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Media Freedom Must be Guaranteed in Sri Lanka’s National Reconciliation Process

April 12, 2012

As journalists in Sri Lanka began a campaign on January 25 in memory of colleagues who fell in the island nation’s civil war, the response of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government suggested a commitment to “national reconciliation” that does not go beyond empty gestures.

Sri Lanka’s journalists believe that the climate of impunity for attacks on the media should be dispelled as part of the healing process after a quarter century of ethnic strife. Human rights defenders who stand up for a fair society should be allowed a free voice if national reconciliation is to be a possibility.

Government spokespersons began a campaign of hostile rhetoric soon after the Free Media Movement (FMM) – a platform shared by Sri Lanka’s journalists across linguistic and ethnic divides – announced its intent to begin this campaign on January 25.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has learnt from sources in Sri Lanka, that in the second week of January, the government-owned TV channel launched an attack, bristling with unseemly personal animus, against the FMM.

While playing old footage of journalists who used the FMM platform, the TV channel ran a commentary on its news programmes, attacking them in virulent terms.

On January 10, Sri Lanka’s government-owned newspaper accused the FMM of petitioning the European Union (E.U.) to terminate bilateral trade preferences granted the country. This is a complete travesty of the FMM position, which has been to address the Sri Lankan government with the urgent need for it to live up to basic human rights standards.

Prior to the FMM’s demonstrations of January 25, the government secured a court injunction restricting the protests to a narrow area around Colombo’s Fort Railway Station, a major landmark in the capital city.

Gangs of stick-wielding toughs reportedly took over the area just before the demonstrations were to begin. They carried placards explicitly identifying the FMM as an ally of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the insurgent group defeated by government forces in 2009 after a civil war in which gross human rights violations were rampant on both sides.

On January 25, the government-controlled newspaper, the Daily News, carried an editorial which warned that any effort to “sabotage the progress of the country by disruptive elements (would) be put down”. The editorial identified the FMM as an organisation that has “been in the forefront of lambasting the Lankan state on numerous issues”.

The IFJ believes that the tone of official commentary speaks of a determination to pursue the policies that led to the bitter estrangement of the past.

The report of a commission appointed by President Rajapaksa as part of “national reconciliation” was published late-2011. This voluminous report, by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), has only modest space for media freedom. But its language is compelling.

The LLRC records that it has been “deeply disturbed” by the persisting reports, even after the end of the war, about “attacks and obstacles placed on journalists and media institutions”. These difficulties have been experienced even by “news websites”.

Taking note of a record of murderous violence against journalists, the LLRC remarks that the failure to “conclusively” investigate and bring “perpetrators” to justice does little credit to the Sri Lankan government.

The IFJ and all its global associates are encouraged by the LLRC recommendations. These include the recognition of the “pivotal role” that “freedom of expression and (the) right to information”, play in “any reconciliation process”. “Restrictions placed on media freedom”, the LLRC records, “would only contribute to an environment of distrust and fear within and among ethnic groups”.

The five specific actions that the LLRC urges, include “deterrent punishment” against those who attack media personnel and institutions; the proper investigation of such incidents from the past; the assurance that media personnel would have freedom of movement through the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, which bear the deepest scars of the war; and the enactment of a law protecting the right to information.

Despite the clear roadmap sketched by the LLRC, the IFJ and its global partners are seriously concerned that the Rajapaksa government seems intent on escalating the rhetorical violence.

The IFJ recalls that this manner of rhetoric contributed directly to the brutal attack on Poddala Jayantha, then the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association, in June 2009. Jayantha, a highly awarded journalist, suffered permanent disability and now lives in exile.

In January 2006, S. Sukirtharajan, a photographer with the Tamil daily from Colombo, Sudar Oli¸ was shot dead by assailants on motorcycles, just days after he published photographs suggesting that five Tamil students found dead in the eastern city of Trincomalee had been victims of an execution by state security agencies. A cable from the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka at the time has now come to light, which records Basil Rajapaksa, brother and senior advisor to the President, expressing his belief that the “Special Task Force” of the Sri Lankan military carried out the killing of the five students.

The IFJ calls upon the Sri Lankan government to explain if Sukirtharajan was killed because he got the real story of the Trincomalee killings, which the President’s advisor was only willing to share in confidence with the U.S. envoy.

In August 2006, the Jaffna office of the Uthayan newspaper – part of the same group as Sudar Oli – was attacked with fire bombs and seriously damaged. As narrated to the U.S. ambassador in Sri Lanka, again by the President’s brother, this attack was in all probability carried out by the Sri Lankan Navy, in league with a Tamil political party that is a close ally of President Rajapaksa’s.

In one of the most shocking incidents since the civil war was officially declared over, the news editor of Uthayan was attacked with iron rods on the streets of Jaffna and left for dead shortly after elections to local bodies in the northern province in July 2011. The newspaper had editorially supported the opposition parties which registered significant wins in the elections.

The LLRC commented sharply on this attack which happened during its deliberations.

The IFJ and its global partners conclude with extreme regret that the Sri Lankan government’s continuing failure to act against this manner of lawlessness, indeed its seeming eagerness to promote the rancour that contributed to the violence, suggest not a desire for national reconciliation, but its very opposite.

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