The Reckoning: Press Freedom in Sri Lanka
Cartoon by Carlos Latuff
“The freedom to speak and the freedom to write are essential preconditions for the transition towards democracy and good governance” – Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO.
We are living in the world, in which committed journalists writes the news not only with ink, but also with their blood. This is the very reason that their souls still exists with us even after their tragic deaths. Sri Lanka is the very recent example for such context. Thirty-four journalists and media workers have been killed with no recourse to justice since the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government came into power in April 2004 with the present President Mahinda Rajapaksa as its prime minister.  This list does not include the comprehensive details of the journalist and media workers who were killed in Vanni during the last phase of the war (North of Sri Lanka), which was labeled as “world’s largest rescue operation”.
Journalists were murdered not for anything, but simply as the cruel reward for their courage and dedication in bringing the hidden reality out. The threat against press freedom in Sri Lanka became a vicious circle. The present regime, who proclaimed that they are the only government in the world, who completely defeated the “terrorism”, could not arrest single perpetrators, who are behind these murders. “Due to international pressure, there are few exceptional cases that the government is trying to portraying that there is an investigation going on particular cases, such as assassinations of Dharmeratnam Sivaram and Lasantha Wickrematunge or they are attempting to put the blame on other elements” a Colombo based journalist told.
Apart from three killings, which were reported in linking the LTTE, all most all other murders being depicted as killed by “unidentified men”. Talking to another journalist on the sixth year memorial of late Dharmeratnam Sivaram, he pointed out that “we know who the killers are or who are behind the killings like this, not only for Sivaram’s killing, but for other as well, but we also aware, what will happen for us, if we tell or talk about it openly. In Sri Lanka case, unidentified men became synonyms for “government is responsible”.
Just before the regime started the full scale offensive war, they deeply carried out a law intensified and shadow/proxy war. During this period one of their main targets were the Tamil journalists who became the unfortunate victim of a tactic used to hide the mass human rights violations, which were widely escalated in the northeast part of the island nation and to stop truth being reported out. They constantly shot the messengers of truth. The report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel on accountability in Sri Lanka precisely highlights as follow, “The Government sought to intimidate and silence the media and other critics of the war through a variety of threats and actions, including the use of white vans to abduct and to make people disappear. “ In other contexts of conflicts , situation is such that the international media being allowed to do the coverage such as in Middle-East and North-Africa, despite of indirect threat and intimidation, but in Sri Lanka, no any single independent journalists were allowed. Though the second year remembrance of the brutally ended war approaches, restrictions on the independent journalists to visit to the Northern region, distinctly to the Mullaitivu district yet continues.
If the situation would have been concerned appropriately by the international community on time, today, the regime would have not been able to threat against rule of law, good governance and democracy in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is in a bizarre era, which not only failed to bring the perpetrators to justice, but also describes journalists as “terrorist”. At the same time, they are closely working with former senior LTTE members, whom were earlier interpreted as “ruthless terrorist” by the same regime.
In addition, no one holds a clear picture as to what happened for the journalists, who couragesly remained in the war zone during the last stage of the war and sacrificed their lives to tell the truth to the world. Since April 2009, there are no extensive details reported about those journalists. So far, details of the missing or murdered journalist are being collected; however, these details are not the full list of missing or murdered journalists, which are follows,
- V.Susiparan – Journalist / killed on 25-04-2009
- K.Suvendiran – Photo journalist- missing since 25-04-2009
- T.Thavapaalan – News Editor – missing since 19-05-2009
- Christhper Payas – Cartoonist (date of death or missing could not found)
- H.Vijayakumar – Journalist (date of death or missing could not found)
- B.Sivakumaran – Journalist (date of death or missing could not found)
Abovementioned details are just a tiny piece of the entire list. Another set of the journalists left Mullivaikal just before last phase of the bloody war began. Rest of the war zone journalists’ fate is unknown until now.
In parallel, threats and intimidation against media continued outside of the war zone as well. Managing director of the ‘Namathu Eelanaadu’ Tamil language news paper was shot dead in a high security zone area and the office was forced to cease all of the activities. Prageeth Eknaligoda, a journalist, cartoonist and political analyst disappeared in Colombo two days before the presidential election. (24 January 2010.) Few journalists were assaulted brutally, including Keith Noyar, deputy editor of the Nation and Poddala Jayantha, the secretary of Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association and a campaigner for press freedom.
