The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) calls on Sri Lanka’s Government and its President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to take urgent action to protect the safety of journalists and uphold the rights of the media to report on issues of public interest.
A serious deterioration in the press freedom environment and safety of journalists in Sri Lanka since January 2, when the Government formally withdrew from a ceasefire with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), is of grave concern to the IFJ and its local affiliates, the Free Media Movement (FMM), the Sri Lankan Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA) and the Federation of Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU).
The IFJ’s 2007 annual report on journalists killed around the world, Tragedy Unlimited, highlights Sri Lanka as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for practising journalists, with six killed there in 2007. In Sri Lanka, the killing of a media worker is most likely to be an act of murder. This toll does not reveal the equally dark reality of journalists who are reported missing and whose whereabouts remain unknown.
In the past two years, mainly journalists from the Tamil community have fallen victim to acts of violence that go unpunished. FMM reports that in one of the most serious cases, Jaffna-based newspaper Uthayan has received threats to cease its operation. Four Uthayan employees have been murdered, while others have been kidnapped, threatened and censored. The editor, M.V. Kanamailnathan, has not left the newspaper office for more than a year for fear of being killed.
As the violence between government forces and the LTTE escalates, several attacks on journalists, including attacks instigated by government officials, have raised the concerns of all journalists and media workers across the regions and increasingly in Colombo.
According to FMM, an unknown gang failed in an attempt to abduct Silumina senior journalist and SLWJA secretary Poddala Jayantha at his home on January 7.
The attack occurred just days after two separate incidents in which government officials publicly attacked journalists physically and verbally. On December 27, Labour Minister Mervyn Silva forcibly entered the offices of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) and assaulted the state-run television network’s news director, T.M.G. Chandrasekara. The attack was reportedly because SLRC did not telecast one of the Minister’s speeches.
FMM reports that three leading media personnel of the MBC TV and Radio network who covered the incident, Chevaan Daniel, Kingsley Ratnayaka and Susil Kedelpitya, have since received death threats.
FMM is also alarmed at reports that the lives of other senior journalists, media activists and journalists’ leaders, including SLWJA president Sanath Balasooriya and FMETU general secretary Dharmasiri Lankapeli, are at risk because of their involvement in condemning the SLRC incident.
At a press conference on January 7, the Social Services and Social Welfare Minister, K.N. Douglas Devananda, also put the safety of journalists at risk by condemning the Shakti TV Minnal program and its presenter, Sri Ranga Jeyarathnam. Minister Devananda labelled the presenter a traitor and accused him of being a terrorist working with the LTTE.
On January 2, a commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Major General Sarath Fonseka, accused sections of the media and journalists of treachery and being unpatriotic. Such statements undermine the role and function of the media to hold to account those in public office.
It is clear that increasing attacks on journalists and the media put any journalist or media worker at risk if they challenge, question or criticise the actions or policies of power-holders, said IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park.
“The IFJ condemns any attack on journalists conducted by either side of the conflict. But as the major power-holder, the Government must lead the way in making a commitment to uphold journalists’ rights and put an end to the practise of ministers taking matters into their own hands,” Ms Park said.
“The latest attacks on journalists are indicators that the Government is failing to respect all media workers as non-combatants in war zones and failing to ensure the right of the media to report on the conflict. Now the broader journalism community is also in danger.”
The IFJ strongly urges Sri Lanka’s Government to enforce the United Nations Security Council Resolution to Protect Journalists Reporting in War Zones and Crisis Areas, adopted by the UN Security Council in 2006.
The Resolution stipulates “that all parties to an armed conflict comply fully with the obligations applicable to them under international law related to the protection of civilians in armed conflict, including journalists, media professionals and associated personnel”.
The IFJ reiterates its call to Sri Lanka’s Government to abide by its commitments to international law, including under Article 79 of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention to respect the safety of journalists as non-combatant civilians and refrain from deliberate attacks that endanger their lives.
All members of the international human rights and press freedom community are encouraged to assist media professionals in Sri Lanka in defending press freedom and democratic process in the face of the threat of murder, abduction harassment and politically motivated violence.
For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0919
The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries