March 21, 2008
His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa
President of Sri Lanka and Minister of Defense, Public Security, Law, and Order
Via facsimile: +94 11 2430 590
Dear President Rajapaksa,
The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by ongoing intimidation of Sri Lanka's media. Recent events in the state-run Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation in Colombo and the treatment of Tamil journalists under investigation by the Terrorist Investigation Division both reveal how press workers face increasing threat of restriction under your government.
Rupavahini employees reported a spate of attacks that began after many were involved in a much-publicized on-air dispute in December 2007 with Labor Minister Mervyn Silva. The minister sparked a disturbance when he arrived at the station with a group of men to complain that the station hadn't covered one of his speeches. Five staff members reported being stabbed, beaten, or slashed with razor blades by unidentified men, according to The Associated Press. Rupavahini union members planned a strike on Monday to call attention to their fear that they were being targeted. To pre-empt the action, station executives enforced a holiday and broadcast prerecorded shows on a skeleton staff.
Your spokesman, Chandrapala Liyanage, told the AP that you offered protection and an investigation into these hostile acts when you and the labor minister, who denies responsibility for the violence, met with executives and union representatives to address their concerns on Monday. We urge you to fulfill your promise to investigate the unusual series of attacks on these state media workers.
In a move that was not discussed in this meeting, according to local press freedom advocates, retired Major General Sunil Silva was appointed yesterday to a leading administrative position at Rupavahini, which local journalists say was created for him. Local press also reported that Silva, who is not related to Mervyn Silva, was selected to the post by Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Silva's appointment will logically give Rupavahini journalists pause before reporting any news that might upset the Sri Lankan government.
Rupavahini employees wait anxiously to see if they are safe from further acts of aggression. But many are skeptical that police inquiries into the assaults will advance after your promised intervention, press freedom groups report. News director T.M.G. Chandrasekara moved to a different department after being manhandled in the December scuffle with Mervyn Silva's men, ending 10 "difficult and discouraging" years reporting for the state, he told CPJ. Of the attacks on his colleagues, he said, "Police didn't catch anyone; they didn't take any action."
We also ask that you extend investigations to the many other journalists who have recently faced harassment in Sri Lanka. In particular, several journalists, including many ethnic Tamils, have been implicated in cases by Sri Lanka's Terrorist Investigation Division (TID). Two recent cases concern us:
- On March 14, the family members of Tamil journalist Maunasámi Parameswaree were assaulted in their home in Gompala, Kandy district, by an unidentified group who accused them of supporting Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), according to Parameswaree's former editor Hana Ibrahim. Parameswaree has been labeled a terrorist in local press reports based on comments by government ministers. A former reporter for the weekly Mawbima, which was forced to close after carrying reports critical of government activities, Parameswaree was detained for four months without charge or trial under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Her release in March 2007 came shortly after she petitioned the Supreme Court to declare her detention illegal. "It's difficult for her even in Colombo," said Ibrahim, who last met with Parameswaree shortly before the attack on her family. "If you use the word terrorist often enough, people believe it."
- Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, who edits the Web site OutreachSL and writes a column for the Sri Lankan weekly The Sunday Times has been in the custody of TID forces for more than two weeks. N. Jasiharan, a printing press owner who manages the site, is also still in custody along with his wife. The three were detained last week with three colleagues, also affiliated with the Web site, who were released Wednesday without charge, according to the Free Media Movement. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case asserting that Tissainayagam's detention violates his fundamental rights, the Free Media Movement reported. Local journalists told CPJ that Tissainayagam, who sought to present Tamil viewpoints and culture in his reporting, was a known critical voice. On February 24, his column was headed "Child soldiers: What the govt. report did not report."
Unsupported terrorist accusations threaten the security and livelihood of Tamil journalists. A military leader in a state media group threatens the objectivity of journalists who are already struggling to independently confirm information about the combat between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam.
We ask that you vigorously investigate reported attacks on journalists and provide them with due protection. We also urge your government to clarify charges against our detained colleagues.