Featured image courtesy VikalpaSL Flickr.
In 2016, Sri Lanka was removed from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Impunity Index.
Each year, CPJ reviews countries for a 10-year period. If there are five or more unsolved cases, the country remains on the index.
Sri Lanka has only four unsolved cases dating from September 2006 to 2016, and so was removed from CPJ’s list.
2016 has also seen some progress made in the cases of several prominent journalists. Sri Lanka has, as a result, seen improvement in its press freedom rankings for 2016.
Yet, looking beyond optics, the question is, how many of these cases have been resolved?
According to the CPJ, there are 14 journalists who have been killed by unknown assailants from 2000-2016. This is not counting those who killed in artillery attacks, suicide bomb attacks, or in the last stages of the war. Including them raises the count to 19 journalists whose killings were due to the work they carried out, and under very trying circumstances.
The Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka have different figures, counting over 40 journalists and media workers killed, abducted or tortured while carrying out their work.
“Justice has not been achieved in any murder-despite a pledge from President Maithripala Sirisena to re-investigate old killings,” the CPJ said when announcing the launch of the Impunity Index.
This method glosses over the fact that many journalists, especially those operating in the conflict-affected North and East, have not seen their cases resolved.
Take the case of Mylvaganam Nimalarajan. He was shot dead on October 19, 2000, when two men broke into his home. Though all the family members survived the attack , the men also knifed his father and threw a grenade at his mother and young nephew.
A bicycle found near the scene of the crime was said to belong to the pro-government Tamil party, the Eelam People’s Democratic Party, which Mylvaganam had criticised in his reports on alleged election fraud. The EPDP said the allegations were “baseless”. Following the October 10 election, Nimalarajan had reportedly told colleagues that he feared for his safety after receiving several threats. He had also noted that the EPDP held him responsible for failing to win votes in Jaffna.
Reporters Without Borders pointed out that the killing took place metres away from a military checkpoint, but the police were vague on whether they had interrogated the Army, though reports suggested the unknown assailants had fired in the air while fleeing.
16 years later, Mylvaganam’s case remains unresolved.
In 2004, Aiyathurai Nadesan was ambushed and shot in Batticaloa. Operating under the pen name Nellai G Nadesan, he had been interrogated by the Army in 2001, with an Army officer threatening to arrest him unless he stopped reporting about the military.
His case too, remains unresolved.
This year, CPJ noted, significant steps have been taken in both Lasantha Wickrematunge and Prageeth Eknaligoda’s cases.
Yet, just last week, the key suspect in Wickrematunge’s case, Army Intelligence Officer Premanande Udalagama, was granted bail, only being remanded in the absence of sureties.
In a sudden turn of events, a retired military intelligence officer committed suicide, with a note in his pocket containing a confession to the killing. The police however said that there were questions raised as to the nature of the Officer’s death, and the veracity of the statement in his pocket.
In Eknaligoda’s case, two Army intelligence officers who were suspects in his disappearance were also granted bail, following a controversial speech by the President in which he accused independent commissions of “following a political agenda.”
“These officers had been in detention for 17 months now and such a long period in remand custody is not trivial in nature,” Sirisena said.
“Justice should be meted out equally to everybody,” he charged.
Yet, as Groundviews and the Social Indicator arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives pointed out in an infographic, hundreds languish in remand custody for as long as five years. A report compiled by the Human Rights Commission for the UN Committee Against Torture revealed that as of May 2016, of the 111 people who have been remanded under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 29 have not been indicted. The longest period a person has been held in remand without an indictment is 15 years, while trials have been known to have gone on for as long as 14 years.
Sirisena’s most recent comments therefore, seem to be at odds with his commitment to thoroughly investigate the killings of journalists.
The cases of Lasantha Wickrematunge and Prageeth Eknaligoda are only two of the more prominent cases which have received significant coverage and media attention. Those of Bala Nadarajah Iyer, Dharmeratnam (alias Taraki) Sivaram, Subramaniam Sugitharajah and many others on CPJ’s own lists remain unsolved, and almost forgotten.
Below is a video, compiled using Adobe Spark, highlighting these cases.
This November 2, it is important to remember that eradicating impunity goes beyond optics and piecemeal commitments towards transparency and good governance. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera earlier this month said that Sri Lanka should judge the current government by its actions, rather than by its words alone.
Going by this Government’s actions in the recent past, it seems increasingly unlikely that any of these cases will be resolved.
If you enjoyed this article, you may find “Pain across ethnicity: remembering crimes against journalists” and “Where is journalist Subramaniam Ramachandran 9 years after he disappeared?” illuminating.