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Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Sri Lanka

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2005
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Sri Lanka, February 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566f228.html [accessed 21 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 fragile cease-fire between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) deteriorated in 2004, heightening tensions and challenges for the nation and its media. Even after a devastating tsunami in late December killed more than 30,000 people, the divisions held fast and hampered initial relief efforts. Tamil areas of the country, some of the hardest hit, were also among the most difficult for journalists to cover.

Talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to end the 20-year civil war have been deadlocked since April 2003, when the rebels, known as the Tamil Tigers, walked out over key issues, including their demand for interim ruling authority over areas in the north and east of the country. Last-minute efforts by Norwegian negotiators to break the impasse in November were unsuccessful.

Throughout 2004, both sides feuded bitterly among themselves, sometimes putting journalists in the middle. Two Tamil journalists were gunned down in retaliation for their work this year – the first killed in the line of duty in Sri Lanka since 2000, according to CPJ research. A third journalist died in a December grenade attack at a controversial music concert.

In March, the LTTE split into two factions after a rebel leader known as Colonel Karuna formed his own rival army in eastern Sri Lanka. The Tigers crushed his forces in April, but Karuna himself escaped. The Tigers accuse the Sri Lankan army of supporting Karuna's rebellion. Both warring Tamil factions went on extrajudicial killing sprees, targeting each other's alleged supporters.

On May 31, unidentified assailants ambushed, shot, and killed veteran Tamil journalist Aiyuthurai Nadesan in Batticaloa District, on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, while he was on his way to work. Nadesan, an award-winning reporter who worked for the Tamil-language daily Virakesari for 20 years, was sympathetic to the LTTE, according to local journalists. In 2001, government security forces harassed and threatened him because of his critical reporting, according to CPJ research. The LTTE blamed Nadesan's murder on the Sri Lankan army and members of the Karuna faction. At year's end, no arrests had been made, adding to the fears of local journalists, exiled sources told CPJ.

In July, a suicide bombing in the capital, Colombo, further threatened the cease-fire and highlighted the mounting tensions between Tamil groups. Tamil politician Douglas Devananda, a leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and a government minister, was targeted by the bomber but survived the attack. The LTTE denied responsibility for the explosion, but Devananda told the BBC Tamil service that the bombing bore the hallmark of the Tigers, who have frequently used suicide attacks in the last 20 years. The EPDP had supported the breakaway Karuna faction.

Bala Nadarajah Iyer, a veteran EPDP activist, writer, and editor, was shot dead outside his house in Colombo just weeks later, according to international reports and local sources. Iyer was a media officer and senior member of the EPDP who worked on the editorial board of the Tamil-language weekly Thinamurasu and wrote a political column for the state-run Tamil daily Thinakaran. The EPDP's official news Web site reported that the LTTE had threatened Iyer before his murder. No arrests in the killing had been reported by year's end.

Local and exiled journalists say the two murders had an extremely chilling effect on the ethnic Tamil media, both inside Sri Lanka and abroad, particularly ahead of the April 2 national elections. Journalists at the London-based Tamil Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) received numerous death threats in March after it began broad-casting in the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka. In the run-up to the poll, the radio service interviewed both pro- and anti-Tamil candidates and politicians. The LTTE's official radio station, the Voice of the Tigers, aired a report that was carried in Sri Lanka and in the U.K. condemning the TBC and its journalists as "traitors."

Uthayam, a Tamil-language monthly newspaper based in Australia, also came under attack after running articles that criticized the LTTE's human rights record, including the use of child soldiers, according to the newspaper's publisher. A pro-LTTE radio station aired attacks on the newspaper in April, and LTTE supporters forcibly removed copies of Uthayam from shops in Sydney, Australia, and threatened the shop owners, according to the human rights organization Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.

In March, unidentified assailants stole several thousand copies of the Tamil-language newspapers Thinakkural and Virakesari and burned them while the papers were being delivered to the eastern Batticaloa District from Colombo. The group warned the delivery service not to bring any more copies of the newspapers to Batticaloa. Local journalists say supporters of breakaway Tamil leader Karuna were responsible for the attack.

The divide between Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and a former prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, polarized the media and hampered objectivity. Kumaratunga's coalition won national elections in April but failed to secure a majority. She called the snap elections due to her bitter rivalry with Wickremesinghe, who had negotiated the cease-fire to the civil war. Kumaratunga's critics blame her administration for the stalled peace process.

Opposition parties and local press freedom advocates accused the state media of acting as a propaganda organ for the president and her ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in 2004, particularly during the election campaign in the spring. The press freedom organization Free Media Movement (FMM) called repeatedly in 2004 for the reform of state media to promote greater balance and diversity in news coverage. UPFA leaders countered with accusations that private media slanted their election coverage in favor of opposition politicians and parties.

