The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is alarmed by comments attributed to the commander of Sri Lanka’s Army, Major General Sarath Fonseka, who labelled some journalists and sections of the media as “traitors”.
In an interview published in the state-controlled Sinhala daily Dinamina on January 2, 2008, Foneska said the “treachery” of the media was the only obstacle hampering the military’s fight to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
“The biggest obstacle is the unpatriotic media,” he was quoted as saying. “I know 99 percent of media and journalists are patriotic and doing their jobs properly. But unfortunately, we have a small number of traitors amongst the journalists. They are the biggest obstacle.”
The Free Media Movement (FMM), an affiliate of the IFJ, believed Fonseka was referring to journalists who criticised government war propaganda and who reported on both sides of the civil conflict. Foneska did not name specific journalists or media organisations.
His comments follow a statement by Sri Lanka’s Media Minister, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, late last year that journalists would only be recognised as such if they obtained media accreditation cards issued by the Government’s Information Department. Using this criterion, Yapa said just one journalist was killed in Sri Lanka in 2007, compared with IFJ and local records of six journalists killed in 2007.
The FMM is also extremely concerned that three journalists involved in a dispute with Labour Minister Mervyn Silva reported receiving death threats. Three leading media personnel with MBC-TV and Radio network, which broadcast an incident in which the Minister scuffled with journalists at the office of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Cooperation (SLRC), have lodged complaints with Maharagama police over the threats. On December 27, 2007, the Minister assaulted SLRC’s news director, TMG Chandrasekara, at the premises of the main public television broadcaster.
The complaints by Chevaan Daniel, Kingsley Ratnayaka and Susil Kindelpitiya name underworld figures who are alleged to have been contracted to kill them, according to the FMM.
The FMM has received information that others also have been targeted due to the SLRC incident, including Sanath Balasuriya, president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA); Dharmasiri Lankapeli, general secretary of the Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions (FMETU); and several other senior journalists and trade union and media activists.
IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said the statement by Major General Fonseka and the allegations of death threats against journalists are indicative of a deepening media crisis in Sri Lanka.
“Attempts by senior power-holders to discredit journalists because they do not toe the line on government propaganda or because they resist intimidation and bullying seriously undermine media freedom and freedom of expression,” she said.
“The tight control exercised over the media by authorities in Sri Lanka is obstructing citizens in their right to information. But the public have a right to know all points of view, even those that place the Government in an unfavourable light.”
The IFJ joins the FMM in calling for the international press freedom community to write letters of protest to the Sri Lankan Government to demand it make a commitment to uphold its responsibility to protect journalists as non-combatant civilians in a time of conflict, and to cease slandering of journalists by officials and authorities.
Write to register your concern about the media situation in Sri Lanka in light of these developments and to request that meaningful remedial measures are taken urgently to restore public confidence in the rule of law in Sri Lanka.
Hon. Anura Priyadarshana Yapa
Minster for Mass Media and Information
Ministry of Mass Media and Information
163, Kirulapona Road, Polhengoda,
For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0919
The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries