Sri Lankan journalists: An extinct and unprotected species

By Satheesan Kumaaran
 

While the freedom of the press is a precious ingredient of a vibrant democracy, in most autocracies claiming to be democracies, journalists are casualties of the various conflicts they report on.  Sri Lanka is among the worst in this regard showing utter hostility, to say the least, to members of the media who are prepared to speak out and stand up against unfairness. Free speech in Sri Lanka is the last bastion of democracy well on its way to extinction.

The latest victim is the deputy editor of the Colombo-based Sunday newspaper, The Nation, Keith Noyahr who was kidnapped by the archetypal ‘white-van’ gang on the night of May 22 as he drove home at about 11:00 p.m.  In the past three decades, Sri Lanka has never arrested and brought to justice persons who unduly acted against journalists using violence. This abysmal record will remain unchanged unless one or several of the world’s leading journalist groups puts pressure on the government to stop the violence against journalists.  The question is: who will do it?

Well over 20 journalists have died in Sri Lanka in the last eight years.  So far none has ever been brought to account for these acts.  The fate of journalism as the “Fourth estate” is in jeopardy, and journalists will have no choice but to decide whether they are ready to make the supreme sacrifice for their work.  It appears that even a word against a certain high-ranking military officer of an influential politico can be lethal for “it may be their famous last words”. In Sri Lanka, the gun is sharper than the pen.

The casualties
Well over 20 journalists and media workers have been killed since 2000, over 10 journalists injured and dozens have received death threats if they did not stop criticizing the government, military or the paramilitaries that support them.  The following is a list of media persons killed and or wounded.

Mylvaganam Nimalarajan (aged 38) of Virakesari newspaper and reporter to BBC Tamil service and father of three was shot dead on October 19, 2000, while at his residence in Jaffna.  Aiyathurai Nadesan (48) of Virakesari newspaper was shot dead on May 31, 2004, while traveling on a motorcycle in Batticaloa.  Darmaratnam Sivaram (47) of Tamilnet website was abducted on April 29, 2005, by four men in a white van in front of the Bambalapitiya police station in Colombo; his body found later near the parliamentary complex within a high-security zone.

Arasakumar Kannamuthu (38) and Yogakumar Krishnapillai (38), a delivery agent and a distributor of Batticaloa Eelanatham respectively, were shot and killed in Batticaloa on July 29, 2005.and September 30, 2005, respectifully. Mariathas Manojanraj (23), a distributor of Yarl Thinakural and Veerakesari was killed in a claymore explosion in Jaffna on July 27, 2006.  Sathasivam Baskaram, driver/distributor of the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna was shot and killed on August 15, 2006. Tamil broadcaster, Relangi Selvarajah, and her husband, a political activist, were killed in Colombo on August 12, 2005. David Selvaratnam (50), a security guard,  Manickam Kamalanathan (49), a proof-reader, Subramaniyam Suthas (29), a computer operator, A.M.F Anas, a visiting employee, were severely injured by unidentified attackers throwing two grenades into the printing office of Tamil-language daily, Sudar Oli, in Colombo on August 29, 2005.

Subramaniam Sugirtharajan (35), a father of two and a correspondent for Sudar Oli was shot and killed at his residence in Trincomalee while waiting for transport to his workplace on January 24, 2006. A gang of five men armed with T-56 automatic rifles entered the Uthayan office in Jaffna on May 2, 2006, killing marketing manager, Bastian George Sagayathas (36) and circulation supervisor, S. Ranjith (25). Suresh Kumar and Ranjith Kumar were killed on May 3, 2006, as journalists gathered in Colombo to celebrate Press Freedom Day. Sinnathamby Sivamaharajah (68), managing director of Tamil-language daily, Namathu Eelanadu, was shot and killed in Jaffna on August 21, 2006.

Freelance journalist, Sampath Lakmal de Silva (24), was shot dead on July 2, 2006, in Colombo.  S. T. Gananathan (64), a journalist, was shot dead in Jaffna on February 27, 2007. Subash Chandrabose (32), editor of the Tamil monthly, Nilam, was shot dead at his residence in Vavuniya on April 16, 2007. Selvarajah Rajivarman (25), journalist of Uthayan newspaper, was shot and killed in Jaffna on April 29, 2007. Nilakshan Sahapavan (22), a journalism student at the Jaffna University Media Research and Training Centre and the editor of Calare, was killed in Jaffna on August 1, 2007.

The aftermath of Noyahr’s abduction and assault
Noyahr is an experienced and respected journalist with over 20 years in the industry.  He served as deputy editor of the Daily Mirror, before taking up the position as deputy editor of The Nation.  He was among the top of The Nation members who took part at a dinner party at a restaurant to discuss the celebration of the newspaper’s anniversary.  While returning home after dinner he was abducted and severely assaulted and his car found abandoned opposite his residence at Dehiwala.

He had telephoned his wife to tell her that he was nearly home.  When he did not arrive, his wife, Roshini Noyahr, went out to look for him.  All she found was an abandoned car a few feet away from the house.  She immediately drove the car into her property, then phoned newspaper management and security officials. 

Noyahr’s friends and colleagues rushed to his home and tried to find out his whereabouts.  It was day time in the Americas and early morning in Europe.  The editor of The Nation, Lalith Allahakoon, informed human rights organizations about the incident.  Human rights organizations and media organizations immediately issued statements urging Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to take action to find out the whereabouts of the journalist. 

