The good will of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government and the peace process have brought about a great improvement in press freedom. But journalists still fall prey to political and ethnic intolerance.
"The situation is much better and the threats against journalists have fallen sharply," reported Amal Jayasinghe, Colombo bureau chief of Agence France-Presse. After being the targets of death threats, intimidation, physical attacks and murder, journalists began to see light at the end of the tunnel. Led since December 2001 by Ranil Wickremesinghe, the government showed more tolerance toward the news media and, in general, had their support.
The liberal-minded government took important decisions. It lifted restrictions on access to areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers). It abolished laws on criminal defamation and it reopened the enquiry into the murder of Tamil journalist Mylvaganam Nimalarajan. Moreover, the state broadcaster SLBC resumed relaying the BBC’s news programmes in Tamil and Sinhala, which President Chandrika Kumaratunga had suspended in 2000, and the state-run television resumed broadcasting in the north of the country in September, 15 years after its relay tower in Jaffna was destroyed in fighting.
Obviously, it was the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire with the Tamil separatists that eased much of the tension and pressure on the news media. Tamil journalists were less likely to be suspected of supporting the Tamil Tigers. But political and ethnic violence did not disappear. Tamils attacked Sinhalese journalists, and Muslims attacked Tamil news media. And vice versa.
The judicial system also reached important verdicts. The high court in February sentenced two air force officers to nine years in prison for a physical attack, accompanied by death threats, several years ago on Iqbal Athas, the defence correspondent of the (Sri Lankan) Sunday Times. In August, the Suprem court overturned the 1997 conviction of the Sunday Times editor, in which he had been sentenced to 18 months in prison for an article deemed to defamatory towards President Kumaratunga.
A Colombo-based journalist working for a foreign news organisation said: "We have gone from one extreme to the other. Before, we just had information from military sources that was impossible to verify. Today the information comes from civilians or the LTTE, and we can travel to the north to confirm it. The army’s view of things has disappeared." The first group of journalists entered the hitherto proscribed Tamil Tiger area on 15 January. More than 300 local and foreign journalists entered LTTE territory on 10 April for a press conference by Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Most of the print media supported the government’s peace policy. Radical groups also had their press outlets, for example the newspaper Niwan, the official mouthpiece of the extreme left-wing JVP and a fierce critic of the government. The state-owned media were too fond of defending the ruling party’s interests, and needed to reform. The new communication minister set up a commission in January with the aim of ending "biased reporting and self-censorship in favour of the government."
New information on a journalist killed before 2002
Despite a lack of resources, police of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) began in January 2002 to make remarkable progress with the investigation into the October 2000 murder of journalist Mayilvaganam Nimalarajan, the correspondent in Jaffna of the BBC’s Sinhala-language service. Some 10 persons were detained, questioned and placed in custody on suspicion of involvement in the murder. Most were members of the militia of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), a Tamil party opposed to the LTTE. None of them admitted direct involvement, but several implicated other persons. After being blocked by authorities for more than a year, the investigation had been relaunched as a result of pressure from the interior ministry, the attorney-general and Jaffna magistrate. This was welcomed by a Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network fact-finding mission that went to Colombo and Jaffna in June. Interior Minister John Amaratunga confirmed to the mission that the government was determined to get to the bottom of the case.
Nimalarajan, who was also the correspondent of the daily Virakesari and the weekly Ravaya, had often reported human rights violations in the Jaffna peninsula and the investigation pointed to the direct involvement of the EPDP militia, which at that time supported the army’s operations against LTTE.
But there were problems. Two of the suspects, David Michael Collins and a certain Vishua, were released by the Vavuniya high court on 11 September. The judge ordered them freed on bail of 100,000 rupees each (about 1,000 euros) in response to a request by the EPDP lawyer. The judge did not even confiscate their passports although another suspect known as Napoleon, an EPDP paramilitary leader, had already reportedly fled the country after the EPDP’s electoral defeat. At the end of 2002, none of the detainees had been brought to trial and the police had not yet given the results of the tests on the material evidence: firearms taken from the EPDP, fingerprints found on a bicycle near the scene of the murder, bullet casings and the remains of a grenade left behind by the killers. No consideration had been given to the possibility of complicity within the army or police, and the head of the EPDP, a government minister at the time of the murder, had never been questioned. The EPDP criticised Reporters Without Borders’ work on this case in November.
A journalist arrested
Police attacked and insulted Uvindu Kurukulasooriya, a journalist with the daily Ravaya, in Colombo on 8 October 2002 when he took note of the licence number of a police vehicle in which persons were being beaten by policemen. When he went to the Maharagama police station to file a complaint, he was arrested for being drunk on the public highway and obstructing the police. He was released the next day and a week later filed a petition with the supreme court accusing the police of illegal arrest.
31 journalists physically attacked
An inebriated man attacked Ranjan Jayakody, a reporter with the privately-owned TV channel ITN, on 30 January 2002 while he was reporting on an irrigation project in the northern town of Gampaha. The drunk hit him, causing injuries to his head, damaged his vehicle and camera, and attacked project officials. Jayakody had to hospitalised.
Ervin de Silva, a correspondent in Welawe (north of Colombo) for the Sinhala-language daily Divaina, was attacked on 1 February by two individuals believed to be an army deserter and a policeman. He had just written a report exposing a local case of corruption.
An angry crowd of demonstrators attacked Sunil S. Thanthrige of the daily Lankadeepa and H.R. Perera of the Daily Mirror in Maradana in the southern province of Beruwala on 7 April, dashing their cameras to the ground. The journalists were saved by the arrival of police.
Three men, including a member of the ruling UNP known as Sanil, attacked Nishanta Kumara, a human rights activist and correspondent for the newspaper Ravaya, in a bus in the northwestern town of Wariyapola on 10 July. Threatening him with a knife, one asked if he was the human rights "dog" who was trying to send his brother-in-law to prison. They were on the point of stabbing him when the driver noticed and stopped the bus, allowing Kumara to escape. On 19 August, two men on a red motorcycle with no license plate began following the journalist every day, causing him to fear for his life. He filed a complaint with the police in Colombo twice (on 10 July and 5 September) but no investigation was carried out. Kumara believed the threats were the result of his reporting on the case of Nandani Herat, a woman who was tortured and raped while detained at the Wariyapola police station. Other journalists were harassed by police while covering the trial of the two policemen accused of torturing her. Some 20 police officers in plain clothes searched the vehicle of a public television crew and threatened them after they were denied access to the court in Wariyapola where the trial was taking place.
A dozen masked men armed with golf clubs and knives forced their way into the premises of the regional, Tamil-language newspaper Thinakathir in the eastern city of Batticaloa on the evening of 8 August. After attacking the building’s guard, they bound and blindfolded the eight journalists and other staff members present, locked them inside a room, removed computers and other equipment, and set fire to the newspaper’s files. When the newspaper’s editor, K. Rushangan, approached from his nearby home, he was insulted, beaten and tied up, as was his wife. The Tamil-speaking assailants then made off in a pickup. They were not identified by the newspaper’s editor, who filed a complaint, but he said the attack was carried out in a professional way and he linked it to a recent report in the newspaper about changes in the LTTE leadership in the Batticaloa area. On 28 August, a Sri Lankan press freedom organisation, FMM, called on LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to carry out a thorough investigation in view of the suspected involvement of LTTE members. The newspaper did not come out for several weeks.
Police attacked Valampuri correspondent Chandramorgan and an ABC radio correspondent on 2 September in Point Pedro (in the northern Jaffna peninsula) as they took photographs of the police using tear gas on a crowd of demonstrators. The police hit the two men. A police officer later apologised for the use of violence.
A group of supporters of Samurdhi (a government programme providing benefits to the poor) attacked a dozen journalists as they were covering a peaceful protest against illegal logging on 2 October in the northwestern locality of Madirigiriya. The assailants took the journalists’ cameras.
Thugs attacked the home of Malini Herath, a journalist with the daily Dinamina, in the northwestern province of Wayamba on the evening of 3 November when she was alone with her two children. They broke doors and windows before entering the house where they did further extensive damage. Herath viewed the attack as an act of intimidation linked to the newspaper’s revelation of illegal well-drilling in Wayamba.
Wijitha Ranaweera, a reporter for SLRC radio and the newspaper Dinamina, Roshan Garusingha, a correspondent for the newspaper Lakbima, and Jagath Kalansooriya, a reporter with the privately-owned TV station ITN, were set upon by the supporters of a local leader of the ruling party on 3 December while covering their use of violence to disrupt a local corporate election. Ranaweera and Kalansooriya were hospitalised because of their injuries.
Police attacked Vellupillai Thavaselvan, the Jaffna correspondent of the London-based IBC Tamil Radio, on 10 December as he was covering a protest in Nelliady (northeast of Jaffna) against the EPDP Tamil militia’s presence in the peninsula. He was admitted to hospital in Point Pedro.
At least 12 journalists threatened
Three armed, masked men forced their way into the home of Sarath Chinthaka, correspondent of the English-language Daily Mirror and Sinhala-language daily Lankadeepa, in Wattala (north of Colombo) on the night of 30 March 2002. They threatened his wife, who was alone in the house with a child, demanding that she hand over a recording of a controversial speech by President Kumaratunga. When she denied the existence of any such cassette, they broke open a cupboard, took a dozen cassettes and a recorder, and threatened to await Chinthaka’s return outside the front door. Chinthaka’s wife succeeded in escaping and fled to a police post to report the incident. Chinthaka subsequently received telephone threats, although he insisted that he did not have a recording of the speech, one the president gave in January in Jaela (a locality near Wattala) in which she stated that she only had to say one word, and the ceasefire between the government and Tamil Tigers would be over. This remark was much criticised both in Sri Lanka and abroad.
Police special forces threatened at least five reporters who were covering a demonstration outside the prime minister’s residence in Colombo on 22 April. The police told them not to photograph the protest, and seized a camera and mobile telephone from journalist Buddhika Weerasinghe.
Sarath Yatawara, correspondent of the state-run TV broadcaster SLRC in the central province of Kurunagala, was insulted and threatened with arrest on 23 June by Officer Kusum Siyabalapitiya, the head of the Wariyapola police post, if he continued to film the scene of a road accident in which two children were killed. The authorities ordered an enquiry into his behaviour.
Armed men attacked the home of journalist P. Sathsivanamdam in the eastern town of Muttur on 26 June, damaging his and his family’s belongings. A correspondent for the Tamil-language weekly Weerakesaree and the BBC’s Tamil-language service, Sathsivanamdam had just filed a report for the BBC on clashes between Tamils and Muslims in the area. The online newspaper Tamilnet.com blamed this violence on Islamist militants.
Individuals prowled around the home of Divaina correspondent A.J.A. Abeynayaka at night, firing shots in the air, on several occasions in June. He attributed this harassment to his reporting on the torturing of a youth at the Kadana police station, and the death of a man while held at the same police station three years before. He asked the national human rights commission to guarantee his security.
The home of a neighbour of journalist Senathirajah Jeyanandamoorthy near the eastern town of Batticaloa was set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Tamils in June. Jeyanandamoorthy, who writes for the online newspaper Tamilnet.com, believed his own home was the target.
Sandhya M. Weeratunga, a journalist with the weekly Dinakara, and Rukmal Gamage, a photographer with the same newspaper, received telephone threats after their newspaper carried a report about a government minister on 24 November. Thugs forced one of Dinakara’s vehicles to stop on the night of 26 November, attacked the driver and asked about the journalists who work for the newspaper.
Pressure and obstruction
The English-language Sunday Observer scrapped 90,000 copies of its issue of 6 January 2002 as it was about to go out because a Buddhist temple in the holy city of Kandy objected to one of the articles. Alerted by an employee of the newspaper, the temple objected to a report about a relic kept in the temple, Buddha’s Tooth, which is venerated by Buddhists. The report’s author, journalist Assif Hussein, received a letter the next day warning him not to publish anything for a week.
