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Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Sri Lanka

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Sri Lanka, February 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566ba2d.html [accessed 26 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The Sri Lankan government's fragile cease-fire with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), reached in February 2002 after 20 years of fighting, held throughout 2003 and brought a measure of stability to the media. But political tensions reached a crisis point on November 4, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga suspended Parliament and deployed troops in the capital, Colombo, while her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was out of the country on an official visit to the United States.

Citing security concerns, Kumaratunga fired key ministers and replaced them with her own appointees, including the minister of information, who is in charge of Sri Lanka's far-reaching state-controlled media. The president also replaced the editors of state-run print and broadcast outlets with journalists aligned with her People's Alliance party. The surprise move came one week after the Tamil rebels proposed a peace plan that formally renounced their goal of a separate state for Tamil nationals in Sri Lanka's northern and eastern territories.

On November 5, Kumaratunga declared a state of emergency and introduced temporary emergency provisions, including media censorship and a ban on demonstrations. However, none of these provisions was enacted since the state of emergency was lifted two days later, on November 7, and replaced with less severe regulations giving extended power to the military. In an address to the country that day, Kumaratunga blamed the prime minister's government for lapses in security and criticized his handling of the peace process. Talks with the Tamil rebels were suspended while the president and the prime minister faced off in a political showdown over the right to represent the country at the negotiating table. Unable to reach a compromise, Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe remained deadlocked at year's end.

Amid the political crisis, local journalists groups called for the reform of Sri Lanka's state-controlled media. In a November 6 press release, the Sri Lankan press freedom group Free Media Movement called the state-run media a "one-party propaganda machine," criticized the government for appointing political allies to high-ranking positions at media outlets, and urged the government to take "steps to transform state media into genuine public service media institutions."

The cease-fire brought journalists greater access to northern and eastern Sri Lanka in 2003. The military removed roadblocks and checkpoints, and there were fewer reported attacks on members of the media, according to local journalists. However, journalists say that self-censorship remains a major obstacle. Many media outlets are state-run and toe the government's party line, while other private publications and broadcasters reflect specific political or ethnic viewpoints.

Journalists who wrote critical stories about government officials and Tamil rebel groups still risked threats and harassment in 2003. On May 7, Ponniah Manikavasagam, a regular contributor to the BBC and a correspondent for the Tamil-language daily Virakesari, received a phone call at his home in Vavuniya accusing him of supporting the LTTE and warning him that he would be "killed very soon." The call was traced to an office run by the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front, a Tamil group strongly opposed to the Tigers.

On August 7, a group of LTTE activists ambushed a truck delivering the Tamil-language weekly Thinamurasu in Sunkankeni and burned about 5,000 copies. Thinamurasu is known for its reporting on LTTE human rights abuses and supports the Eelam People's Democratic Party, a Tamil opposition party. According to the newspaper, two of its local correspondents also received death threats in June from an LTTE leader in the northern district of Mannar.

In July, Fisheries Minister Mahinda Wijesekera threatened to have Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of The Sunday Leader, stabbed or shot to death in retalia-tion for a series of investigative articles exposing corruption in his ministry. The minister made the threat in the lobby of Parliament in front of other government officials and also alluded to plans to kill two other newspaper editors, Ravaya editor Victor Ivan and Satana editor Rohana Kumara, according to a report in The Sunday Leader. Although the minister issued a statement denying those allegations, he reportedly made similar threats against the journalists in a closed government meeting on August 4. Sri Lankan press freedom groups condemned Wijesekera, but police never investigated the threats, showing that a climate of impunity continues to exist in Sri Lanka.


2003 Documented Cases – Sri Lanka

JANUARY 7, 2003

Senitharajah Jeyanandamoorthy, Virakesari, TamilNet
ATTACKED

Unidentified men set fire to the home of Jeyanandamoorthy, a correspondent from the eastern city of Batticaloa for the Tamil-language newspaper Virakesari. The journalist and his family escaped without injury and, with the help of neighbors, managed to put out the fire.

Jeyanandamoorthy also reports for the Web site TamilNet, which focuses on news affecting Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority. He had recently published articles for TamilNet and Virakesari accusing Islamic extremists of causing trouble in eastern Sri Lanka. TamilNet reported that Jeyanandamoorthy had received death threats in the past from Muslim groups.

Tensions between Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, and Muslims are especially acute in eastern Sri Lanka, where the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have fought for years for an independent Tamil state.

MAY 7, 2003

Ponniah Manikavasagam, Virakesari
THREATENED

Manikavasagam, a correspondent for the Tamil-language daily Virakesari who also contributes regularly to the BBC, received a death threat from an anonymous caller at around 10:05 p.m. The caller warned him, "We have been watching you. You are dancing too much. You will be killed very soon." The journalist said that the caller, who was male and spoke in Tamil, then made a crude remark suggesting that Manikavasagam supports the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and added, "When you are killed, you will know who we are."

The call came just minutes after Manikavasagam had broadcast a report on the BBC's Tamil service about efforts by foreign mediators to revive the faltering peace process. In the report, Manikavasagam used an audio clip of a statement made by Anton Balasingham, chief negotiator for the Tamil Tigers, who defended the group's decision to suspend peace negotiations with the government. Police in Vavuniya traced the call to an office run by the Varatharajah Perumal faction of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front, a group that is strongly opposed to the Tigers, in the northwestern coastal town of Mannar.

JULY 25, 2003

Lasantha Wickramatunga, The Sunday Leader
Victor Ivan, Ravaya
Rohana Kumara, Satana
THREATENED

Sri Lanka's Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Mahinda Wijesekera threatened to kill Wickramatunga, editor of The Sunday Leader, while the minister was in Parliament in front of several other government ministers and parliamentarians, according to a July 27 report in The Sunday Leader. Wijesekera reportedly made the threat because Wickramatunga had accused him of corruption in a series of articles. Water Resources Minister Lakshman Seneviratne, who was present at that session of Parliament, informed Wickramatunga of Wijesekera's threat.

According to the Colombo-based Free Media Movement, although Wijesekera issued a statement denying making the threat, he then made a second death threat against Wickramatunga a week later, on August 4, while in a meeting with civil servants – where he also threatened to kill Ivan, editor of Ravaya newspaper, and Kumara, editor of Satana newspaper. Though local and international media organizations have called for action against the minister, Sri Lanka's United National Front government has yet to investigate him.

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