In December, photographer Lanka Jayasundara was killed when a grenade exploded at a Colombo music concert. No group took responsibility, but angry demonstrators had protested that the event coincided with the anniversary of a Buddhist cleric's death.

The fragile cease-fire between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) deteriorated in 2004, heightening tensions and challenges for the nation and its media. Even after a devastating tsunami in late December killed more than 30,000 people, the divisions held fast and hampered initial relief efforts. Tamil areas of the country, some of the hardest hit, were also among the most difficult for journalists to cover.

Talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to end the 20-year civil war have been deadlocked since April 2003, when the rebels, known as the Tamil Tigers, walked out over key issues, including their demand for interim ruling authority over areas in the north and east of the country. Last-minute efforts by Norwegian negotiators to break the impasse in November were unsuccessful.

Throughout 2004, both sides feuded bitterly among themselves, sometimes putting journalists in the middle. Two Tamil journalists were gunned down in retaliation for their work this year – the first killed in the line of duty in Sri Lanka since 2000, according to CPJ research. A third journalist died in a December grenade attack at a controversial music concert.

In March, the LTTE split into two factions after a rebel leader known as Colonel Karuna formed his own rival army in eastern Sri Lanka. The Tigers crushed his forces in April, but Karuna himself escaped. The Tigers accuse the Sri Lankan army of supporting Karuna's rebellion. Both warring Tamil factions went on extrajudicial killing sprees, targeting each other's alleged supporters.

On May 31, unidentified assailants ambushed, shot, and killed veteran Tamil journalist Aiyuthurai Nadesan in Batticaloa District, on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, while he was on his way to work. Nadesan, an award-winning reporter who worked for the Tamil-language daily Virakesari for 20 years, was sympathetic to the LTTE, according to local journalists. In 2001, government security forces harassed and threatened him because of his critical reporting, according to CPJ research. The LTTE blamed Nadesan's murder on the Sri Lankan army and members of the Karuna faction. At year's end, no arrests had been made, adding to the fears of local journalists, exiled sources told CPJ.

In July, a suicide bombing in the capital, Colombo, further threatened the cease-fire and highlighted the mounting tensions between Tamil groups. Tamil politician Douglas Devananda, a leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and a government minister, was targeted by the bomber but survived the attack. The LTTE denied responsibility for the explosion, but Devananda told the BBC Tamil service that the bombing bore the hallmark of the Tigers, who have frequently used suicide attacks in the last 20 years. The EPDP had supported the breakaway Karuna faction.

Bala Nadarajah Iyer, a veteran EPDP activist, writer, and editor, was shot dead outside his house in Colombo just weeks later, according to international reports and local sources. Iyer was a media officer and senior member of the EPDP who worked on the editorial board of the Tamil-language weekly Thinamurasu and wrote a political column for the state-run Tamil daily Thinakaran. The EPDP's official news Web site reported that the LTTE had threatened Iyer before his murder. No arrests in the killing had been reported by year's end.

Local and exiled journalists say the two murders had an extremely chilling effect on the ethnic Tamil media, both inside Sri Lanka and abroad, particularly ahead of the April 2 national elections. Journalists at the London-based Tamil Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) received numerous death threats in March after it began broad-casting in the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka. In the run-up to the poll, the radio service interviewed both pro- and anti-Tamil candidates and politicians. The LTTE's official radio station, the Voice of the Tigers, aired a report that was carried in Sri Lanka and in the U.K. condemning the TBC and its journalists as "traitors."

Uthayam, a Tamil-language monthly newspaper based in Australia, also came under attack after running articles that criticized the LTTE's human rights record, including the use of child soldiers, according to the newspaper's publisher. A pro-LTTE radio station aired attacks on the newspaper in April, and LTTE supporters forcibly removed copies of Uthayam from shops in Sydney, Australia, and threatened the shop owners, according to the human rights organization Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.

In March, unidentified assailants stole several thousand copies of the Tamil-language newspapers Thinakkural and Virakesari and burned them while the papers were being delivered to the eastern Batticaloa District from Colombo. The group warned the delivery service not to bring any more copies of the newspapers to Batticaloa. Local journalists say supporters of breakaway Tamil leader Karuna were responsible for the attack.

The divide between Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and a former prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, polarized the media and hampered objectivity. Kumaratunga's coalition won national elections in April but failed to secure a majority. She called the snap elections due to her bitter rivalry with Wickremesinghe, who had negotiated the cease-fire to the civil war. Kumaratunga's critics blame her administration for the stalled peace process.

