Photo courtesy of Centre for American Progress
In the thrall of an increasingly authoritarian presidency, Sri Lanka needs courageous journalists on the ground now more than ever. A vigorous fight against impunity for crimes against the country’s free press could help them to hold the line.
Terror tore through me when I heard that my friend and editor of the Nation newspaper Keith Noyahr had been abducted. It was May 2008; civil war was raging, and Sri Lankan troops were chalking up victories against Tamil Tiger separatists in the north. In the fog of war, government critics were being terrorized all over the country. We had learned to expect the worst when a journalist went missing.
The night unfolded in slow motion. Outside Noyahr’s home that night, through his six-year-old daughter’s screams, I heard phone calls pleading with diplomats and politicians to save Keith’s life. Police investigations revealed later that one of the calls worked. Released by his abductors just before dawn, the journalist staggered home, his head matted with blood, legs unsteady from continuous beatings.
Within days of the attack, he fled the country, another Sri Lankan reporter in exile. In his statement to investigators, Noyahr said he was suspended in midair, stripped and beaten by his captors. Seven months later, we learned that the attack had been a trial run.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man Wickrematunge’s daughter has accused of planning her father’s killing, is now President of Sri Lanka.
His election in 2019 heralded an immediate crackdown on the media. One year into his presidency, the UN and human rights groups are warning of an impending human rights disaster, intransigence on ending impunity for grave crimes and increased intimidation against journalists and activists. The government has jailed lawyers and writers.
In a 2021 report, Human Rights Watch said the Sri Lankan media had resumed ‘rampant self-censorship’ – perhaps because there is an eerie familiarity to the recent intimidation. The last time this regime held political power, journalists had a front row seat to the repression.
When Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed in 2009, Gotabaya Rajapaksa held office as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. As war-time chief executive, Gotabaya wielded unparalleled influence over the military, earning a reputation as the country’s most powerful and feared bureaucrat. Political cartoonists regularly poked fun at Gotabaya’s burly older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, the more genial president of the republic, but never dared to caricature the Defence Secretary. When Wickrematunge exposed a corrupt arms deal Gotabaya had signed off on, he broke the silence in the press about the activities of the defense secretary.
Years later, Sri Lankan criminal investigators revealed that Defence Secretary Gotabaya allegedly operated secret military intelligence ‘death squads’ to attack journalists and dissidents including Wickrematunge and Noyahr. Rajapaksa has consistently denied this and other allegations of wrongdoing.
From 2005-2015, the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration presided over a systematic assault on the free press. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that at least 13 journalists were killed over that decade. Critical journalists were publicly threatened, abducted, and tortured. Unlike Noyahr, many never came home. The country’s Tamil journalists were disproportionately victimized, easy targets of state-sponsored terror in war-time. The deadly campaign reached fever pitch with the Wickrematunge assassination in 2009 but the attacks continued. In 2014, Sri Lanka ranked fourth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ indexof countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free.
For reporters in Sri Lanka, the attacks were never just statistics on a press freedom index. A few hours before he was abducted, Noyahr was joking outside his office as we planned a special edition of our newspaper. Wickrematunge was a guiding light to dozens of journalists who cut their teeth reporting at The Sunday Leader. My own career began under his mentorship. The attacks took a deeply personal toll.
Professionally, the attacks had a chilling effect. Fear spread like scars over parts of us that had been cut open by the violence. It transformed our reporting. We learned to write between the lines. To leave things unsaid.
Journalism’s calling is to speak truth to power. But every time a journalist is killed or assaulted, and the attackers go free, the space for independent reporting shrinks considerably. In that decade of darkness from 2005-2015, the priority for Sri Lankan journalists was to just stay alive.
After 10 years of watching colleagues fall or flee, journalists worked briefly without fear after the Rajapaksa government was defeated in 2015. The new government swept to power on promises to end impunity for human rights violations and political crimes, including a string of attacks against journalists. Old investigations were reopened, and Gotabaya was implicated in several cases of corruption and violence against journalists.
But even after he lost political power, the mention of the former Defence Secretary’s name seemed to strike fear. Judges in the high courts delayed trials and prevented his arrest. By 2017, the new government had reneged on its promises of justice for victims of Rajapaksa-era crimes. Investigations were stymied by political interference, obstruction by the military, witness intimidation and reprisals. When the next presidential election rolled around in 2019, investigators had already hit a brick wall.
By clinching the presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa secured immunity from the charges. As President, he has discredited and suppressed investigations that led to arrests of military personnel under his command. In a brazen rewriting of history, his administration has turned police detectives and prosecutors into criminals, and military officials on trial for murder and abduction into victims of persecution.
Wickrematunge’s killers, Noyahr’s assailants and other perpetrators are free men and journalists working in Sri Lanka are revisited by the old ghosts of repression, intimidation and violence.
In Sri Lanka too, these new repressive tactics have been deployed. Once there were white vans and guns; now there are warrants, seizures and disinformation campaigns – a subdued terror that upends the lives of victims and erodes public trust in critics and the news media. As one of the earliest targets of this subdued terror campaign, I can attest to its effectiveness. The Government is waging a propaganda war, and journalists and critics are losing.
The history of critical journalism is written in blood and bruises in Sri Lanka. Journalists have the ignominious honour of being among those who have borne the greatest burden of repression and state terror over the years. A powerful presidential system gave the country’s rulers a surplus of state instruments to violently suppress the media. Decades before Wickrematunge was assassinated, state sponsored death squads abducted and killed the Inter-Press Service correspondent in Colombo, Richard De Zoysa. Spanning decades and governments, a culture of impunity for crimes against journalists has survived and thrived.
Details that emerged about the 2005-15 attacks on our colleagues left no doubt that a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency would force journalists to confront an existential question: the story or your life?
In a democratic country, no journalist should have to make that choice. But time and again, journalists and critics in Sri Lanka have paid dearly to safeguard the democratic right to free expression.
In the thrall of a populist president with evident authoritarian ambitions, Sri Lanka needs critical journalists now more than ever. Every day, journalists put themselves at risk to shine a light into the darkest corners of a country fractured by violence and division. Unrelenting commitment and credible action to end impunity for those who harass and kill journalists will send a message to would-be despots about the consequences of repression, and perhaps stay their hand.
The spotlight may help reporters in Sri Lanka to hold the line, by keeping them a little bit safer on the ground.