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On The Spot

   

The war is over but the war against the media is not


Lasantha — silenced for ever


Poddala Jayantha lying on a hospital
bed with his wife in a daze

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti and Nirmala Kannangara

If Sri Lanka post war was being lulled into a false sense of security that the island nation could now become the functional democracy it deserves to be, the brutal attack on well-known journalist Poddala Jayantha last week served as an eye opener that while the war against the LTTE is over, the war against the media is certainly not.

The attack on Jayantha, a journalist of repute had drawn worldwide condemnation that Sri Lanka is showing no signs of curbing attacks on the media. The innate fear among journalists is amply demonstrated by the fact that over 20 top journalists have fled Sri Lanka since January 2009 in addition to media activists and some heads of media organisations. Most of them prefer to consider silence is not only golden but also life saving. Hence, when asked for reasons for fleeing, they offer no comment. (Read box)

It was well known that Poddala Jayantha as the vocal General Secretary, Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA) has earned the wrath of the administration. While on his way back home, he stopped at a boutique at 5.40 p.m to purchase three vegetable rotties for his child. As he walked passed a parked white van, he was dragged inside and mercilessly assaulted for over 45 minutes.

Brutal attack

Today, Jayantha is confined to a hospital bed nursing a broken left leg and an injured right leg. After two operations being performed on a fractured leg, fingers crushed for wielding a pen, Jayantha’s spirit remains unbroken.

Jayantha categorically states that the state controlled ITN showed visuals of him on its segment called "After News" repeating an accusation by the IGP that some journalists were paid by terrorists to advocate media freedom. On May 22, a state run Sinhala daily called for the stoning and expelling of so called ‘professional journalists who grow beards.’

Jayantha who is known for his beard told The Sunday Leader: "The reference was clear. The stage was set for this attack."

Importantly, Jayantha from his hospital bed added that a transcription of the IGP’s hate speech was sent by speed post to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse to impress upon the fact that his life was indeed in danger. "I subsequently hand-delivered a copy to Minister Dulles Alahapperuma after which the President summoned heads of media organisations for a discussion. Ironically, I came under attack while the discussion was going on," he said.

A dramatic turn

Jayantha’s abduction and assault took a further dramatic turn thereafter. Lanka-e-News Editor Sandaruwan Senadheera and News Editor Bennet Rupasinghe in public spiritedness informed the IGP about Jayantha’s incident when they learned about the attack and next informed his wife. Following this both were grilled by the CID and later remanded. They were released on personal bail of Rs. 300,000 each by the Gangodawila Magistrate who rejected a police appeal to remand them until June 10.

Referring to the arrests, Poddala Jayantha accused the police of attempting to misdirect the investigation into his own abduction and assault and to implicate fellow journalists who did their duty by informing authorities of a criminal act.

In this oppressive backdrop, the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) have ranked Sri Lanka among the most unsafe places for journalists to live, a fact supported by the statistics of journalists who have fled fearing for safety.

While Human Rights Watch has openly called for an end to a post war media witch-hunt in Sri Lanka, the IFJ together with 28 other media associations have urged the government to end the war against the media. But repeated calls to allow the media to function normally have fallen on deaf ears.

Unabated crimes

The unabated crimes that continue here by no means could be justified in the name of patriotism. The final phase of the war saw the media turning servile and made to turn servile (it had experienced such violence that it had little choice) and today, the media’s role as watchdog has been severely compromised.

Let’s not also forget that to reach this level of an unquestioning and agreeable media, the dissenters have been put through a lot including closure, application of economic pressure, harassment, physical attacks and death.

A media institution head living in exile notes that it is tragic for the Sri Lankan media, ‘so vibrant and diverse in the past, to be reduced to this — a great disservice to the public.’

He adds that "Even if these series of attacks on the free press have nothing whatsoever to do with the government in power, the administration has blown its credibility by refusing to make any headway with regard to any of the attacks against journalists in the recent past."

Escalation of attacks

Since January 2009, Sri Lanka experienced an escalation in the multiple attacks against the media, the origins of these attacks being different.

