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CPJ testimony: Access denied in Sri Lankan conflict

On Tuesday, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission convened a hearing on Sri Lanka. The impetus was the disintegrating human rights situation in the northeastern "no fire zone." CPJ was invited to testify about attacks on Sri Lankan journalists and the fact that both sides to the Tamil secessionist war--the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the government--do not allow journalists access to the conflict zone.

If you've been following these posts, you know I've testified several times about attacks on Sri Lankan journalists since the government decided to seek an all-out military victory--and the impunity surrounding those attacks. But yesterday I led my remarks with the issue of restricted access to the combat zone--something I usually reserved for the end of my presentation. I did so in the light of fighting in the northeast that many predict will be the "final solution" to the LTTE's secessionist war. I've seen too many civil conflicts in which there is no conclusive end, so I'll hang fire on signing on to any of those predictions. CPJ's advocacy has kept a very clear distance from taking sides in that war.

When asked about the lack of access, I told the Lantos Commission yesterday that I still have a question hanging in my head from a meeting with some Sri Lankan students in Ottawa in March. They had made the trip from Toronto to interview me about media issues. One questioned why there is so little international coverage of the fighting in Sri Lanka. "Why," she asked, "aren't Anderson Cooper and the rest of them standing as close as they can get to the war, just like they did when journalists weren't allowed to enter Gaza?"

I didn't have a good answer for her then, and to tell you the truth, I still don't have a good answer. The two sides are indeed keeping the press out of the conflict zone, but news media worldwide could do more to report what they can and to highlight the restrictions. This is a major human catastrophe taking place in the heart of the Indian Ocean, and it is going virtually unreported save for official statements from both sides to the conflict. That's a sure recipe for misinformation.

My prepared testimony for yesterday's hearing is below. In my actual presentation, I rearranged the comments to focus on the issue of access.

 

Testimony by Robert Dietz

Asia Program Coordinator

Committee to Protect Journalists

Before the

Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

House of Representatives

Washington, D.C.

April 21, 2009

I wish to thank the chairman, Representative James McGovern, and other members of the commission for giving the Committee to Protect Journalists the opportunity to testify here today. CPJ is a nongovernmental organization based in New York. It was founded in 1981 by U.S. journalists who were concerned about the safety of their colleagues overseas. Funded by individuals, private corporations, and foundations, the Committee to Protect Journalists accepts no government funds as it works to defend press freedom and journalists worldwide.

My comments are based on CPJ's research, including my 10-day reporting trip to Colombo, Sri Lanka, from January 21 to February 1, 2009. I have also submitted a longer version of my presentation to the committee. The report, "Sri Lanka: Failure to Investigate," is available on cpj.org. We have updated the February report with blog entries on March 18 and April 3. CPJ also met with Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya and staff members on March 5.

I will make some strong accusations against the Sri Lankan government today. Time constraints keep me from giving the supporting evidence, but the report and follow-up blog entries will more fully explain the charges I will make. Also, I will cite several anonymous sources in my testimony, sources who fear for their safety.

I went to Colombo because Sri Lankan journalists came under intensive assault in January. As we feared at that time, the government has failed to carry out effective and credible investigations into the killings and attacks on journalists who question its conduct of a war against Tamils separatists, or criticize the military establishment. The three attacks in January targeting the mainstream media drew the world's attention to the problem, but top journalists have been killed, attacked, threatened, and harassed since the government began to pursue an all-out military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in late 2006. Many local and foreign journalists and members of the diplomatic community believe the government is complicit in the attacks.

The aim of my trip was to investigate January's three attacks:

  • On January 6, the main control room of Sirasa TV, Sri Lanka's largest independent broadcaster, was destroyed when an explosive device, most likely a claymore mine, was detonated at 2:35 a.m. during a raid by 15 to 20 men. To date there have been no arrests in the case and the promised investigation has not moved forward.
  • On January 8, Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper The Sunday Leader was killed while driving to work. He was attacked by eight men riding four motorcycles. The attack came about 200 yards from a large Sri Lanka Air Force base, and after the attack the hooded men rode off in that direction. Although the report from the judicial medical officer--Sri Lanka's equivalent of a coroner--was to be released on February 6, it has not been made public. Police have yet to charge anyone with Wickramatunga's killing, although they were asked to submit the full investigation report into the murder to the Mt. Lavinia court by April 16. According to his widow, Sonali Sonali Samarasinghe Wickramatunga, "the media does not even report on the case anymore. It's      as if Lasantha is being obliterated and stamped out of memory."
  • On January 23, Upali Tennakoon, an editor at the Sinhalese newspaper Rivira, and his wife, were attacked in a manner similar to the attack on Wickramatunga. In this case there were four men on motorcycles. The couple left Sri Lanka soon after Tennakoon was released from the hospital. As in the Sirasa bombing case, to date there have been no arrests in the case, and the investigation has ground to a halt. Tennakoon and his wife have left the country in fear of their safety.

