Sri Lankan Media Continues to be a Target of Oppression and Assault

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has concerns for freedom of expression in Sri Lanka following a series of reports that the media continues to suffer from acts of oppression and assault.

Police summoned and interrogated members of the Sinhala-language weekly Irudina, and its English counterpart, The Sunday Leader, on February 10, 2006. An article on claymore mines published by Irudina on January 22, 2006, triggered the inquiry.

Publication of the article did not infringe upon any Sri Lankan laws, nor did it provide any form of a threat to the government. Nonetheless, police questioned journalists on a variety of the Irudina’s elements, including the management structures of the newspaper. Irudina editor Mohan Lal Piyadasa has reported that the interrogators were specifically interested in information about a director of The Sunday Leader, which was entirely unrelated to the claymore mines article.

“This type of arbitrary interrogation undermines the security and freedom of Sri Lankan journalists, and violates their right to freedom of expression, “ said IFJ president Christopher Warren.

The IFJ demands that state security forces avoid interference with media organisations, especially in situations where there is no obvious cause for interrogation. “Intimidation tactics such as police interrogations are another means of oppressing the media through fear. The use of this tactic must cease immediately, and the freedom of journalists must be respected,” said Warren.

Following this interrogation, members of the Sathdina weekend newspaper staff were brutally attacked on February 11, 2006, after being mistaken as Irudina employees.

Sathdina’s sub-editor, Srilal Priyantha, and other Sathdina staff were assaulted by a group of men under the leadership of Janaka Ranawake, opposition leader of Kotte Urban Council.

The victims were putting up promotional posters for Sathina near the old police station of Welikada when they were attacked. The attackers told Sathina’s proprietor, Ramanayake, that Irudina posters were forbidden from being pasted.

The assault ceased once Ramanayake informed the attackers that they had incorrectly targeted Sathina’s staff. The opposition leader implored Ramanayake to settle the matter amicably, rather than lodging a police complaint. Ramanayake refused this request and put forward a written complaint with the Inspector General of Police.

Days later on February 17, 2006, it was reported that Prasad Purnamal, a journalist working for MTV Television Network and Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL) newspapers, was also violently attacked.

Purnamal was covering a clash between two opposing groups of supporters who had submitted nominations for the local government elections, to be held March 30, 2006. The supporters attacked Purnamal, smashing his video camera worth LKR 100, 000 (approx. US$1000), and stealing his still camera worth LKR 30, 000 (approx. US$300). Purnamal sustained minor injuries.

Having lodged a complaint with the police, Purnamal awaits the prosecution of his attackers. The IFJ entreats the government to apprehend the perpetrators and demonstrate that such assaults are unacceptable and reprehensible. Leaders of political parties have a responsibility to encourage their followers to respect opposition parties and encourage freedom of information.

The IFJ condemns acts of violence against the media, particularly in the crucial stages leading up to elections. “In the months preceding elections, the ability of the media to freely inform the citizens is fundamentally important,” said Warren.

The IFJ is also deeply concerned that statements issued by a parliamentarian will contribute to the oppression of media freedom in Sri Lanka.

On February 1, 2006, the Propaganda Secretary of the Peoples’ Liberation Front (JVP), Mr. Wimal Weerawamsa, spoke in parliament with the intention of inciting hatred against Mr. Lasanatha Wickremetunge, the editor of the Sunday Leader.

Mr. Weerawamsa accused Mr. Wickremetunge of supporting the terrorism actions of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and being a traitor to Sri Lanka. The accusations were inspired by a report discussing an alleged LTTE terror attack on Colombo, which was published in the Sunday Leader.

The IFJ is concerned that such accusations inhibit the media’s responsibility to hold authorities accountable, by obstructing critical reporting and hindering the media’s capacity to question government allegations. Furthermore, unfounded public statements of this nature may result in threats to the life of the journalist, thus contributing to the declining levels of safety for journalists in Sri Lanka.

“Journalists play an important role in forcing those in office to be accountable for their actions. They should not be condemned for performing this role. Mr. Weerawamsa’s statement will have an unacceptable impact upon Sri Lankan journalists’ propensity to voice their opinions freely,” said Warren.

For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific +61 2 9333 0919

The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 110 countries around the world