Online journalists and media continue to be targeted for violence. Impunity persists, and the regime does not hesitate to use censorship when its efforts to induce self-censorship no longer suffice.
The censorship reflex
Some independent news websites - LankaeNews, LankaNewsWeb, InfoLanka and Sri Lanka Guardian - were blocked in January 2010 a few hours before the presidential election results were announced. Since then, they have all been unblocked with the exception of LankaNewsWeb, which the country’s main access provider, Sri Lanka Telecom, has rendered inaccessible since 11 July 2009. TamilNet is still blocked, even after the government’s military victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels.
In an interview for Reporters Without Borders, LankaNewsWeb editor-in-exile Chandima Withanaarachchi explained that his website focuses on “human rights abuses, corruption and malpractices of political leaders.” Despite its having been banned in Sri Lanka one and one-half years ago, the site gets between 3 and 4 million hits per month in Sri Lanka, and 30 to 40 million hits worldwide. In his opinion, “the only glimmer of hope for press freedom in Sri Lanka is preserved through websites.” These sites must, however, defend themselves against regular attempts on the part of the government to control them.
Arson at LankaeNews website’s offices
An arson destroyed offices of the online news website LankaeNews in the night of 30 to 31 January 2011 in Malabe, a Colombo suburb. The main building which housed the online newspaper’s library and computers was gutted, putting the website out of business. The site is known for being critical of the authorities. The arson method indicates that it had been prepared well in advance. The fire erupted a few days after the publication of an article challenging the testimony given by Gotabaya Rajapakse, the Secretary of Defence and President’s brother, during the trial of the former Sri Lankan Army commander, Sarath Fonseka.
A suspect was apprehended in the evening of 31 January. The police reported that he is a member of a gang which works on contract. A second suspect managed to escape while being arrested. Dozens of Sri Lankan journalists paraded through Colombo’s streets in support of LankaeNews, and to protest the latest attacks on press freedom, which occur far too often in the country. After receiving threats, the website’s editor, Sandaruwan Senadheera, and his family were forced to seek asylum in the United Kingdom last year.
In July 2010, a similar attack was perpetrated by a dozen armed men on the Voice of Asia group’s offices. These frequent aggressions, which can range from murder to forced disappearance, have made the country’s journalists feel threatened, which is causing them to avoid a certain number of topics and resort to self-censorship.
More than a year after his disappearance, still no news of cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda
On 24 January 2010, a Sri Lankan political analyst and cartoonist, Prageeth Eknaligoda, who worked for the news site LankaeNews, went missing in Colombo. One year later, no progress has been made with his case. The investigation has been hampered by a severe lack of resources despite the authorities’ initial promises – a situation criticised by his wife, Sandya Ekneligoda – who wrote a letter to both the former and the still-acting Ministers of Information on 13 December 2010.
To mark the solemn one-year anniversary of the journalist’s disappearance, Cartooning for Peace and Reporters Without Borders launched an international support campaign on his behalf, collecting cartoons created by a dozen world-renowned cartoonists from around the world.
An impending filtering system: Vigilance required
In February 2010, the Sunday Times weekly and the news website LankaNewsWeb exposed the authorities’ plan to set up – after the elections – an Internet filtering system with the help of Chinese experts, and to make Internet website registration a requirement. Since the public denunciation of that project by the World Bank, which funds the country’s Telecommunications Development Programme via the Institutional Development Fund (IDF), the authorities had backed down – but for how long?
Net censorship will not contribute to national unification. The latter can only be achieved by eliminating impunity, particularly for crimes against media professionals who are doing their best to keep their fellow citizens informed.