At-least three journalists were abducted and released after a warning, including former Sooriyan FM news editor N.Guruparan and writer and journalist T.Thirukumaran. V. Jasikaran, owner of the E-Kwality printing press, writer and correspondent for the news website Outreach Sri Lanka, was arrested with his wife by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID). Jasikaran was subject to torture while in custody. Just one day followed by the arrest of Jasikaran , a senior ‘Tamil’ journalist, J.S.Tissanayakam was arrested and convicted for 20 years hard labour by the Colombo High Court, who was the first winner of The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. After twenty-two months, due to international pressure, he was released. In this line on the media suppression, the TID later on interrogated a Tamil media person B.Vasanthan. All of them have been now forced to leave the country and live in exile.
Staff members of both ‘The Sunday Leader’ and ‘Uthayan’, news papers were attacked several times. After the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Sunday Leader journalists continued with their writing. In at-least one occasion they received death threat as follow “We will slice you up if you do not stop your writing”. Three of the Uthayan staffs were killed on the occasion of the International Press Freedom Day 2005.
BBC World Service suspended its FM programming to the Sri Lankan national broadcaster SLBC in 2009 February due to “deliberate interference” of its broadcasts by the Sri Lankan network. The office of a radio channel known as, Vetri FM was burnt down. MTV network’s ‘Sirasa’ TV and MTV were attacked in the name of “patriotism”. The Thinakural, a Tamil language news paper’s offices in Jaffna and Colombo were raided more than two times by the Sri Lanka Armed Forces. Media in Jaffna still under severe monitoring and continue to receive indirect threat by the government sponsored paramilitaries and military intelligence officers. A few numbers of websites, including Tamilnet and Lankanewsweb were blocked by the government.
According to ‘Reporters Without Borders’s Washington director, since January 1st 2009, at least eight foreign reporters or contributors to international media organizations have been forced to leave the country after receiving threats from government authorities or their supporters. The brother of the president, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, threatened reprisals against the BBC and al Jazeera, after both news outlets filed reports on the country.
Harassment and arson attacks are continuing on the staff members of the Lankaenews and the office premises. After the Sri Lanka’n court ordered to suspend Lankaenews in Sri Lanka, the ‘Committee to Protect Journalists’ has called on the United Nations and diplomatic to intervene and investigate the apparent targeting of the website. They further said, “this suspension is the Sri Lankan authorities’ latest effort to silence an independent news outlet.” Due to mounted pressures, on 12 March, the court released the Lankaenews journalist and lifted the suspension as well.
Beside of these, murders held one decade ago like the case of Mylvaganam Nimalrajan, who worked for several media, including BBC’s Tamil and Sinhala language service are still pending for justice. Though only a limited memorial events and mourning’s continue, such events too are held under restricted freedom. It is unfortunate and tragic, that aforementioned most of the threats, intimidation, harassment, arson attacks, abductions and murders took in government controlled areas. Even, some of them were in the areas which were designated as ‘high security zone area’ by the government. Nearly fifty journalists are currently living in exile.
A senior ‘Sinahala’ journalist wrote to me as a suggestion for a conducive atmosphere to the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka; Most of the Sinhala and English media carry the hegemonic views of the Sinhala dominants. There is no check and balances on democratic values as ‘Temple tree’ control the media. Therefore, in certain situation, most Sinhala and English private media are also functioning like the state media running propaganda. “My fundamental position is there can be no freedom of expression unless there are organized trade unions within media corporations and the public ownership of state media”.
At-least now, the Rajapakse regime should realize that the democratic nations are deeply observing the situation in Sri Lanka. According to the 2010 press freedom index of the ‘Reporters Without Borders’, Sri Lanka was ranked 158 out of 178. Also, the report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel on accountability in Sri Lanka mentioned that “restrictions on the media, which are contrary to democratic governance and limit basic citizen rights” is other obstacles to accountability on Sri Lanka. 
The Rajapakse regiment should bring an end to the high level impunity, which is being freely enjoyed by their “proxies” without any further delay. No one can give me back my colleagues’ lives and smiles, but in any case, responsible actors should ensure the safety of the remaining journalists and press freedom. This would lead at-least to satisfy the journalists, who sacrificed their lives for the better future of the people and view the process of Sri Lanka entering into the real democratization process and their souls may rest in peace.
If the president seriously considers transforming Sri Lanka as a miracle of Asia, he should start democratization process, before it is too late. Freedom of expression is a major pillar of democracy. Therefore, the president should take concrete measures to protect the press freedom in the island nation. If not, Sri Lanka will create an image itself as a tragedy of Asia. Now, the choice, decision and responsibility are in the hands of the President of Sri Lanka.. The question is what he is going to do?
Recorded (April 2004-March 2009) list of killings of journalists and media workers can be accessed online here.