The defence ministry announced on 12 February that the population no longer needed prior authorisation from the army to travel to the north or the east of the country. Foreign journalists with information ministry accreditation were also told they could henceforth enter LTTE-controlled areas "at their own risk." But soldiers and police were to continue checking identity documents at roadblocks. In the first few weeks after this announcement, several groups of journalists were blocked by government troops who were unaware of the change and who continued to demand a laissez-passer. The LTTE for its part required journalists entering its territory to get permission from its headquarters in Vanni (in the north of the country) via its representatives in Europe. This proved difficult.
LTTE members reportedly tried to intercept a convoy of vehicles carrying copies of Tamil newspapers toward the east of the country on 28 March. Douglas Devananda, the head of the EPDP Tamil militia, said the weekly Thinamurasu, an LTTE critic, was a target of Tamil Tiger harassment. The private company contracted to transport the weekly refused to continue because of threats.
The government decided to repeal the laws on criminal defamation in April. Inherited from colonial times, this legislation made defamation a crime punishable by imprisonment, and had been used by one government after another since Sri Lanka gained independence. Parliament passed the repeal unanimously in June.
Communication minister Imtiaz Bakeer Makar announced on 10 April that major news media reforms were in the pipeline, including a law on access to information, a charter aimed at improving relations between the news media and the armed forces, and the replacement of the press council by an independent commission for press affairs.
Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE’s top leader, met the press for the first time on 10 April. Fearing an assassination attempt, rebels searched TV crews for several hours, forcing them to leave part of their equipment at the roadside before taking them to the site of the press conference in an unidentified place near Kilinochchi, in the Vanni region.
Paul Harris, Sri Lanka correspondent of The Daily Telegraph of London and Jane’s Intelligence Review, was forced to leave the country on 8 November after just one year because the authorities refused to renew his press visa. A few days before leaving, he told Reporters Without Borders that the British embassy in Colombo had also advised him to go. The Daily Telegraph’s editor in chief urged the foreign ministry to renew Harris’s visa on 30 September but received no reply. The government declined to give an explanation when asked by the press. Sri Lankan law requires foreign journalists based there to renew their visa each year. Harris believed he was the victim of official displeasure with his very critical coverage of the peace process between the government and Tamil Tigers. In particular, he told Reporters Without Borders that his removal could have the result of pressure on the government by the Tamil rebels. As a result of one of his articles in Jane’s Intelligence Review in May, Harris was invited to testify to opposition parliamentarians. After giving his testimony, he was called a British "secret agent" by Rajitha Senaratne, a government minister, and an unofficial investigation got under way a week later. Harris said the staff of his hotel were questioned, his room was searched and all his movements were closely monitored. In the days preceding his departure, he said he was threatened and harassed by armed men posted outside his office and home in the centre of Colombo. The foreign minister told Reporters Without Borders in a letter that Harris violated the conditions of his visa by writing articles for the Sri Lankan press.
Unidentified assailants set fire to the offices of the Tamil-language weekly Navamani in the outskirts of Colombo on 30 November. No group claimed responsibility but the LTTE was widely suspected because Navamani had often criticised its attacks on Muslims. The incident came a few days before negotiations resumed between the government and LTTE.
The Sunday Leader revealed on 15 December that the LTTE had been granted a licence in November for its Voice of the Tigers radio station which broadcasts from Kilinochchi. The licence authorised the station to carry reports on education, sport, leisure and foreign news. Following this decision, President Kumaratunga tried to prevent the delivery of a new antenna to the LTTE for the radio station.
The Movement for Social Democracy revealed on 16 December that the national police command had ordered police stations around the country to compile lists of journalists with their names, addresses and phone numbers. The organisation criticised the project as having the stamp of a police state. A police spokesperson said the aim was simply to improve relations between police and press.