Chandrika’s mistrust of media manifest in censorship- CPJ

[TamilNet, Monday, 19 March 2001, 08:26 GMT]
The Committee for the Protection of Journalists, the New York based media watchdog, said Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's censorship policy “is just one manifestation of her basic mistrust for the media” and that she had introduced emergency regulations that included “some of the harshest censorship measures ever imposed in the country” in a statement ‘Attacks on journalists 2000’ issued Monday. CPJ said that in Sri Lanka, “Violent attacks against journalists were typically committed with impunity”. “Even when the government has paid nominal attention to pursuing justice, it has come up short”, notes the statement.

Following is the full text of the CPJ’s report on Sri Lanka:

"Sri Lanka’s lively and combative media faced numerous challenges from a hostile government, with the most intense battle waged over the president's tightening of censorship restrictions. Press coverage of the country's 17-year-old civil war remained thin, due to intermittent censorship and because the government refused to grant journalists regular access to the conflict areas in northern Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, violent attacks against journalists continued, and were typically committed with impunity. One journalist was killed in 2000 and another narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.

On May 3, after the Sri Lankan army suffered a critical setback in its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga introduced new emergency regulations that included some of the harshest censorship measures ever imposed in the country. Within weeks, the censor had shut down three newspapers and blacked out scores of articles and political cartoons.

Journalists in Sri Lanka vigorously challenged these actions in the Courts and in the pages of their newspapers. However, restrictions on local media continued even after the government lifted the prior censorship requirement for foreign media on June 5. In mid-June, CPJ sent a delegation to Colombo, including board member Peter Arnett, Asia program coordinator Kavita Menon, and Asia Program Consultant A. Lin Neumann, to push the government to lift censorship and ease access restrictions that prevented journalists from adequately covering the civil war.

Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera both met with CPJ, and both admitted independently that the government's censorship policy was counterproductive. Samaraweera pledged that the censorship would be lifted by the time parliamentary elections were called, and expressed some interest in developing a system to allow journalists access to the conflict areas.

In July, the government suspended prior censorship of the local media, but kept in place the emergency regulations governing content.

On August 18, the government announced that parliamentary elections would be held on October 10, but disappointingly made no further changes to the censorship policy. In September, it temporarily suspended the additional censorship regulations imposed over the year, but emphasized that reporting on the military remained subject to censorship provisions issued in 1998 and 1999.

Kumaratunga's censorship policy is just one manifestation of her basic mistrust for the media. The president started the year with a three-hour marathon interview on state television in which she launched a bitter, intensely personal diatribe at the private media. Kumaratunga accused several media outlets and individual journalists of attempting to sabotage her December 1999 re-election bid via biased reporting and corrupt practices, and threatened to crack down on her critics. Among those singled out for special condemnation were Victor Ivan, editor of the Sinhala-language tabloid Ravaya, and Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of the English-language paper The Sunday Leader.

On January 9, state media alleged, quoting police sources, that several unnamed businessmen were conspiring with the LTTE in a plot to assassinate the president. Both Ivan and Wickrematunga claimed that the reports targeted them and that the timing was suspicious, coming just days after thepresident had denounced them by name. "The government wants to stifle all dissent," Wickrematunga told journalists at a news conference. "This attempt to link us with the LTTE is a direct threat to our lives."

The government used this alarming tactic again in early June, when several state-owned media outlets ran a press release that accused four prominent journalists of "maintaining secret connections with the LTTE." They were P. Seevagan, who reports for the BBC's Tamil service and heads the Tamil Media Alliance; Roy Denish, defense correspondent for The Sunday Leader; Saman Wagaarachchi, editor of the Leader's Sinhala-language counterpart, Irida Peramuna; and D. Sivaram (alias "Taraki"), an outspoken free-lance columnist. The smear campaign provoked a spate of threats and "was very clearly designed and deliberately calculated to instigate extremist elements and contract killers against us and our families," the four journalists said in a June 6 statement.

On April 3, a bomb exploded at the home of Nellai Nadesan, a

Batticaloa-based columnist for Virakesari, the country's leading Tamil-language newspaper. Local sources blamed pro-government Tamil paramilitaries. Nadesan, who frequently covers militia activities, was not injured in the blast.

On the night of October 19, a group of unidentified gunmen shot and killed Mylvaganam Nimalarajan, a journalist based in the northern Jaffna peninsula who reported for various news organizations, including the BBC's Tamil- and Sinhala-language services. Nimalarajan was one of the few sources of independent news from Jaffna, a strife-torn area where journalists have rarely been allowed free access. CPJ sources suspected that Nimalarajan's reporting on vote-rigging and intimidation during the recent parliamentary elections in Jaffna led to his murder.

Even when the government has paid nominal attention to pursuing justice, it has come up short.

Iqbal Athas, defense columnist for the English-language weekly The Sunday Times, experienced repeated delays in the prosecution of two air force officers who were indicted on charges of unlawful entry, criminal trespass, and criminal intimidation. The charges stemmed from events on February 12, 1998, when five armed men forcibly entered Athas' home and threatened him, his wife, and his young daughter at gunpoint.

According to neighbors, the intruders were backed by some 25 armed men who waited outside the house. The intruders eventually left without inflicting serious injuries.

The government often cited the prosecution of Athas' case as evidence of its commitment to press freedom, but the Justice Department made no apparent effort to expedite the trial. At press time, the trial had been postponed until February 16, 2001-three years after the attack.

Criminal defamation laws were still used to punish journalists who criticized the government, and the president herself successfully sued the editors of the country's two most prominent English-language dailies.

Sri Lankan judges skirt the international criticism that would certainly result from imprisoning journalists by issuing suspended jail sentences. On September 5, the High Court sentenced Leader editor Wickrematunga to a two-year jail term for criminally defaming the president. The sentence was suspended for five years. And on December 5, the Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal by Sinha Ratnatunga, editor of The Sunday Times, who in 1997 was sentenced to 18 months in prison for criminal defamation. Ratnatunga's sentence was suspended for seven years."

 

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