Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

Journalists live dangerously in Sri Lanka

Article Author: 

Sri Lankan journalists are going through a trying period. Government leaders are taking a hard line on media freedom, with even senior media persons facing death threats and murderous assaults.

Media watchdogs, both national and international, have publicised serious incidents of intimidation by the state and other agencies directed against media organisations. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa denies any repression.

'The media here is free. Newspapers are full of criticism against the government,' Rajapaksa pointed out recently. However, incidents of intimidation abound.

The latest scary case was the stabbing of Suhaib M. Kassim, the associate editor of the state-owned Tamil daily 'Thinakaran' at his house here Monday.

The watchdog Free Media Movement (FMM) said the attack on a senior journalist like Suhaib demonstrated the 'vulnerability' of journalists in 'highly militarised' Sri Lanka.

Last week, two unidentified men stabbed journalist Lal Hemantha Athula Mawalage of the state-owned TV station 'Rupavahini' while he was on his way home.

Mawalage had come into the limelight when he delivered a fiery speech against the controversial Deputy Labour Minister Mervyn Silva, who had stormed into the TV station and assaulted news director T.M.G. Chandrasekhara Dec 27.

Angry TV station staff then beat up minister Silva. The incident was shown on all TV channels to the embarrassment of the Rajapaksa government.

While the minister went scot-free, Chandrasekhara was transferred to the post of director of research. The media reported that Chandrasekhara sought the transfer 'citing threats to his life'.

The FMM said that on Jan 7, three leading journalists with MBC TV and Radio Network that covered the Rupavahini episode were threatened with death by the underworld.

MTV head Chevaan Daniel, Sirasa TV director Kingsley Ratnayake and its news director Susil Kedelpitiya lodged complaints with the police about the threats.

Earlier, a young journalist with 'The Sunday Leader', Arthur Wamanan, was arrested for exposing the minister's alleged corruption.

Two top journalists of the Jaffna-based Tamil daily 'Uthayan' are too scared to go home because they face threats. The resident editor and the news editor have had to practically live in the office since May 2006.

'I can go out only with police escort,' news editor Kuhanathan told IANS. He would not identify the source of the threat.

Tamil journalists who get into trouble are routinely suspected of being supporters of the Tamil Tigers. Over all, critical journalists, no matter what the ethnicity, are dubbed 'traitors'.

Indeed, some Sinhalese journalists have been arrested for suspected links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), leading to a new term 'Sinhala Koti' or 'Sinhalese Tigers'.

In a letter to President Rajapaksa this month, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the charge of 'traitor' was made against Tamil TV journalist Sri Ranga Jeyaratnam by Tamil cabinet minister Douglas Devananda.

Army commander Lt.Gen. Sarath Fonseka told the state-owned media Jan 2 that a few scribes were indeed traitors and that they were the 'real obstacles' in the war against terror.

Last year, the defence ministry's website had for many days carried an article making insinuations against Iqbal Athas, the defence correspondent of 'The Sunday Times'. Athas was accused of 'assisting in the psychological operations of the LTTE terrorists'.

The CPJ told President Rajapaksa: 'Verbal, written and physical assaults on journalists are attacks on the very fabric of a democratic society. We call on you to make sure that members of your government desist from such acts.'

This has had no impact.

Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake said Monday that sections of the media were 'taking a sadistic delight in denigrating their motherland'.

And in an interview to the Sinhalese daily 'Iirida Lankadeepa' last week, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa - a brother of the president - called for censorship on military news.

'I think there is no need to report anything on the military. People do not want to know the quantity and kind of arms we acquire. This is not media freedom. I will tell without fear that if I have power I will not allow any of these things to be written.
'Everything in this country has become prostituted. Like peace, even the media is completely prostituted,' Gotabhaya thundered after naming two leading media institutions as the principal culprits.

We need your support

Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. Tamil journalists are particularly at threat, with at least 41 media workers known to have been killed by the Sri Lankan state or its paramilitaries during and after the armed conflict.

Despite the risks, our team on the ground remain committed to providing detailed and accurate reporting of developments in the Tamil homeland, across the island and around the world, as well as providing expert analysis and insight from the Tamil point of view

We need your support in keeping our journalism going. Support our work today.

For more ways to donate visit https://donate.tamilguardian.com.