Opposition parties and local press freedom advocates accused the state media of acting as a propaganda organ for the president and her ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in 2004, particularly during the election campaign in the spring. The press freedom organization Free Media Movement (FMM) called repeatedly in 2004 for the reform of state media to promote greater balance and diversity in news coverage. UPFA leaders countered with accusations that private media slanted their election coverage in favor of opposition politicians and parties.

In December, photographer Lanka Jayasundara was killed when a grenade exploded at a Colombo music concert. No group took responsibility, but angry demonstrators had protested that the event coincided with the anniversary of a Buddhist cleric's death.


2004 Documented Cases – Sri Lanka

JANUARY 5, 2004
Posted: January 28, 2004

Veluppillai Thavachelvam, Jaffna Journalists' Association
THREATENED

An unidentified soldier from the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) threatened to shoot Thavachelvam, a Tamil-language journalist, at the Palali Air Force base in Jaffna where a group of journalists had been invited to cover the visit of two senior Buddhist monks, according to local journalists.

Sri Lanka's Ministry of Rehabilitation, Resettlement, and Refugees invited the Jaffna-based press to cover the event, but after Thavachelvam was singled out and threatened, the journalists refused to write about it in protest, according to Tamilnet, a Tamil-language news service.

The SLA has harassed Thavachelvam before because of his reports about the army's activities in the northern part of the country. An SLA military intelligence unit detained the journalist in Jaffna, on November 18, 2003, for more than an hour, threatened him, and accused him of casting a negative light on the local army command in his reporting.

Thavachelvam is a leading local correspondent for the Sri Lankan and international Tamil media, and president of the Jaffna Journalists' Association.

MARCH 2, 2004
Posted: March 16, 2004

Young Asia Television
HARASSED

A production crew from Young Asia Television (YA*TV), an independent television production company dedicated to fostering peaceful coexistence in Sri Lanka, was verbally harassed, and the tape of their footage was destroyed by an unruly group of supporters of the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) political party at a JHU election rally in Kandy in central Sri Lanka.

The YA*TV crew filmed the JHU's public election meeting and the launching of the party's election manifesto as part of their coverage of the run-up to April 2 parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka. When the crew began filming interviews with people on the street, a group of JHU supporters surrounded them. After the crew identified themselves as being from YA*TV, the JHU group verbally abused them, accusing them of "betraying the country," and pressured the crew into handing over their videotape which they then destroyed, according to YA*TV.

After Tilak Karunaratne, the president of YA*TV, sent a letter complaining about the incident to the JHU, he received assurances that the party would launch an investigation into the incident.

The media in Sri Lanka has come under increasing pressure in recent days as the election approaches.

MARCH 9, 2004
Posted: March 16, 2004

Thinakkural
Virakesari
CENSORED

In what local journalists characterize as a political attack, several thousand copies of the Tamil-language newspapers Thinakkural and Virasekari were forcibly taken by an unidentified group and set on fire while they were being delivered to the eastern Batticoloa district from the capital, Colombo.

According to TamilNet, an Internet news service, the group forced their way onto a bus that was delivering several different newspapers in the city of Batticoloa on Sri Lanka's eastern coast. The group selected the parcels containing Thinakkural, and according to the Free Media Movement (FMM), a Sri Lankan press freedom organization, parcels containing Virasekari, and removed them from the bus. The group warned the delivery service not to bring any more copies of the newspapers to Batticoloa.

Local journalists say supporters of breakaway leader Karuna, the nom de guerre of former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) party member V. Muralitharan, were responsible for the attack. According to local news reports, the recent split in the LTTE may be to blame for the incident, as the eastern Batticoloa district is Karuna's stronghold, and the two newspapers in question are considered to be supportive of his rival, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

MAY 3, 2004
Posted: May 4, 2004

Dharmeratnam Sivaram, Tamilnet
HARASSED

A group of about 40 police officers who said they were looking for weapons searched the home of Sivaram, a veteran journalist and columnist, in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital.

Sivaram writes frequently for the private Daily Mirror and its affiliate, The Sunday Times, and edits Tamilnet (www.tamilnet.com), an online news service that covers Sri Lankan affairs with special emphasis on news of interest to the Tamil community.

Sivaram was not home at the time of the police raid, but his family says they felt threatened, and the journalist fears that his life could be in danger, local sources told CPJ.

It is not clear whether the police had a search warrant. Police searches of private residences in Colombo have been extremely rare since a cease-fire was signed between the government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in February 2002, sources said.

Tamilnet is widely acknowledged as an indispensable source of information about the long-running civil conflict between government forces and the LTTE. Local observers told CPJ that the raid may have come in retaliation for Sivaram's recent reporting on alleged links between the government and a breakaway LTTE faction. The raid has sparked fears of a government crackdown on the country's Tamil and independent journalists.