Followed by the January 6 arson attack on the MTV/MBC Networks, a heinous crime was committed by a competent armed gang when The Sunday Leader Editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed in Attidiya in broad daylight, just two days after the MTV attack. When Upali Tennakoon, Editor of pro-government Rivira was knifed with his wife by his side, dozens of journalists began to fill their departure forms.

In April, Editor of the Batticaloa based weekend newspaper Vaara Ureikal, M.I. Rahmahetulla was attacked by an armed gang carrying guns, long knifes and swords causing him serious injuries, the second attack on him.

To prod the readers’ memory of the treatment meted out to media personnel, we include a few highlights that tell a terrible tale of intimidation, suppression and physical risk.

Intimidation and suppression

A well known media activist and General Secretary, Federation of Media Employees’ Trade Union (FMETU), Dharmasiri Lankapeli had the Special Intelligence Service personnel visiting his neighbourhood in February to make inquiries about the activist. Last year, Poddala Jayantha himself had his house ‘mistakenly’ visited by the police.

On March 5, Mt. Lavinia Police arrested the manager of a bookstore in Wellawatte, one Sritharasingham, at his residence. Police told newspapers that he was arrested for distributing Tamil magazines published in South India and supportive of the LTTE.

Abduction and subsequent release

Another senior journalist, Sudaroli Editor N. Vidyatharan was unceremoniously hauled into a white van on February 26 and kept in TID custody over alleged links with the LTTE, only to release him in May after dropping all charges.

On March 11, the sensational abduction and subsequent release of Prof. Dhammika Ganganath Dissanayake, a former Rupavihini Corporation chairman and a senior lecturer at the Sri Jayewardenapura University demonstrated the fact that Sri Lanka was indeed on a precipice where media freedom was concerned. His alleged crime was a book he was allegedly writing that was critical of the present regime.

In March, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse in an interview with Australia’s SBS TV named Sudaroli Editor N. Vithyatharan as a traitor despite police investigations ongoing at the time. This is an honour the Defence Secretary bestowed upon MTV Channel Head, Chevaan Daniel too in the aftermath of the arson attack on the channel, by labeling him a "terrorist."

The state run Dinamina has regularly carried blistering attacks on several journalists including Secretary, Free Media Movement, Sunil Jayasekera. Jayasekera earned the government mouthpiece’s vitriolic attack following his speech made at the launching of the Platform for Freedom on March 19 on ‘Sri Lankan media going through its bitterest moments in history.’

White-collar terrorists’

Around the same time, a JHU backed nationalist website made an e-attack on Vikalpa, an initiative by the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) as a white-collar terrorists’ collective. In April, Defence Spokesperson, Keheliya Rambukwella branded a media NGO, Panos Sri Lanka as a pro LTTE institution and claimed the government possessed a list of journalists who were paid to do LTTE propaganda.

Army Commander, Gen. Sarath Fonseka too in a television interview in May pledged action against journalists whose reporting ‘benefited the LTTE,’ saying that they would be prevented from leaving the country and be prosecuted for treason.

On a similar note, Inspector General of Police Jayantha Wickremaratne too has accused unnamed Sinhalese media-freedom activists of being paid by the LTTE to generate false reporting intended to implicate the army in war crimes.

And now with the LTTE Spokesperson Daya Master in state custody, it is now claimed that a list of 50 journalists who were on the LTTE payroll would soon be released.

If the events chronicled here are an indicator, they certainly do not inspire confidence in the minds of journalists to stay on and continue with their vocation. While the Chief Executive makes public calls for the return of immigrants to play a role in nation building, the words should be matched by state action.

As journalists are brutally gunned down, assaulted and others slandered and labeled as LTTE agents, it is as if journalists have been classified under the newly defined ‘unpatriotic’ category.

The war was the excuse for all the human liberties suppressed and violated. But post war, surely the culture of impunity must give way to an inclusive and democratic culture.

