The following statement was issued by the South Asia Media Solidarity Network at its meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal, on September 6-7.
We, the representatives of journalists’ unions and associations in the South Asian region, meeting on the platform of the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN), express our deepest concern over continuing violations of media rights in Sri Lanka, and call on the government of the country to uphold the international human rights covenants it is party to.
We are shocked by the August 31 verdict of the Colombo High Court, sentencing J.S. Tissainayagam, a widely respected journalist and human rights defender, to 20 years’ rigorous imprisonment on terrorism charges. We note that world press freedom bodies and the diplomatic community have with virtually one voice condemned the trial and sentencing of this Tamil journalist, whose concerns embraced all causes and all ethnic communities of Sri Lanka.
An already bad situation for journalism in Sri Lanka has turned markedly worse this year, with the daylight murder of Lasantha Wickramatunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, in a busy suburb of Colombo on January 8. Investigations into his murder have made little progress, amid a number of contradictory statements from the government and security agencies.
The month of January saw an arson attack on the facilities of the independent broadcaster Sirasa TV and a knife attack on a newspaper editor and his wife in Colombo. There was in the same month a near-lethal assault on a newspaper editor in the eastern town of Batticaloa and an arson attack on his premises.
In February, Sudar Oli editor N. Vidyatharan was snatched from a family function in a kidnap-style arrest. He was publicly charged with being a “terrorist” by top officials of the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry. Held without charge for three months, he was released unconditionally on court orders.
On June 1, Poddala Jayanta, General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA), was seized by what seemed a professional hit squad as he was on his way home in a suburb of Colombo. He was hustled into a van and brutally assaulted, suffering multiple fractures, contusions and other injuries, before being thrown out, unconscious, in an open field. Jayanta had been attacked by name over state-owned print and electronic media over the preceding weeks, for his alleged sympathy for terrorism.
These aside, there have been a number of verbal threats against journalists and media workers by ministers and other senior persons in government.
Several of Sri Lanka’s most well-known journalists have left the country fearing for their lives. We express our solidarity with these journalists and urge the international community to be attentive to their needs for honourable treatment in secure locations, till conditions are appropriate for their safe return to their home country. We believe that this is a responsibility that all countries in South Asia – especially India, the largest country with the longest established democratic traditions – will particularly have to bear.
We request the institutions that employed the exiled journalists to support them to the extent that their capacity permits, and allow them on their return to Sri Lanka to resume their profession without any impediment.
This year has also witnessed an escalating trend of verbal abuse, followed by administrative action against journalists.
On February 1, the Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, issued a warning that foreign media organisations would face “dire consequences” and be “chased out” of the country if they did not behave “responsibly”. He accused three international news organisations in particular of partisan reporting on the situation regarding civilian casualties and suffering in areas of conflict between government forces and Tamil separatist insurgents. Since then, the residence permit of the bureau chief of an international news agency was prematurely terminated, in evident retaliation for a series of reports he had filed on the humanitarian consequences of the war.
Access to the north of the country has been severely curtailed for years and remains so over three-and-a-half months since the war ended, so that the stories that ordinary people have to tell about the last days of the war remain unknown to the world.
We are especially worried at the refusal of the Sri Lankan authorities to allow independent media access to the camps set up in the north of the country for people displaced in the last phases of the war. We remind the Sri Lankan Government that the public in Sri Lanka and elsewhere has the right to be informed, through independent reporting, of the humanitarian consequences of its military operations and the prospects of an estimated 280,000 internally displaced people for resettlement and rehabilitation.
We note with alarm that three journalists from the Sinhala-language weekly Irida Lanka have been detained by the Terrorism Investigation Division of the Sri Lankan police and that official spokespersons are putting out charges of their involvement in an assassination plot.
We urge the Government of Sri Lanka to repeal its Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was introduced, ostensibly as a temporary measure, in 1973. Till necessary legislative changes are made, we demand that all cases registered under the law, which have had a chilling effect on the right to free speech, be kept in abeyance.
We underline our solidarity with the five main bodies of journalists in Sri Lanka: the Free Media Movement (FMM), the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA), the Federation of Media Employees’ Trade Unions (FMETU), the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF) and the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance (SLTMA). These organisations form a coalition that should be strengthened and allowed to operate in an environment free from fear, in the wider cause of press freedom and the public right to know.