MAY 31, 2004
Posted: June 7, 2004

Aiyathurai Nadesan, Virakesari
KILLED – UNCONFIRMED

Nadesan, a veteran Tamil journalist with the national Tamil-language daily Virakesari, was shot and killed by unidentified assailants in Batticaloa, a town on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka and 135 miles (216 kilometers) from the capital, Colombo, according to international news reports and local journalists. CPJ is investigating whether the murder was related to Nadesan's journalistic work.

Nadesan, who had worked at Virakesari for 20 years, was on his way to work on the morning of May 31 when he was shot. Local police told The Associated Press that gunmen ambushed the journalist near a Hindu temple. The assailants escaped from the scene, and no group has claimed responsibility for the killing. Batticaloa police have launched an investigation into the murder, according to news reports.

Nadesan was an award-winning journalist who used the pen name Nellai G. Nadesan. He also reported for the International Broadcast Group, a Tamil-language radio station that broadcasts from London.

Violence erupted in Sri Lanka's eastern region in the weeks before the murder after the main Tamil rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), launched a military offensive against a breakaway faction headed by a soldier known as Col. Karuna. Local journalists said that Nadesan supported the LTTE. The LTTE has accused the Sri Lankan army and members of the breakaway faction of Nadesan's murder, according to the pro-LTTE Internet news site Tamil.net.

Nadesan had been harassed and threatened before his death because he had criticized the government and security forces, according to CPJ research. On June 17, 2001, a Sri Lankan army officer summoned Nadesan for an interrogation and threatened the journalist with arrest unless he ceased reporting about the army.

Local journalist groups condemned the murder and called for a hartal, or national strike, for June 2.

After a 20-year-long civil war, Sri Lanka's government reached a cease-fire agreement with the separatist LTTE in February 2002. Although the current peace agreement remains fragile, the two sides are scheduled to resume talks in July.

JULY 14, 2004
Posted: July 23, 2004

Janith de Silva, Independent Television Network
S.A.Y. de Silva, Lankadeepa
Sujeewa Priyadarshana, Swarnavahini TV
Anura Yasmin, The Island
ATTACKED

Police assaulted four journalists covering a demonstration outside the police station in the southern town of Kosgoda, 47 miles (75 kilometers) south of the capital, Colombo. According to the local press freedom group Free Media Movement, each of the journalists identified themselves to police before they were attacked.

Priyadarshana, a correspondent with Swarnavahini TV, and S.A.Y.de Silva, a reporter with the Sinhala-language daily Lankadeepa, remained hospitalized on July 20. The other journalists assaulted were Janith de Silva, of the Independent Television Network, and Yasmin, a reporter for the English-language daily The Island.

Demonstrators were protesting alleged police corruption and inaction in the wake of the recent death of a textile factory worker. In an interview with the BBC, Priyadarshana said that a police constable beat him with a baton after the TV correspondent filmed police attacking demonstrators. In addition to the journalists, 20 demonstrators remained hospitalized on July 20.

Sinhala-language newspapers have reported that police have apologized for the attack on the journalists, and Inspector General of Police Indra de Silva told the BBC that an inquiry into the incident has been initiated. But it is unclear what actions will be taken against those responsible, or what will be done to prevent the recurrence of this kind of attack.

AUGUST 16, 2004
Posted: August 18, 2004

Bala Nadarajah Iyer, Thinamurasu and Thinakaran
KILLED – UNCONFIRMED

Iyer, a journalist, writer, and political activist with the opposition Tamil group the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), was shot and killed by unidentified assailants in the capital, Colombo.

CPJ is investigating whether the murder was related to his journalistic work.

Iyer's murder was the latest in a series of politically motivated killings linked to the main Tamil rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), according to international news reports and local journalists.

Iyer, a veteran activist and writer, was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle when he left home for work in the southern Wellawatte area of the capital on the morning of August 16, according to local police. He died instantly at the scene, and police launched an investigation into the murder. The EPDP's official news Web site reported that the LTTE had threatened Iyer before his murder.

Iyer was a media officer and a senior member of the EPDP who worked on the editorial board of the Tamil-language weekly Thinamurasu and wrote a political column for the state-run Tamil daily Thinakaran. He was known for criticizing the LTTE's human rights abuses and had worked closely with Tamil political groups, including the LTTE, over the last 20 years, according to local journalists.

Tensions between the two rival Tamil groups flared in the spring after the EPDP supported a breakaway faction of the LTTE headed by a rebel leader known as Karuna. The LTTE has targeted the EPDP in recent days; in July, Douglas Devandra, a leader of the EPDP and a government minister, escaped an assassination attempt by an LTTE member.

After a 20-year civil war, Sri Lanka's government reached a cease-fire agreement with the separatist LTTE in February 2002. However, the current peace agreement remains fragile, and talks between the two sides have stalled.

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