While many consider the government the prime suspect in the attacks, officials have vehemently denied any responsibility.

The U.S. Embassy and many other diplomatic missions have been leaning on the government about the treatment of journalists, but the effect is hard to measure. There have been no more hit motorcycle-mounted hit squads attacking journalists in their cars, and no other bomb attacks on broadcasters, so maybe the message has been heard. But the government hasn't backed off from its anti-media strategy.

  • Nadesapillai Vidyatharan, editor of the Tamil daily Sudar Oli, was grabbed at a friend's funeral in a Colombo suburb on February 26. Since then, in an effort to charge the editor under antiterrorism laws, police have been scouring phone records to try to establish a tie between Vidyatharan and the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamal Eelam. Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapkasa has already linked Vidyatharan to a February 20 suicide air attack on Colombo in which two LTTE planes were shot down, the two pilots were killed, and more than 45 people were injured. When Vidyatharan's case last came up in a Colombo court in March, the magistrate gave police permission to hold the editor without charge as they continue to trace his calls.
  • Another case, this one involving editor and columnist J. S.Tissainayagam, has been dragging on for a year. Tissa, as he is known, was detained without charge on March 7, 2008, and held without explanation for more than three months. In August, he was formally indicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency Regulations. When he was detained, he was the editor of a news Web site called OutreachSL. But he is being held for articles he wrote in the North Eastern Monthly in 2006 and 2007--two years before he was grabbed. Tissa's case was the first instance in which Sri Lanka used      this law against a journalist explicitly for published work. Trial dates and the appearance schedules of witnesses have changed frequently, possibly at the hands of the judge hearing the case, but it's difficult to tell who is causing the delays.

The charges against Vidyatharan and Tissainayagam mark an important change in tactics. It's a familiar pattern, one we've seen in many authoritarian countries. When the government doesn't have a viable case against a critical journalist, prosecutors turn to state security laws to keep them in detention.

The lack of reliable investigation into these crimes is in keeping with a long history of impunity for those who attack journalists in Sri Lanka. CPJ counts 10 journalists killed by premeditated murder since 1999, with no prosecutions or convictions. The Rajapaksa government and its predecessors must at least be held responsible for the impunity that surrounds attacks on journalists.

Most of the killings came while Rajapaksa served as prime minister from April 2004, through the time he started his six-year term as president in November 2005, until now. According to CPJ's records, during his time in high office in Sri Lanka, eight journalists have died in what CPJ considers to be premeditated murders. No one has been brought to trial in any of these cases. The number of dead does not include journalists killed in crossfire or other acts of war. The people we are talking about were intentionally killed.

I have spoken at length about the attacks on Sri Lankan journalists, but I must address one other issue: No foreign or Sri Lankan reporters have recently been allowed to travel independently to the frontlines of the conflict with the LTTE. Charges of misconduct against both sides have gone uninvestigated by independent journalists. They have had to depend on secondhand information from both sides of the conflict and from the few aid groups that are still able to operate in and around the combat zone. CPJ calls on both sides to allow all journalists to personally assess the risks involved and to travel and report freely from the frontlines of this war, which has taken so many lives.

As I said at the beginning of my address, the full version of my report is available online, but let me close quickly with some of the recommendations at its conclusion:

To the international community:

  • Engage with the Sri Lankan government, particularly the president's office, to address what has become a protracted assault on journalists and media houses.
  • Insist that the government rein in its security forces, which are believed to be behind not only the spate of attacks in January of this year, but the assaults on journalists critical of the government that increased in late 2006.
  • Point out that Sri Lanka's international image has been tarnished, and insist that attacks must be fully investigated by police and the judiciary, unhindered by government pressure. No matter what viewpoint the government holds in its attempts to end the fighting with the LTTE, members of Sri Lanka's civil society who dare to criticize the government must not be treated as the enemy.

To the government of Sri Lanka:

  • Provide adequate protection and security for any journalist who is threatened.
  • Ensure that those journalists who have fled in fear of their lives or liberty can return home to Sri Lanka in safety.
  • Ensure an independent, thorough, and timely investigation of all attacks on journalists.
  • Release the full autopsy report on Lasantha Wickramatunga.

To the U.S. government:

  • The U.S. Embassy in Colombo is deeply concerned about these attacks on journalists and has often acted in their interest. CPJ calls on the State Department to work with the embassy to consider ways to offer temporary refuge to Sri Lankan journalists who decide to flee their country fearing for their safety, and to encourage other countries to do the same. None of these men and women want to abandon their homeland, their families, and their careers, but they deserve some sort of temporary refuge and support.

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