Those Who Killed Media Freedom Still At Large
by Ashanthi Warunasuriya
We have been talking about media freedom for a long time now. Many a time, those in power had tried to intimidate journalists through abducting them, and by killing them. Some journalists escaped from this merciless treatment, fled the country seeking refuge overseas leaving their loved ones in Sri Lanka. They sacrificed their whole lives for the fight against injustice.
Freedom of the press in Sri Lanka is guaranteed by the Article 14(1) (a) of the Constitution, which gives every citizen “freedom of speech and expression and publication”. Despite this constitutional assurance, widespread suppression of media, particularly of those who are critical of the government is quite evident in the country. Of the 180 countries listed in the 2014 Press Freedom Index issued from the Reporters Without Borders, Sri Lanka is at 165th position.
According to Freedom House, during the civil war in the island, Sri Lankan journalists had no freedom at all to expose the true situation of the country let alone expressing their opinions. They had also reported at that time that Sri Lanka was one of the most dangerous destinations for a journalist to function. During this period, many journalists were killed, assaulted and made to disappear. Between 1999 and 2011, 25 journalists had been killed in the island. No accurate reports are available regarding murders, assaults and other forms of intimidation against the media during the war period in Sri Lanka. However some of them are as follows:
Thevis Guruge, the Chairman of the State-owned Independent Television Network (ITN), was killed on July 23, 1989. Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was blamed for the murder.
Premakeerthi de Alwis, a broadcaster for the State-owned Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, had been dragged from his house in Homagama and killed on the night of July 31, 1989. His murder was also blamed on the JVP. On the morning of February 18, 1990, Richard de Zoysa, a Journalist for the Inter Press Service, had been abducted by armed men from his home in Welikadawatte, Colombo. He was found dead the next morning on the Koralawella beach in Moratuwa – shot in the head and throat, his jaw, broken. De Zoysa is believed to have been murdered by death squads set up to kill JVP members and their supporters.
Rohana Kumara, Editor of the Satana newspaper, was shot dead in Pangiriwatte, Colombo on September 7, 1999. The newspaper had been critical of the government exposing personal and political scandals. Kumara had been harassed by successive governments. It was alleged that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga ‘shielded’ Kumara’s murderers.
Atputharajah Nadarajah, Editor of the Thinamurasu newspaper and EPDP Member of Parliament, was shot dead in Colombo on November 2, 1999. Thinamurasu is a newspaper published by the EPDP, a government backed paramilitary group. Nadarajah had been criticising the EPDP in the newspaper supporting Tamil militants.
Both Indika Pathinivasan, a camera assistant for the Maharaja Television Network, and Anura Priyantha, a camera assistant for the ITN, both were killed by a suicide bomber at an election rally in Colombo on December 18, 1999.The bomb was reportedly aimed at former President Chandrika Kumaratunga by the LTTE.
Vasthian Anthony Mariyadas, a freelance radio reporter for the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, was shot dead outside St. Anthony’s Church, Vavuniya on December 31, 1999. Vavuniya was inside the government controlled territory at that time.
Mylvaganam Nimalrajan, a Journalist for the Virakesari newspaper, was shot dead at his home in Jaffna on October 19, 2000. Nimalrajan was one of the first journalists to write about the Chemmani mass graves. He had exposed vote-rigging and intimidation by the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), a government backed paramilitary group, during the 2000 parliamentary election. Several EPDP members were arrested but no one had been brought to justice for Nimalrajan’s murder, reportedly, because of interference by the then government and the security forces.
Aiyathurai Nadesan, a Journalist for the Virakesari newspaper, was shot dead in Batticaloa on May 31, 2004. Nadesan had written several articles criticising the government and paramilitary groups. The Karuna faction, a government backed paramilitary group, was blamed for Nadesan’s murder.
BalanadarajahIyer (aka Sinna Bala), a member of the editorial board of the Thinamurasu newspaper, was shot dead in Wellawatte, Colombo on August 16, 2004. Thinamurasu newspaper is published by the EPDP, a government backed paramilitary group. The newspaper and its journalists were attacked by the LTTE on several occasions. Iyer had criticised the LTTE’s human rights abuses and had been threatened by the LTTE prior to his assassination. The EPDP and others had blamed the LTTE for Iyer’s murder.
Lanka Jayasundara, a photographer for Wijeya Publications, was killed in a grenade attack at a music concert in Colombo on December 11, 2004. The Temptation 2004 concert was criticised by Sinhala Buddhist extremists. They claimed it was held on the first death anniversary of the Buddhist monk, Most Ven. Gangodawila Soma thero. The Sinhala Buddhist extremists, including members of the ultra-nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya, launched a violent protest against the concert.
