Photo courtesy of IFEX

Today is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists

Every week a journalist is killed. Killing the truth is the world’s safest crime; in eight out of ten cases the killers go free. Since 1992, more than 1,400 journalists have been killed around the world.

In January next year, the Sri Lankan government will go on trial at the Permanent People’s Tribunal for the Murder of Journalists in the Hague for “grave violations of the international human rights of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, specifically the right to life, the right to freedom of expression and the right to an effective remedy,” as cited in the indictment. Judgment will be announced on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.

In addition to Sri Lanka, the governments of Syria and Mexico will be asked to deliver justice to families of murdered journalists Nabil Al-Sharbaji and Miguel Ángel López Velasco. Witnesses at the Tribunal will include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Matthew Caruana Galizia, the son of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was killed by a car bomb.

The indictment against Sri Lanka singles out President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government’s security apparatus as the perpetrators of Lasantha’s murder. “Circumstantial evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the State, including through then-Sec. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, directed or ordered the threats and attacks against Lasantha – including his assassination – as retaliation for his independent journalism and that the State’s security forces carried them out.

“Particularly in the last months of the war and the aftermath, the government, under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa as President and Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Secretary of Defence, authorized attacks on journalists including abductions, assaults, torture and killings. More publicly, the Rajapaksa regime arrested, deported, and sued journalists and attempted to enact laws and regulations limiting the free press,” it said.

While the Tribunal has no power to put President Rajapaksa behind bars, he will be named and shamed. He is already included in the list of “press freedom predators” drawn up by Reporters Without Borders.

“Proof of who had my father killed will be laid bare for the world to see. No immunity here, so finally, my family gets something resembling a day in court,” Lasantha’s daughter Ahimsa tweeted.

In article on Groundviews published earlier this year, Ahimsa laid the blame for her father’s death squarely on those behind the MiG deal to purchase bombers for the Air Force to fight the LTTE. “My father was on the cusp of putting all the pieces together when he was killed in 2009. It was nearly a decade later that police investigators finished the job and vindicated him…” she wrote.

Today, with the same regime in power that had been there during the murder, all progress in prosecuting Lasantha’s murder has stalled. Last week the Attorney General informed the Supreme Court that former Inspector General of Police Jayantha Wickramaratne faced no risk of imminent arrest in connection with the murder. During the previous government Mr. Wickramaratne, believing he was at risk of being arrested by the CID, filed a Fundamental Rights petition at the Supreme Court requesting that an order be given to prevent it.

“In civilized criminal justice systems, courts and prosecutors go after murderers and bring them to justice. They don’t shield them or their enablers. Sadly, Sri Lanka’s AG and judiciary keep doing the opposite, so families like mine resort to seeking justice beyond our shores,” tweeted Ahimsa.

“In the immediate aftermath of Lasantha’s killing, the investigation into his death was marked by cover-ups in the police department and political interference. It was not until 2015, after a change in government, that the Sri Lankan police re-opened Lasantha’s case and revealed evidence linking his death to the Directorate of Military Intelligence,” according the Center for Justice & Accountability.

It is to address just such cases of impunity that the Tribunal was created by Free Press Unlimited (FPU), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) so that states could be held accountable for human rights abuses and to provide a platform for those who have been affected by these crimes including the relatives and colleagues of murdered journalists, who are often threatened and intimidated. Survivors can publicly accuse those who are responsible for the killings, which could be the only option left for them.

“The Tribunal will build public awareness and generate a legitimate body of evidence for the abuses investigated, deriving legitimacy from the involvement of world’s top jurists and journalists. It will operate within a framework based on international human rights law. It will investigate, document and pursue justice.

“In 2019, there were no perpetrators successfully prosecuted in 86% of the cases. Journalists all around the world are harassed, arrested, kidnapped and murdered for doing their job: for finding the truth. Fuelled by a lack of political will and poor institutional capacity, this deadly trend has held steady for the past ten years. It must end,” according to A Safer World for the Truth.

Secretary General of  RFS, Christophe DeLoire stated, “This initiative goes beyond naming and shaming authorities which allow the horrifying impunity level. It’s about setting a concrete and useful example of what should be done by the judiciary.”

“Those left behind have worked tirelessly to keep the stories of these journalists alive. Their voices have been crucial in ongoing efforts to fight back against impunity,” said Joel Simon, Executive Director of CPJ.

Since President Rajapaksa’s election, there has been a steep increase in attacks against journalists. The Tribunal’s indictment stated, “A new campaign of attacks against journalists has started and, through the targeting of witnesses and investigators and the interference with several legal interventions, total impunity for both historic and more recent attacks on journalists by government actors has been ensured.”

While cases such as Lasantha’s get wide publicity and support, many journalists in Sri Lanka continue to work under extremely hazardous conditions, risking their lives searching for the truth.

The founder of MediaLK, Tharindu Jayawardhana, has been the target of threats and intimidation in his quest to fight for minority rights and expose corruption. He speaks of his experiences in an interview with Groundviews.


What intimidation and harassment have you had to face in pursuit of the truth?

People have tried to bribe me. I have been questioned by the CID. I have been pressured to reveal my sources but I haven’t done it. A senior policeman threatened me so I complained to the CID but nothing has come of my complaint.

What does your family think of your activities?

At first my family was scared but since I don’t listen to what they say, they have stopped telling me not to write. But someone has to write because if no one does, these matters won’t be exposed. I write carefully and properly so it’s hard to refute what I say. I worked at Lankadeepa for ten years writing a column exposing the truth. Only once did I have to issue a clarification and I have never had to make a correction. I verify the facts and if there is even a small doubt, I don’t publish until investigations are complete.

Is there self-censorship in the media?

Self censorship has been happening for a long time. There is reporting but not much investigation. Journalists assume their media institutions won’t publish controversial articles but that is not true. Also there is no proper training for journalists. It is not only out of fear but also because it’s convenient to just accept what is in press releases or said at press conferences. Many journalists who faced problems at large media institutions have started their own initiatives and are doing good work.

How helpful has the Right to Information Act been for you?

It is a good way to verify the facts and have documents in hand to back up your story. It gives you access to  information that you may not get from your sources. The RTI makes investigative journalism easier. It has been a government tradition not to give information so just because law came, there has been no dramatic change. Sometimes I have assumed that I would not receive the information I sought but after asking a second time, it was given. We have to ask. It can take a long time but it is important to wait and write the story properly so that if we are challenged, we have the information to defend ourselves.

As the government becomes more unpopular, repression of the media will only get worse. How are you going to fight against it? 

From 2005 to 2015 there were 126 cases against journalists tabled in parliament including threats, arson, assault, abduction and killing. Only five resulted in arrests. Suspects are not arrested while perpetrators receive promotions. It is very important for journalists and civil movements to be united. When there are differences we can’t fight together. Some people don’t write assuming there will be reprisals but this will only lead to more attacks and make it easier for perpetrators to get away with it. There are many ways to fight against media oppression including through the law and  street protests. If there is no accountability, perpetrators will be encouraged to commit more and more crimes against the media.

The open hearing of the Tribunal will be live streamed at from 09.00 to 18.00 CET.