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