The President ordered the people concerned to release Noyahr because of the intense pressure he was receiving from the world community.  Meanwhile, the journalist had been savagely beaten by the gang, and deposited in front of his home about seven hours after his abduction.  He was taken to hospital.  Media organizations and journalists expressed their satisfaction that Noyahr had been spared of his life, however, they fear that other such events will take place in the future.  They want the perpetrators of the crime brought to justice, and given the maximum punishment possible, so that these events will never again occur in Sri Lanka. 

Colombo media response in wake of Noyahr’s abductions
The Colombo newspapers reacted heavily on hearing the story.  They issued statements condemning the government for not taking action against the perpetrators and reminded the public that this was not an isolated incident in Sri Lanka.  The cooperation between the media outlets was promising for the journalists because it showed unity in the face of a common threat.

Lalith Allahakoon said it was a blatant violation of basic human rights and an assault on democracy. He said: “It is an inhuman act by who ever who did it?”

The Working Journalists Association Secretary, Poddala Jayantha, said Noyahr had to undergo this suffering so people would know the facts on the ongoing war.  He said: “If anyone thinks it is possible to stop the people from getting to know the facts on the war he is very much mistaken.”

In his May 25th issue of The Sunday Times, Situation Report columnist, Iqbal Athas, wrote a piece entitled, “War on media takes ugly turn”.  He stated that: “The media have to depend on hand outs from the military. It is well known that official figures of rebel casualties are grossly exaggerated – a situation reminiscent of the ‘body count’ scandals in Vietnam…In a country where the media is perceived as the second enemy, that is the heavy price for reporting the truth.”

The Island newspaper in its editorial of May 24th issue under the title “Freedom of Suppression” reported that: “With that assault, the Sri Lanka media has suffered another body blow…Many journalists have been either killed or assaulted during the past so many years. But, none of the probes save one or two have been conducted to a successful conclusion and culprits brought to justice…Many journalists like veteran cartoonist Yunus, the Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge have been assaulted and their assailants never brought to justice.”

It further said: “Attacking journalists seems to have become an easier task than throwing stones at stray dogs. Perpetrators of violence against the media are confident of going scot free as was seen in the case of the Mervyn Silva fiasco at the Rupavahini Corporation last December…The performance of the government in investigating attacks on the press has been execrable, to say the least. It was only yesterday that we pointed out the Human Rights Watch assertion that Sri Lanka’s loss of her UNHRC seat should serve as a wake-up call for the government.”

The Daily Mirror in its May 24th issue under the heading “Barbaric attack on journalist” asked: “What earthly crime had Keith Noyahr committed to deserve this type of nasty treatment?…We as fellow journalists with close associations with him are certain that he had not committed any major or minor offence to earn the wrath of any individual or group.”

Further, it said: “This incident has not only lent credence to the prevailing practice of silencing criticism, but infuriated all those who – here and abroad – are committed to protecting and promoting the right to freedom of expression, on the full articulation of which depend the protection and preservation of most other fundamental rights guaranteed to citizens. This cherished right, as is well known, is enshrined in the UN Charter of Human Rights under Article 19.”

Journalists belonging to five unions also staged a massive protest at the Kollupitiya junction to show their solidarity.  They urged the government to take legal action against the perpetrators of the crime. The protestors also carried pictures of the injured Noyahr.

Who will protect Sri Lankan journalists?
The question is: who will protect the journalists?  The world has become more global with the access to information technology and other scientific findings in quick time, and consequently much smaller, where someone living in the Americas can communicate with a relative in Australasia in a matter of few minutes.

The world community does not need to send military power to protect the journalists in Sri Lanka.  Rather, if the world community could mount pressure on the Sri Lankan State, the government will have no choice but to take action against the perpetuators of these crimes, and protect their journalists. The visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Erica Barks-Ruggles, said in a statement that, though Sri Lanka has the necessary institutional framework in place to deal with human rights violations, the government must do more to stop abductions and ‘disappearances’.  Having laws alone was not enough without ensuring actual protection of human rights. She drew attention to the “very high” value the U.S. places on freedom of speech and the press.  She praised the “civic courage” demonstrated by independent voices in Sri Lanka’s media, some of whom, she noted, “have paid too high a price for speaking out.”

President Rajapaksa, has directed IGP Victor Perera to launch a full investigation into the abduction and attack on the senior journalist.  Three police teams have been deployed to carry out the investigation.

Journalists are optimistic that the police department, without bowing to the orders of politicians, will find out who did this and that they will be punished.  They do not want to see another journalist like Tamilnet editor, Dharmaratnam Sivaram, abducted and killed even in a high-security zone.  They do not want to see devils at the helm of the country’s affairs. Violence against journalists does not discriminate against either the Sinhalese or the Tamils, although more than 19 Tamil journalists and media workers have been killed within the last eight years. Let’s allow the journalists to express their opinions and allow them to write the facts for the benefit of all. It is for the Sri Lankan people, whose intelligence should not be belittled, to judge.

(The author can be reached at e-mail: [email protected])

  • seevali abeysekera

    It is somewhat ironic that “the Nation” has been reportedly bought by an organisation fronted by a UK based SL expatriate, Nilanka Rajapaksa. If this is indicative of the state of the nation – and no pun is intended , then we need the help of all the various gods we collectively pray to !

    [Edited out – sorry, but potentially libelous comments contravene site guidelines. Perhaps you can find a better way of highlighting Nilanka’s financial / investment record in the UK?)

    It is funny how the “Sri Lankan wheel” turns. Take the influence, family connections and dare I say it, the corruption out of the equation and the wheel will not turn as it will be a square instead of round !!!

    The lunatics have indeed taken over the asylum !!!!