CPA threatened again

As the country prepared for a victory celebration on June 3, some group had a different kind of celebration planned. The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) on June 2 received a letter in the Sinhala language via post that stated: "Notice to the traitors" (Deshadrohiyas) An approximate English translation reads as follows:

The wretched war that lasted throughout 30 years has now come to an end. Bloodthirsty wicked terrorists were finished from this country. That happened in such a way that even their carcass’ didn’t mix with the Sri Lankan (Lak Polawa) soil. That is through the dedication of the present government, fearless military commanders and heroic warriors born in our motherland. And also, through the sacrifice of their bones, flesh and streams of blood. Furthermore, this was achieved by defeating the activities of the wretched traitors like you who commit evil things against Mother Lanka.

Even though terrorism is now over we have been observing the behaviour of people like you who were dependent on them and who appeared for them. We know that you have got furious of this marvellous victory of our motherland. And also we know about the conspiracies you engage in, even at the moment, in alliance with the international. When the entire country was enjoying the bliss of liberating the motherland you did not even hoist the national flag.

Now you (Thopa) also must get together to bestow honour on the warriors.

Parallel to "Ranaviru Upahara" (Honouring the Warriors) celebration you must;

• Throughout that week you should close down all the sections of your institute that have become a bane to the entire country, and should display the national flag and also display a banner bestowing your appreciation on the warriors (Ranaviru).

• You should donate Rs. 1,000,000 (one million) to the "Api Wenuven Api" account as a mark of respect for the warriors who sacrificed their lives for the motherland and who were rendered disabled due to your treacherous conduct.

• Furthermore, you should certainly stop all the programmes conducted by your institute which are detrimental to the sovereignty, unitary nature, and dignity of this country.

• Must stop abetting terrorism and separatism. We are carefully watching your course of action in the future as well. Let us destroy the conspirators. Let us march forward fearlessly. Let us protect Mother Lanka.

— Sri Lankans Affectionate Towards The Motherland 


Comments in brief

Government should ensure safety of journalists – Chairman, SLPI

Chairman, Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), Kumar Nadesan when queried as to what action the SLPI would take to prevent future attacks on journalists, told The Sunday Leader that prompt actions should be taken to ensure the safety of journalists.

"Not only the lives of our journalists are in danger but the investigation processes into the deaths and intimidations against the journalists remain inconclusive. The officials responsible should take immediate action to ensure the safety of journalists," Nadesan said. He further said that the SLPI would take up the issue with President Mahinda Rajapakse at the earliest. 

Investigations are underway — Police Spokesperson

Police Spokesperson SSP Ranjith Gunasekera told The Sunday Leader that the investigation process into the attack on journalist Poddala Jayantha has so far failed to make a breakthrough.

"We have successfully carried out investigations into the intimidation and killing of journalists. Similarly, we are also capable of apprehending the culprits behind this attack," SSP Gunasekera said.

Special investigations are on — Mirihana Police

Mirihana Police sources told The Sunday Leader they were investigating the attack on Poddala Jayantha based on the telephone calls received by alleged suspects, Sandaruwan Senadheera and Bennet Rupasinghe.

"There is a doubt with regard to the informants. They did not disclose as to who informed them about Jayantha. If there were nothing to hide, they would have given the names and the telephone numbers of the informants to the police," a Mirihana Police source said.

Humanitarian operations replaced by inhuman operations – Sandaruwan Senadheera

Lanka E News Editor Sandaruwan Senadheera who was taken into custody in connection with Poddala Jayantha’s abduction told The Sunday Leader that the humanitarian operations have now been replaced by inhuman operations.

"It is the IGP who publicly requested the citizens to share information regarding any crime. Bennet Rupasinghe and I called the IGP immediately after we received the news of Poddala Jayantha’s abduction because that’s the duty of a citizen. We never expected the police to take us into custody for doing the right thing. Hereafter, people will keep quiet when crimes are committed before their very eyes," he warned, stating that the police were setting a terrible example.  

Police helpless – Bennet Rupasinghe

Treated as a suspect for informing the police of Poddala Jayantha’s abduction, Lanka E News, News Editor Bennet Rupasinghe sympathises with the police claiming they were acting on the instructions of ‘unseen persons.’

"I know for certain the police officers were helpless but had to act on orders from above. This is pathetic and if this trend continues, naturally people will leave the shores, he said.

"We are living in a country where the informants are arrested. Citizens will not co-operate with the authorities hereafter," said Rupasinghe.  

