Sri Lanka's War On Journalists

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A journalist is attacked by kidnappers in the middle of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, in broad daylight, and beaten savagely. He locks himself in his car and desperately hangs on to avoid being taken. Another is targeted in an eastern town, Batticaloa, and shot three times but miraculously survives. Others disappear from a town in the north, Jaffna, and are never seen again. A newspaper editor is shot in Jaffna in an act that brutally curtails circulation; a distributor, delivering copies around town, suffers the same fate. Threatened, terrified, the two remaining journalists at the town’s leading newspaper haven’t left their office for years.

A Colombo printing press is set ablaze by masked gunmen, who make their escape through a high-security neighbourhood (which includes a military base), and are never tracked down. A media worker is slashed on a bus, her colleague barely escapes stabbing in his home; thugs associated with a notorious politician are implicated but nothing is done. A radio station is summarily taken off air, another newspaper has its finances frozen and ceases printing. Three journalists are arrested and held on laughable charges, so far for almost a year; the most prominent one, Tissanayagam, has an eye condition that could worsen with no treatment in custody.

These incidents are just off the top of my head, and so make a random collection of attacks on media in Sri Lanka from just the last three years. The list is long, it’s growing, and you can find more of it here, compiled by media activist group the Free Media Movement, and in a series of press releases from the International Federation of Journalists IFJ here. Every few weeks it seems another gross, chilling, brutal attack is added to the catalogue.

We know Sri Lanka is supposed to be at war, with the Government fighting the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north. But these attacks and acts of repression are out of the war zone, they are against unarmed civilians, and they take place with total impunity. A Government that states it is fighting a war against terrorists has allowed, facilitated, even promoted, a climate of profound, pervasive terror for every journalist and every media outlet in the country.

And possibly the most brazen came just last week. Masked gunmen first attacked the country’s most popular broadcasting group, Maharaja Television, which with its sister company MBC runs several television and radio stations, in the early hours of Tuesday, 6 January. The facilities were shot up, equipment destroyed, with staff terrorised but uninjured. Ministers expressed outrage, the Government promised action, but no one seriously believes anything will be done. Maharaja’s security guards had reported to police that individuals appeared to be casing the location before the attack; nothing was done then either.

Last Thursday Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of the Sunday Leader and a trailblazing journalist in Sri Lanka and South Asia, was assassinated in his car driving to work. In a country that has suffered over 100,000 deaths, in both the northern war with the LTTE and in southern conflicts; in a country that has seen recent egregious violations of all number of human rights, and which already has a dark reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist — in Sri Lanka, this murder has still shaken people profoundly. Thousands of people took to the streets during Lasantha’s funeral procession yesterday to demand answers, and an end to the intimidation.

Lasantha was murdered by gunmen who travelled by motorbike. He died in hospital — but even now, those who were with him at the time are unclear about the exact cause of death, whether it was from shots to the head, or from vicious bludgeoning. He had been one of the most courageous editors and journalists in recent times, and a scathing critic of Government and Military figures.

His death was not a surprise. He predicted it himself, in an extraordinary, chilling, and moving editorial published posthumously in this weekend’s edition of the newspaper he courageously led.

There are multiple armed groups, current and former separatists, criminals, and one-time death squads replete with weapons in Sri Lanka. Yet beyond just having access to guns, the individuals involved in this assassination were clearly highly trained, and confident of escape without arrest or detection in a city full of checkpoints and armed security personnel.

Dare one think about Military involvement? Some opposition figures have levelled the accusation. At the moment that’s speculation, there is no proof — but without one single suspect being brought to trial in any attacks on media so far, speculation is all there is.

The President, Mahinda Rajapakse, and other authorities have blamed nameless armed groups apparently dedicated to discrediting the Government. This is a long-time favourite of regimes the world over that are bent on hanging onto power. The President himself has expressed shock at Lasantha’s murder, and has promised to investigate. But few rights campaigners within the country see any hope that the blanket of impunity will be lifted, even in this case; Opposition figures have called for an international probe into the murder, but the Government has already dismissed this as a possibility.

The Government and Military have been celebrating significant victories these past weeks. The Armed Forces overran the LTTE’s political and administrative headquarters, Killinochchi, on 2 January, and has since captured highly strategic locations in Elephant Pass, giving it control over large parts of the north. There has been flag-waving, congratulations and euphoria in Colombo’s neighbourhoods and beyond, with dreams that the brutal decades-long separatist war may really be near its end.

Is this what victory at all costs over a listed terrorist group looks like? Where fundamental human rights — the right to life, security, freedom of expression — are violated? Where the terror ascribed to one side becomes embedded in the core of the side that’s supposed to have won? Where any dissent — and the great majority of those attacked, including Lasantha and Maharaja TV, were sharp critics of many Government actions, policies, and personnel — can result in summary sabotage, imprisonment, disappearance, and murder?

Without investigations, arrests, trials and convictions, that’s all one can think.

There are several courageous civil society organisations protesting these latest attacks, including the Free Media Movement as well as journalist unions and professional organisations. The International Federation of Journalists has repeatedly condemned each attack over the years, and recently published a tribute to Lasantha. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also condemned Lasantha’s murder, along with the ongoing attacks on media freedom and freedom of expression.

But as Sri Lanka’s profound human rights crisis has gathered pace over the past few years, the Government has scoffed at all criticism. The threat of lost trading privileges from the European Commission, or exclusion from the UN Human Rights Commission, are dismissed with a shrug. Exhortations from diplomatic missions in Colombo simply wash off. Investigations and commissions launched into human rights abuses, against the media in particular or civil society and civilians in general, return zero results. Despite the current level of shock over these latest atrocities, it’s highly unlikely that this will change.

Defeating the terrorist LTTE is the regime’s mantra. The Government certainly wants to win the war. But that doesn’t mean it holds any interest in peace, or justice, or its own citizens’ rights, now or in the future. In fact there’s reason to believe that future gains on the battlefield, and the political impunity that bestows, will encourage further attacks on opposition voices.

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