The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and other global press freedom bodies have strongly condemned the escalation in hostile rhetoric against some of Sri Lanka’s leading journalists and human rights defenders.
Suffused with dire threats of reprisal, the rhetoric has risen several scales since the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva adopted a resolution on March 22, censuring Sri Lanka for possible war crimes during the last phase of its long civil war and underlining the need for credible steps towards reconciliation between the country’s main ethnic groups. Amplified through the state-controlled media, this chorus of denunciation, could pose a clear and present danger to the physical security of the many journalists who courageously argue the case for national reconciliation.
Similar such outbursts of verbal aggression contributed to a wave of attacks and a climate of intimidation so severe that several of Sri Lanka’s leading journalists went into exile during the first half of 2009, as the civil war entered its final phase.
On March 23, Sri Lanka’s Minister for Public Relations, Mervyn Silva addressed a public demonstration against the UNHRC resolution, threatening to “break the limbs” of any of the exiled journalists should they set foot in the country. Among the journalists mentioned was Poddala Jayantha, who suffered a brutal assault in Colombo city in June 2009, leaving him with permanent disabilities. General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association at the time, Jayantha and has lived in exile since January 2010.
Silva has been known for several bruising encounters with the media in recent years and was in July 2009, reported to have publicly claimed credit for “fixing” both Jayantha and Lasantha Wickramatunge, the Sunday Leader editor murdered in January that year. Though he later disavowed the statement, Silva’s record as a media baiter has always caused deep unease. In what seemed a deliberate affront to journalists, President Mahinda Rajapaksa in May 2010 appointed him Deputy Minister for Mass Media and Information, before a storm of protests compelled his transfer to another portfolio.
Government officials seemingly began the latest phase of verbal warfare when the possibility emerged early this year that Sri Lanka’s dismal human rights record could lead to international censure and the withdrawal of trade concessions. On January 26, senior minister Keheliya Rambukwella was quoted in Dinamina, the Sinhala-language daily from the state-owned Associated Newspapers (or Lake House) group, describing exiled journalists campaigning for human rights and reconciliation as “traitors” who were bringing the country into “disrepute”.
Later, the English-language daily from the Lake House group, the Daily News, reported that human rights defenders, including press freedom campaigner Sunanda Deshapriya, were betraying Sri Lanka and continuing to work with the terrorist rump of the defeated Tamil insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
In an editorial on March 16, Dinamina described human rights defenders as “degenerates” and denounced Deshapriya as a “mouthpiece of the LTTE”. It warned that in a country like Iran, “these kinds of bastards would be stoned to death”.
Veteran media trade unionist Dharmasiri Lankapeli has been targeted by the state-owned media in attacks that have become particularly harsh since the country’s main professional associations and journalists’ bodies joined hands for a “black January” observance this year, to protest against the continuing climate of impunity for attacks on free speech. The attacks have also extended to social scientists and political commentators such as P. Saravanamuttu, Nimalka Fernando and Sunila Abeysekara, and prominent figures of the church who have argued for national reconciliation. The IFJ has learnt that vivid photo-montages have been circulated by various political actors, which represent journalists and other prominent human rights defenders as terrorists and traitors, working at the behest of alien forces.
The dangers are clear and imminent and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has issued a public warning against reprisals that target Sri Lanka’s journalists and human rights defenders.
Evidence has recently emerged from the citizen journalism website Wikileaks, of high-level culpability in some of the worst atrocities against the media during Sri Lanka’s civil war. In January 2006, S. Sukirtharajan, a photographer with the Tamil daily from Colombo, Sudar Oli¸ was shot dead by assailants on motorcycles, just days after he published photographs suggesting that five Tamil students found dead in the eastern city of Trincomalee had been victims of an execution by state security agencies. A cable from the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka at the time has now come to light, which records Basil Rajapaksa, brother and senior advisor to the President, expressing his belief that the “Special Task Force” of the Sri Lankan military carried out the killing of the five students.
Sukirtharajan was probably killed because he got the story right.
In August 2006, the Jaffna office of the Tamil daily Uthayan – part of the same group as Sudar Oli – was attacked with fire bombs and seriously damaged. As narrated to the U.S. ambassador by Basil Rajapaksa, this attack was in all probability carried out by the Sri Lankan Navy, in league with a Tamil political party that is close allied with President Rajapaksa.
The report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a body appointed by President Rajapakse, was published late-2011 and offers certain compelling observations in the limited space it devotes to media freedom. It records that it has been “deeply disturbed” by persisting reports, even after the end of the war, about “attacks and obstacles placed on journalists and media institutions”. These difficulties have been experienced even by “news websites”. Taking note of a record of murderous violence against journalists, the LLRC remarks that the failure to “conclusively” investigate and bring “perpetrators” to justice does little credit to the Sri Lankan government.
The LLRC’s recommendations include the recognition of the “pivotal role” that “freedom of expression and (the) right to information”, play in “any reconciliation process”. “Restrictions placed on media freedom”, the LLRC records, “would only contribute to an environment of distrust and fear within and among ethnic groups”. The five specific actions that the LLRC urges, include “deterrent punishment” against those who attack media personnel and institutions; the proper investigation of such incidents from the past; the assurance that media personnel would have freedom of movement through the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, which bear the deepest scars of the war; and the enactment of a law protecting the right to information.
The IFJ and its global partners conclude with extreme regret that the Sri Lankan government’s continuing disregard of these wise counsels of moderation, suggest not a desire for national reconciliation, but its very opposite.