Bring the culprits to book — Editors’ Guild

While condemning the attack on journalist Poddala Jayantha, The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka has claimed that such cowardly acts could undermine the recent achievements of the security forces.

A press release issued by the Editors’ Guild states: "If things happen in a similar manner, it would definitely have a negative impact on the recent achievements by the security forces. Subsequent to the death of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge and the attack on Rivira Editor Upali Tennakoon, it was President Rajapakse that gave the assurance to journalists that such incidents would not recur."

Journalists in exile

While journalists are slain, assaulted and others threatened, Sri Lankan journalists do not possess many choices. Over 20 top Sri Lankan journalists have fled the island, while some have secured asylum with many still hoping to return home someday.

These journalists are practitioners of repute who enjoyed their work. Their work may have been controversial, dissenting, thought provoking and qualifying for the government’s ire. But that’s considered an occupational hazard.

The mass immigration of journalists commenced with:

Nation Deputy Editor, Keith Noyahr:

He migrated to Australia with his family after being mercilessly assaulted on May 22, 2008.

Namal Perera:

The whereabouts of former SLPI employee and onetime TNL News Editor, Namal Perera is unknown.

Anuruddha
Lokuhapuarrachchi:

Veteran photographer, Anuruddha Lokuhapuarrachchi has just obtained his work permit in Britain. He fled early this year along with his family and recalls being threatened many times over.

"I took photographs of the BIA attack and the images were used in a Sinhala daily by a defence columnist who questioned as to how a photojournalist could take such images and posed the query whether I should not be questioned for the same."

Lokuhapuarrachchi was one of the few who offered to comment on his reasons for fleeing and claimed as threats increased, his wife suffered a stroke and was partially paralysed.

"I realised it was too much for them. After Lasantha’s assassination, I realised this country wouldn’t have any more dissent left. I took the painful decision to leave my home, though I truly wish I did not have to take this option. If not for my children, I would still go through the same hell but work in Sri Lanka," he said in a telephone interview.

Sanath Balasuriya:

President, Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA), Sanath Balasuriya speaking from an undisclosed location said he was reluctantly compelled to leave when he was finally convinced that he was on the hit list.

"The vituperative two pronged attacks — a combination of verbal and physical — commenced with the infamous SLRC incident involving Minister Mervyn Silva and his group of drug dealing thugs. After my speech there, demanding the minister of ill fame must apologise to SLRC journalists, threats doubled."

Balasuriya recalls lodging police complaints regarding threats received, only to have them not investigated into. "After the Sirasa attack and Lasantha’s murder, it finally dawned on me, even to write or to fight we must first live. So we lead lives of fugitives, going from place to place with little or no work for the sin of having articulated the voice of all journalists," he said.

Sonali Samarasinghe:

Since January, many journalists including Lasantha Wickrematunge’s wife and The Morning Leader Editor, Sonali Samarasinghe left the country following threats.

Sunanda Deshapriya:

Former FMM Convenor Sunanda Deshapriya is in self-exile.

Uvindu
Kurukulasuriya:

As is his successor Uvindu Kurukulasuriya.

Athula Vithanage:

In self-exile.

Manjula Wediwardena:

In self-exile.

 

Gemunu Amarasinghe:

In self-exile.

 

Sunethra Athugalpura and Sashi Kumar:

Lakbima journalist Sunethra Athugalpura and spouse, MTV journalist Sashi Kumar relocated to Europe after their house was ransacked in 2008. Mawbima’s Manusamy Parameshwary has been living in different countries since her ordeal.

Iqbal Athas:

Hounded repeatedly for his popular defence column, "The Situation Report" in The Sunday Times, branded a terrorist and a spy by the government on its Ministry of Defence website, Iqbal Athas has not written a word in months.

Upali Tennakoon:

Following the January attack on Lasantha Wickrematunge, Rivira Editor Upali Tennakoon too has relocated with his family. The Tennakoons now live in the Unites States.

As one journalist living in exile queried, "does the invitation for Sri Lankans working aboard to return includes journalists?" If the statistics are a pointer to anything, it does not appear so.


 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 


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