Reporters Without Borders

Sri Lanka

Published on Thursday 1 February 2007. Updated on Thursday 16 April 2009.
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The resumption of the civil war had dramatic consequences for Sri Lankan journalists and in particular the Tamils. Seven media workers were killed in 2006. Pro-government militia (predators of press freedom) and occasionally the army have attacked the press which they accuse of supporting Tamil nationalism. On the other side, the Tiger Tamils threatened those who oppose their political position.

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The escalation of the conflict pitting the army against the Tiger Tamils (LTTE) forced scores of Tamil journalists into silence or hiding. Most correspondents for Tamil media in the east of the country no longer have their by-line on their reports for fear of reprisals. “Investigative journalism is dead in the Tamil media and everyone is self-censoring”, said the editor of one media, himself a target of intimidation. The war against the Tamil press has reached the most respected and influential journalists. In August, the news editor of privately-owned radio Sooriyan, Nadarajah Guruparan, was kidnapped and held for a day by unknown hostage-takes who threatened him with reprisals. Then, in November, the editor of the Shakthi television was threatened with death after giving extensive coverage to the assassination of a Tamil parliamentarian.

Three journalists and four media assistants were killed in 2006. No suspects have so far been arrested. In January, Subramaniyam Sugirdharajan, correspondent for the Tamil daily Sudar Oli in Trincomalee, eastern Nepal, was murdered the day after writing an article about excesses committed by pro-government paramilitary groups in his region. In July, the independent Sinhala journalist Sampath Lakmal was found dead in Colombo. The following month, Sinnathamby Sivamaharajah, politician and editor of a Tamil nationalist newspaper was shot dead at his home in Jaffna.

There is total impunity for these killers in Sri Lanka. Investigations into murders of journalists, including that of Dharmeratnam Sivaram, editor of the news website Tamilnet and editorialist on the Daily Mirror, killed in 2005, have been blocked by the authorities. The suspects - militants in pro-government Tamil militia - have never been troubled by the police, even though some of them were clearly identified by the investigators. For fear of being next on the list of journalists killed, many have stopped working as journalists or have fled the country. In December, photographer Auruddha Lokuhapuarachchi of Reuters news agency sought refuge in India after being threatened for his coverage of the plight of Tamil residents in the east and north of the country. A few days earlier, Sinhala journalist Rohitha Bashana Abeywardena, fled to Europe to escape threats.

The army attacked media accused of relaying Tiger Tamil propaganda, which they termed terrorist. In October, the studios of Voice of Tigers radio near Kilinochchi, in an LTTE-controlled area was hit and destroyed by air strikes injuring two employees. The military imposed new restrictions on the movements of the press reporting from the field. As a result, the army and the LTTE prevented reporters from reaching the site of a battle around Muttur, in August. In November, officers summoned newspaper managers in Jaffna and ordered them not to publish news coming from the Tamil Tigers.

The daily Uthayan, published in Jaffna had three employees killed in 2006. Its offices came under murderous attack on 2 May, eve of World Press Freedom Day, celebrated by UNESCO in Colombo on 3 May. Armed men believed to be pro-government militia sprayed its offices with machine-gun fire, killing two staff members, the day after it carried a cartoon of Douglas Devananda, leader of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), a member of the ruling coalition. A few weeks later, a newspaper vendor selling the daily was killed by soldiers in the streets of Jaffna. In August, armed men threatened fresh reprisals if the paper published a statement from striking students, and then set fire to its presses. At the end of the year, soldiers blocked its news print supply. Tamil media also suffered serious interference with distribution in the east of the country. Distributors on several occasions were forced to stop selling some papers in the face of death threats from pro-government militia headed by Colonel Karuna. These were Virakesari, Thinakural and Sudar Oli. The state-run Tamil newspaper Thinakaran was not interfered with however.

Under strong press criticism, President Mahinda Rajapakse and his government stepped up their control over state-run media. At least two journalists, including Rajpal Abenayaka, editor of the government weekly Sunday Observer, were removed from their posts after publishing news seen as too independent. Two state radio programmes were also pulled because they reported on the ethnic conflict in outspoken terms. The government in November also used a 1966 law on good social behaviour to block Raja FM, supposedly broadcasting shocking programmes about sexuality.

Finally, hate campaigns were launched in extremist Singhala press, particularly those linked to the nationalist JVP party, against journalists and non-governmental organisations accused of supporting the Tamil Tigers. Anger was unleashed online, where independent media were regularly threatened by supporters or opponents of the Tamil Tigers. The Tamil and Sinhala services of the BBC World Service were successively attacked by both camps.

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