On April 28, 2005, Taraki Sivaram, an Editor for the TamilNet news website, was abducted in front of a restaurant close to the Bambalapitiya police station by four men arrived in a white van. He was found dead the next morning in Himbulala inside a High Security Zone near parliament – he had been severely beaten and shot. Sivaram was a Tamil nationalist and critic of Sri Lankan security forces and para militaries. He had also been critical of Colonel Karuna Amman’s split from the LTTE. In 2000, an unknown organisation had issued threats against Sivaram and other journalists, claiming that they were traitors and spies. He had been branded as a “terrorist journalist” by the ultra-nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya. Sivaram’s house had been raided by the police several times and pro-government media had accused him of being a spy for the LTTE. Sivaram had feared for his life, saying “My life is in serious danger.”
According to journalist D. B. S. Jeyaraj, Colonel Karuna may have personally murdered Sivaram. Arumugam Sri Skandharaja (aka Peter), member of People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), a government backed paramilitary group, was arrested, but the case against him was dropped. The case against Sri Skandharaja had commenced but later was postponed.
Relangi Selvarajah, a freelance journalist working for the State-owned Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, and her husband Sinnadurai were shot dead in Bambalapitiya, Colombo on August 12, 2005. Relangi had hosted and produced programmes critical of the rebel LTTE at the behest of the EPDP, a government backed paramilitary group. She had been criticised by the LTTE several times for producing anti-LTTE programmes. Her husband was thought to have had links with PLOTE, another government backed paramilitary group. The LTTE was blamed for Relangi’s murder.
Subramaniyam Sugirdharajan (Sugitharajah), a journalist for the Sudar Oli newspaper, was shot dead in Trincomalee near governor’s secretariat on January 24, 2006. Sugirdharajan had provided photographic evidence to the media of the murder of five students by Sri Lankan security forces. The day before his death, Sugirdharajan had written an article in the Sudar Oli exposing abuses committed by the EPDP, a government backed paramilitary group, in the Trincomalee area.
Suresh Kumar (B. G. Sahayathasan) and Ranjith Kumar, two employees of the Uthayan newspaper, were killed on May 2, 2006. Armed men had come into the newspaper’s office and opened fire indiscriminately. The attack followed the newspaper publishing a cartoon ridiculing Douglas Devananda, the leader of the EPDP, a government backed paramilitary group. On the night of July 1, 2006, Sampath Lakmal de Silva, a freelance journalist working for Sathdina, received a telephone call at his parents’ home in Boralesgamuwa, Colombo from a “Kumara,” (believed to be Army Corporals Warnakumara and Wijeyakumara). Upon leaving home, Sampath was abducted and the next day he was found dead in Dehiwala – he had been shot three times on the head and once in the chest. De Silva had written several articles critical of all sides, including corruption in the military intelligence unit and financial irregularities and internal disputes of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and Jathika Hela Urumaya. De Silva was also believed to have had in his possession information linking police officers to several murders in Colombo and Avissawella. According to Srilal Priyantha, the Deputy Editor of Sathdina, de Silva had been abducted and tortured by army personnel in October 2005 after he had written an article about financial corruption of the military intelligence unit. Several people, including military personnel, had been questioned about de Silva’s murder but no action had been taken against them.
S. Sivamaharajah, publisher of the Namathu Eelanadu newspaper, was shot dead at his house in Tellippalai on August 20, 2006.
Namathu Eelanadu was considered pro-LTTEer and Sivamaharajah was a member of the Tamil National Alliance, a political alliance with links to the LTTE. Sivamaharajah’s house was inside the Valikamam North High Security Zone being controlled by the Sri Lankan military at the time and there was a regional curfew imposed at the time of the murder. Chandrabose Suthaharan (Subash Chandrabosw), editor of the Nilam magazine, was shot dead at his home in Thirunavatkulam near Vavuniya on April 16, 2007. His home was inside a government controlled territory and his murderers reportedly had spoken both Tamil and Sinhala.
Selvarajah Rajivarnam, a journalist for the Uthayan newspaper, was shot dead in Jaffna close to a military checkpoint on April 29, 2007. The EPDP, a government backed paramilitary group, was blamed for Rajivarnam’s murder. Sahadevan Nilakshan (Sahathevan Delukshan), editor of the student-run Chaalaram magazine, was shot dead outside his house in Kokkuvil on August 1, 2007. The murder occurred inside an area controlled by the Sri Lankan military and there was a curfew at the time of the murder.
Isaivizhi Chempiyan (Subajini), a broadcaster for the Voice of Tigers radio station, and technicians Suresh Linbiyo, and T. Tharmalingam were killed amidst dozens of bomb blasts; the Lanka Air Force dropped those bombs on the station in Thiruvaiaru near Killinochchi on November 27, 2007. The bomb blasts had rocked the area shortly before the station was to broadcast LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s annual policy address.
P. Devakumaran, a Journalist for News First, was hacked to death in Navanthurai near Jaffna on May 28, 2008. Devakumaran is believed to have been murdered by the LTTE after criticising the LTTE in his reports.
Rashmi Mohamed, a journalist for Sirasa TV, was killed by a suicide bomber at the opening of a new United National Party office in Anuradhapura on October 6, 2008. The bombing was aimed at Major General Janaka Perera and is believed to have been the work of the LTTE.
