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Taking advantage of a popularity boost resulting from the military defeat of the Tamil rebel force known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), President Mahinda Rajapaksa had himself reelected in January with the help of state media propaganda and the suppression of dissent. Of the world’s democratically-elected governments, Sri Lanka’s is the one that respects press freedom least.
The president and his aides, above all his brother, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is on the Reporters Without Borders list of Predators of Press Freedom, control the state media and use intimidation to get privately-owned media journalists to censor themselves. During last January’s elections, 96.7 percent of news programme air-time was devoted to the president and his aides and less than 3.3 per cent to the opposition.
Neither Sri Lankan nor foreign journalists were able to cover the civil war in the north, which left thousands of civilian casualties, and the media are still denied access to certain regions of the country. In the Tamil regions, pro-government paramilitary groups such as the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) in the Jaffna peninsula and the Karuna faction (whose leaders include two ministers) in the east inflict reprisals on media that oppose them.
Sinhalese ultra-nationalists and elements within the armed forces pursue a policy of intimidation towards critical media, especially those that support Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who emerged as the government’s leading opponent in 2009. A few publications such as Ravaya, The Sunday Leader and the Daily Mirror still dare to criticise government policy. But dozens of journalists and press freedom activists, including the most militant ones, have been forced to flee the country, some of them after being arrested and tortured.
More journalists were arrested following the proclamation of President Rajapaksa’s election victory. They included Chandana Sirimalwatta, the editor of the newspaper Lanka, who was punished for supporting the opposition. Lanka’s offices were also closed. In practice it is getting harder and harder to cover corruption. Last October, for example, journalists were attacked or arrested when they tried to approach a palatial residence built by a member of the president’s family with public funds.
The Tamil Tigers no longer have the ability to use fear to silence their critics, but their supporters in the diaspora still to try to intimidate Tamil journalists who express their views with too much freedom. On the Internet, websites that carry LTTE propaganda say nothing about its defeat or its past crimes against civilians.
But Tamil journalists, especially those who openly defend the Tamil cause, have more to fear from the paramilitary groups that can count on the protection of the security forces. In Jaffna, the main Tamil dailies such as Uthayan continue to get threatening letters accusing them of helping “terrorists.”
The dozens of crimes of violence against journalists during the civil war and the recent election campaign have all gone unpunished. The police have nothing to show, for example, from their investigation into the January 2009 murder of the Sunday Leader’s well-known editor, Lasantha Wickrematunga. His brother, Lal Wickrematunga, who now runs the newspaper, said, “Examination of the case by the courts has been postponed 24 times. Each time, the police say they do not have enough evidence. The only eye-witness disappeared several months ago.”
Three journalists, of whom two were based in Jaffna, are missing. One of them was Prageeth Eknaligoda, a political analyst and cartoonist who was kidnapped in the capital on 24 January, two days before the presidential election. He worked for the LankaeNews website (www.lankaenews.com), which was blocked just a few hours before the election results were announced. Access to the Lankanewsweb, Infolanka and Sri Lanka Guardian websites were also blocked by the country’s main state-owned ISP.
Tamil journalist J. S. Tissainayagam of the Sunday Times was sentenced to 20 years in prison in August 2009 on a charge of inciting terrorism in articles critical of the government’s military strategy. Released on bail in January, he still faces an appeal hearing and is still recovering from the 21 months he spent in prison, of which the first few weeks were particularly arduous.
It is not easy for the foreign media to operate in Sri Lanka, either. After being prevented from covering the civil war, they are still unwelcome in the areas under army control. After the election results were announced in January, a presidential adviser made a disparaging reference to a Swiss journalist’s “white skin" when she asked him a tough question. A number of photographers employed by international news agencies have still not been able to return after fleeing the country because of death threats from government supporters.
Update in March 2010
Sri Lanka - 4 November 2013
Sri Lanka - 5 August 2013