President Rajapakse’s War Against the Press

Top ministers in the administration of Sri Lankan President Rajapakse over recent months have personally been involved in a growing number of violent incidents against members of the press, including the use of thugs to attempt to beat them up, and issuing threats against any journalists who don’t see things the government’s way.

The most spectacular of these, and the most embarrassing for Rajapkse’s government, occurred last December when the government Labor Minister, Mervyn Silva, entered the offices of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, the state-run news organization, and attempted to beat up the news director because Rupavahini had not telecast footage of a speech Silva had made at a function in Matara.

Silva entered the Rupavahini offices with a gang of thugs, one of whom was identified as a wanted criminal, and dragged the news director, TMG Chandrasekara, out from behind his desk. However, the attack backfired when members of the news organization’s staff saved Chandrasekara from real injury. The staff then grabbed Silva and his goons and locked them up after pouring red ink over their heads. It took a detachment of the Sri Lankan military to rescue Silva, but not until after the entire affair had been televised via the local news media. Rajapakse interceded himself, but despite the strong televised evidence against Silva and the thugs, he took no action against the minister.

Rajapakse convened a commission of inquiry that produced nothing. While police did arrest Silva’s goons, they were released on bail despite the fact that one of them was wanted on a non-bailable offence. Silva himself refused to attend a hearing at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka that sought to investigate the matter.

While this was probably the most dramatic event with regard to press freedom, it was by no means the first, nor is it likely to be the last.

“The anti-media tactics we're seeing from the government are really unprecedented,”said Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “With the resumption of the fighting with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Ministry of Defense is pulling out all stops to silence people who report critically on the war, or those who report on the corruption and inefficiencies within the defense ministry. We've long been accustomed to seeing Tamil journalists bear the brunt of the violence and harassment in Sri Lanka. Now it has spread to anyone who dares to report on matters the government doesn't want to see exposed."

Sri Lanka, Dietz added, “has always been a place where those who attack journalists go uninvestigated and prosecuted. It is a bad place to be a journalist who wants to do a good job."

For example, in March of this year the Terrorist Investigation Division of the Sri Lankan police arrested a number of journalists attached to an organization called Outreach Sri Lanka. They were held incommunicado for several hours and while most have been released, the one remaining in custody has not been charged nor brought before a court of law. This is despite the fact that the emergency regulations under which he is being held have a time limit of 30 days. It is also believed that at least one journalist has been tortured while in custody. The attacks on journalists continue. Keith Noyahr, the deputy editor and defense analyst of the English-language weekly, The Nation, was kidnapped and severely beaten. It is strongly believed that it was only due to an outcry by the press that he was released. The police have commenced their investigations but no culprits have been identified, arrested or brought to book.

The attack on media freedom continued this month and it was with little surprise that the news came that the Ministry of Defense had issued a dire warning to members of the press not to produce anything that might be considered harmful to the interests of the government.

This continued a few days later when Hudson Samarasinghe, the chairman of the state-controlled Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation publicly called for the death of a senior journalist, Poddala Jayantha, the general secretary of Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association. The tirade, broadcast over a breakfast program, went on to attack the BBC Sinhala Service when he said, "I tell the BBC: do not poke your fingers into our affairs. I am telling you decisively. Remember, this is the last warning; this is the last time I tell you."

Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement, a collective enterprise of journalists and media personnel, charged Samarasinghe with using the program to “level vicious attacks to journalists, civil society leaders and trade unionists,” and added that “By appointing him to head a State media institution, the Rajapaksa administration demonstrates an utter disregard for media freedom. In attempting to even suggest that Hudson Samarasinghe has a right to say what he wants to, the Rajapaksa administration significantly aids the growth of hate speech and is directly culpable in violence directed against journalists.”

In early 2007, according to the Sri Lanka Working Journalist Association, the government instituted controversial anti-terror regulations and shortly after that arrested a journalist named Munusami Parameshwari, holding her in detention for four months. The day after she was arrested, according to the organization, three Sinhala newspapers carried headline stories stating that as a result of statements by a friend arrested with her, police were able to recover 10 kilos of high explosives and 10 claymore mines. It was later discovered that the story had been fabricated and planted, according to the organization. Several government ministers also went on record saying that Parameshwari was being held in custody because of her connection with terrorists. The charges were not true.

With Sri Lanka in the grip of one of the world's longest-running civil wars, every potential evil in the country is blamed on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are fighting for an independent homeland in the north of the country. The Rajapakse regime's attitude is quite simple -- those who are not for us are against us. While this clearly includes members of the press, local and international journalists might rest more easily in the knowledge that Rajapakse has set up yet another of his commissions to deal with problems relating to the matter.

Apparently the commissioners will investigate complaints made by journalist and offer guidelines to media personnel on how to report on matters relating to the government and the internal conflict with the LTTE. The latter can be taken for granted. The commissioners are tasked with advising the media on what they can and cannot say, but whether they can identify, order the arrest of, and successfully prosecute anyone for the physical attacks or threats to journalists is another matter.

Stewart Sloan is a Hong Kong-based human rights activist.