Lasantha Wickrematunge, founding editor of The Sunday Leader newspaper was shot dead on January 8, 2009 in Colombo. Three days prior to this assassination, an editorial appeared in The Sunday Leader written by Wickrematunge predicts his own murder, stating “it will be the government that kills me.” Wickrematunge and his newspaper had been highly critical of the government and he had been attacked twice before and once machinegun fire carried out by a gang had sprayed his house. A number of people including 17 Army personnel were arrested for Wickrematunge’s murder but later released. To date, no one has been brought to justice for Wickrematunge’s murder.
Puniyamoorthy Sathiyamoorthy, a freelance journalist with links to the LTTE, was killed by artillery barrage in Theavipuram near Mullaitivu on February 12, 2009.
When talking about disappearances, Prageeth Eknaligoda’s disappearance is in the forefront. The well-known political journalist and cartoonist went missing on the January 24, 2010, just two days before the presidential polls. His wife is still waiting for her husband’s return. Many civil society organisations have also raised concern about this incident. Even though investigations commenced under instructions of the Yahapalana government, the process is slowing down at present.
When it comes to assault, astonishingly, there were many. The brutal manner in which journalists such as Keith Noyar, Poddala Jayantha, and Upali Tennakoon were assaulted will never be forgotten. All these incidents now provide ample topics for discussions, but nothing was done to make things right. Against this backdrop, several civil society organisations provide their comments on these incidents and the manner the present government take action in order to bring culprits to book.
“This government has taken some progressive steps regarding carrying out investigation into the assassinations, assaults and disappearances of journalists such as Lasantha and Prageeth. Minister Rajitha keeps on saying they will bring culprits to book, and Namal Rajapaksa has challenged him saying that nothing has happened. Although the government must take decisions based on political views, it should stand by its policies and defend it against any challenge. We must urge the relevant authorities to be more active in this respect. This is similar to the commissions that were appointed during the Rajapaksa regime. Civil society must unite to break this stand. Furthermore, forces inside the government must be further strengthened.
“Even a presidential commission has been appointed to look in to these reported atrocities against journalists and to take necessary action. They too are carrying out their investigations. On the other hand, the CID has started separate investigations as well.
However, this can be described as one of the key accusations levelled against the previous government. Then government had been accused of orchestrating systematic attacks against journalists. Yet, the problem remains as to whether this government is genuine enough in their promises given to the people. As always, it seems as if nothing has been done apart from collecting names on a list after a street protest in this regard, said Editor of the Lankadeepa newspaper Siri Ranasinghe.
“Not even a journalist, but if anyone is murdered or abducted, proper investigations must be carried out to find the culprits. It is the normal procedure of the government to take steps to punish those who are involved in such activities. However, today the problem is the slow pace of these investigations. If the government is truly willing, then these investigations should be carried out very fast, and if the law is properly enforced there will be no problem,” he said.
The Professional Journalists Association (PJA) that has always raised its voice on behalf of journalists previously suggested that the President establishes a ‘truth commission’ regarding the matter. However, since nothing was done for a year, the organisation once again made the request along with a banner signed by various members of the public in support of the cause. The organisation is to remind the President on this matter once again. Many civil society organisations and trade unions have joined hands with the PJA on this matter.
Commenting on the undue delay in completing the investigations, the chairman of the PJA Lasantha Ruhunuge said:
“Investigations are going only into allegations against some well-known names. The terror that was upon media during the previous regime was unfathomable. There are some instances even a police complaint had not been recorded. We suggest that the government should not confine the investigations to several well-known names. We would request them to set up a commission to find the truth. It is only by punishing the culprits that the media freedom can truly be established. By letting them roam free, the journalists are prevented from coming forward to expose what is really happening in the country. Media freedom is not defined by making offerings such as laptops and bicycles. That is only going to make them look like dependants on government welfare. That is harmful to media freedom.”
Meanwhile, justifying the government’s position, Media Minister Gayantha Karunathilaka said investigations are being held, and pointed out that although there are many cases to be investigated the government has decided to quicken the pace of several well known cases. The Minister assured that there are no undue influences on these investigations. He further said the Yahapalana government is making sure that such atrocities are not repeated in future.” However, the Presidential Commission must also be held responsible for the lack of progress in these investigations. Its secretary Lacille De Silva commenting on the issue said:
“Anyone found guilty of threatening or bringing pressure on those giving evidence before the Commission will be punished. Already a few witnesses, who provided evidence before PRECIFAC, pointed out that they had been either threatened or pressured not to give evidence before the Commission and that they had already asked its officials to initiate investigations into these allegations. As we have to complete on-going cases which need lengthy interrogation, we need the government to extend our term by another year.”
The State officials have placed the blame on others, and some others are just talking about it. We hope that the culprits be brought to justice soon. The failure to do so will even lead to collapse of the government.