Stop the War on Journalism in Sri Lanka

The following

statement was issued by members of the South Asia Media Solidarity Network

meeting in Kathmandu,

Nepal, on

September 6-7.

 

We, the representatives of

journalists’ unions and associations in the South Asian region, meeting on the

platform of the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN), express our deepest

concern over continuing violations of media rights in Sri

Lanka, and call on the government of the

country to uphold the international human rights covenants it is party

to.

 

We are shocked by the August 31

verdict of the Colombo High Court, sentencing J.S. Tissainayagam, a widely respected journalist and

human rights defender, to 20 years’ rigorous imprisonment on terrorism charges.

We note that world press freedom bodies and the diplomatic community have with

virtually one voice condemned the trial and sentencing of this Tamil journalist,

whose concerns embraced all causes and all ethnic communities of Sri

Lanka.

 

An already bad situation for

journalism in Sri Lanka has

turned markedly worse this year, with the daylight murder of Lasantha

Wickramatunge, editor of the Sunday

Leader, in a busy suburb of Colombo on January 8. Investigations into his

murder have made little progress, amid a number of contradictory statements from

the government and security agencies.

 

The month of January saw an arson

attack on the facilities of the independent broadcaster Sirasa TV and a knife

attack on a newspaper editor and his wife in Colombo. There was in the same month a

near-lethal assault on a newspaper editor in the eastern town of Batticaloa and an arson

attack on his premises.

 

In February, Sudar Oli editor N.

Vidyatharan was snatched from a family function in a kidnap-style

arrest. He was publicly charged with being a “terrorist” by top officials of the

Sri Lankan Defence Ministry. Held without charge for three months, he was

released unconditionally on court orders.

 

On June 1, Poddala Jayanta, General

Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA), was seized

by what seemed a professional hit squad as he was on his way home in a suburb of

Colombo. He was

hustled into a van and brutally assaulted, suffering multiple fractures,

contusions and other injuries, before being thrown out, unconscious, in an open

field. Jayanta had been attacked by name over state-owned print and electronic

media over the preceding weeks, for his alleged sympathy for

terrorism.

 

These aside, there have been a

number of verbal threats against journalists and media workers by ministers and

other senior persons in government.

 

Several of Sri

Lanka’s most well-known journalists have left

the country fearing for their lives. We express our solidarity with these

journalists and urge the international community to be attentive to their needs

for honourable treatment in secure locations, till conditions are appropriate

for their safe return to their home country. We believe that this is a

responsibility that all countries in South Asia - especially India,

the largest country with the longest established democratic traditions - will

particularly have to bear.

 

We request the institutions that

employed the exiled journalists to support them to the extent that their

capacity permits, and allow them on their return to Sri

Lanka to resume their profession without any

impediment.

 

This year has also witnessed an

escalating trend of verbal abuse, followed by administrative action against

journalists.

 

On February 1, the Defence

Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, issued a warning that foreign media organisations

would face “dire consequences” and be “chased out” of the country if they did

not behave “responsibly”. He accused three international news organisations in

particular of partisan reporting on the situation regarding civilian casualties

and suffering in areas of conflict between government forces and Tamil

separatist insurgents. Since then, the residence permit of the bureau chief of

an international news agency was prematurely terminated, in evident retaliation

for a series of reports he had filed on the humanitarian consequences of the

war.

 

Access to the north of the country

has been severely curtailed for years and remains so over three-and-a-half

months since the war ended, so that the stories that ordinary people have to

tell about the last days of the war remain unknown to the

world.

 

We are especially worried at the

refusal of the Sri Lankan authorities to allow independent media access to the

camps set up in the north of the country for people displaced in the last phases

of the war. We remind the Sri Lankan Government that the public in Sri

Lanka and elsewhere has the right to be

informed, through independent reporting, of the humanitarian consequences of its

military operations and the prospects of an estimated 280,000 internally

displaced people for resettlement and

rehabilitation.

 

We note with alarm that three

journalists from the Sinhala-language weekly Irida Lanka have been detained by the

Terrorism Investigation Division of the Sri Lankan police and that official

spokespersons are putting out charges of their involvement in an assassination

plot.

 

We urge the Government of Sri Lanka

to repeal its Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was introduced, ostensibly as a

temporary measure, in 1973. Till necessary legislative changes are made, we

demand that all cases registered under the law, which have had a chilling effect

on the right to free speech, be kept in abeyance.

 

We underline our solidarity with the

five main bodies of journalists in Sri Lanka: the Free Media Movement

(FMM), the Sri Lanka Working

Journalists’ Association (SLWJA), the Federation of Media Employees’ Trade

Unions (FMETU), the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF) and the Sri Lanka Tamil

Media Alliance (SLTMA). These organisations form a coalition that should be

strengthened and allowed to operate in an environment free from fear, in the

wider cause of press freedom and the public right to

know.

 

For further

information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific

on +612 9333 0919

 

The IFJ

represents over 600,000 journalists in 120

countries