The stalling of the peace process between the government and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) was accompanied by a deterioration in press freedom. But it was violence by Tamil factions, sometimes manipulated by the security forces, that most threatened journalists' safety and freedom of expression.
A schism between the LTTE and a group headed by the warlord Karuna unleashed a wave of violence from March 2004 for which journalists paid a heavy price. The LTTE had issued the stark warning: "It has been decided to rid our territory of Karuna, to save our nation and our people". Terror became widespread on the island where Karuna has numerous supporters. They were behind the murder on 31 May, of Aiyathurai Nadesan, correspondent in Batticaloa for several Tamil media. Just a few weeks earlier he had told Reporters Without Borders, "We are caught between a rock and a hard place. It is very difficult for us to check reports either with the security forces or the Tamil Tigers. And when a news item on local events is datelined Colombo, it puts us at risk of reprisals on the ground." He was the first Sri Lankan journalist to be murdered since October 2000.
Around 15 other reporters have received death threats from one or other faction. Some have been forced to take refuge in Colombo or flee to Europe.
Newspapers believed to be close to the LTTE have been targeted by Karuna's men, the pro-government Tamil militia the EPDP and the security forces. Tamil newspaper Thinakkural was threatened with reprisals by Karuna and thousands of copies of the newspaper were burned in the east of the country.
Dharmaratnam Sivaram, head of the news website tamilnet.com, opposed to the Karuna split, received threats from armed Tamil groups as well as from the security forces. His home has twice been searched without an arrest warrant.
In November, a secret services officer in Jaffna, in the north, arrested Velupillai Thavachelvam of the Tamil daily Virakesari, telling him, "People like you had a lot of freedom under the Ranil government (...) but now the president is in charge and we can do what we want." Moreover, Tamil journalists have been threatened by representatives of armed Tamil groups in Australia, Canada and the UK for their coverage of the situation at home.
As a result of this brutality, journalists succumbed further to self-censorship, particularly correspondents for the national media in the north and east, where they could get little backup from their newspapers. The Tamil and Sinhalese services of the BBC World Service stopped broadcasting reports from their correspondents in the east for fear of reprisals.
The violence also put the peace process under threat. After the Media Minister acknowledged that members of the Sri Lankan army had helped the Karuna group, the LTTE exploited the situation to go back on its commitments in the peace process.
The LTTE accepts no criticism
The Tamil Tigers have systematically denied responsibility for any human rights violations. Their political leader S. P. Tamilselvam, told Reporters Without Borders that "freedom of the press was respected" throughout the territory controlled by his movement. Even though Tamil newspapers can be sold more or less freely and LTTE publications are distributed without significant obstruction in zones controlled by the Colombo government, the LTTE blocks distribution of the Tamil weekly Thinamurasu that is close to another armed group, the EPDP. Despite the intervention of Norwegian mediators who are monitoring the ceasefire, the LTTE harassment has persisted. The editor of Thinamurasu explained to Reporters Without Borders, "We pay a price for our independence. The LTTE expects all Tamil media to say nothing about any of its abuses. Those who do not comply are harassed". When a journalist on Thinamurasu, Kandasamy Iyer Balanadarajah, was shot dead on 16 August, everyone pointed the finger at the LTTE. But the movement's leaders told Reporters Without Borders that the journalist had apparently been killed by fellow members of the pro-government militia, the EPDP, since he had been planning to leave both the movement and the country.
Some Muslim journalists have also suffered LTTE harassment. The Muslims are the country's third largest community and claim a role in peace talks. "Covering the activities of the Tamil Tigers is a risky business for provincial journalists. We cannot directly attack the LTTE. To survive we give them space in our newspaper," said M. P. Azar, editor of the weekly Navamani, based in the east of the country.
The ethnic divide in the press – Sinhala and Tamil are very different languages – does have negative effects for freedom of expression. The non-governmental organisation Centre for Policy Alternatives recently said, "Many newspapers consider ethnicity to be unchangeable and innate. (...) The Sri Lanka media exacerbates community and ethnic tensions by continually playing on people's national and religious feelings". Stereotyping and manipulation are frequent in coverage of tensions between Muslims, Tamils and Sinhala. During the election campaign in March and April, some speeches by candidates from the extremist Buddhist party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) were carried, including by the daily Lankadeepa, without any editorial comment even though they contained racist attacks against Tamils and Muslims.
President demonstrates hostility to independent media
Violence was also directed at the press during the April legislative election campaign that resulted in victory for the coalition headed by Chandrika Kumaratunga. A grenade was thrown at the home of the managing director of the Asian Broadcasting Corporation in Colombo. This group is in conflict with the Media Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, who in February revoked the channel's terrestrial licence for a service it was set to launch within a few weeks. At the same time, Sri Lankan police searched the offices of The Sunday Leader, a Colombo-based weekly with a reputation for investigative reporting. Supporters of the extremist JHU physically attacked a crew from Young Asia Television in Kandy, central Sri Lanka.
The administration of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse has also blocked investigations into the murders of journalists. In October, the father of Nimalarajan, a BBC World Service correspondent in Jaffna, admitted defeat four years after his son was killed. "His memory remains with us and his family are still traumatised by what happened in Jaffna (...) every indication we have is that the pro-government Tamil party the EPDP is implicated in the murder. Why has the investigation been blocked? A trial would bring immense relief to the whole family."
In fact, the Jaffna judge who is heading the investigation received no instructions from the prosecutor-general's office during 2004, even though the final report of the police investigation was sent to him in April. Police have not examined the case and remains of a grenade found at the scene of the crime, nor the prints found on a bicycle left near the journalist's home by his killers. All the suspects are still at large.
In the September 1999 murder case of Rohana Kumara, editor of the Sinhala weekly Satana (The Battle), members of the presidential security division or men linked to it have constantly prevented any breakthrough by protecting the obviously well-placed people who ordered it. In January, Dhammika Amarasinghe, suspected of the 2001 killing of the alleged murderer of Rohana Kumara, was killed in his turn in a corridor of Colombo's law courts by an army deserter. For more than five years, police have repeatedly put off completing the investigation and bringing him before a court.
Chandrika Kumaratunga has retaken control of the state-owned media. Newly-appointed Media Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, who is close to the president, said in June that the role of the state media would henceforth be to attack the main opposition party. The EU had just revealed that state television devoted 68% of its legislative election coverage to the alliance headed by Chandrika Kumaratunga.
- 2 journalists were killed
- 9 journalists physically attacked
- 26 journalists threatened
- and 3 media ransacked