous attempt to extend the sentence beyond its original term and one that flew in the face of international standards of fairness and good legal practice. IPI also argued that by applying a five-year suspended sentence in the case of Wickrematunga, the Sri Lankan judiciary was using prohibitive sentencing powers to silence the media.
Regarding the sentence, IPI said, "as a result of the sentencing policy decided upon in the High Court of Colombo, if a further criminal offence is committed within the next five years, Wickrematunga faces the possibility of serving the two year sentence as well as any sentence awarded for the subsequent offence. In addition, concerning the type of offence that may trigger the application of the original sentence, IPI fears that Wickrematunga may be imprisoned on the slightest pretence."
Describing the extreme length of time between the commission of the alleged offence and the trial, IPI said, "five years is too long to wait for a legal decision on the matter. Indeed, IPI views the fact that Wickrematunga has had the prospect of the trial hanging over him for the last five years as intolerable. Based on the facts before IPI, the length of time between commission and trial is a form of "degrading treatment" in which potential prosecutions are retained in the hands of the government ready to be activated whenever the government feels it expedient."
Inheriting the Wind
Although difficult to determine absolute truths concerning the media situation in Sri Lanka, what may be said with some conviction is that the government and, in particular, the president have pursued an aggressive line against the media. Forced into a life or death struggle with the LTTE, the president used the opportunity to master a foe much closer to home and to revenge herself on a number of outspoken critics. In addition, the 10 October elections only served as a further spur to achieving this aim. The result has been a series of unequal battles with the Sri Lankan media; battles that the media could not hope to win and which have cost dearly.
Perhaps the most disturbing element of the government’s behaviour has been its apparent willingness to endanger the lives of journalists. Indeed, on occasion it has appeared to actively court this outcome by smearing journalists with the charge of treason. The outcome of such a tactic has inflamed passions in the country and may have been the cause of attacks against the media. On 18 July, the pro-governmental newspaper The Jana Ravaya published an article accusing a number of journalists of treason. The article stated that the journalists had handed over information to the LTTE. Such accusations mirrored the one made at the beginning of the year and once again toyed with the lives of the journalists involved.
In conclusion, the independent media this year have fought a one sided battle against the government and sought to overcome the strictures imposed on it by the censorship laws. If, as the poet Blake wrote, the Tigers do haunt the forests of the night, it is the strength and courage of the independent media that burns most brightly in Sri Lanka.
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