CPJ criticizes tardy investigation of journalist's murder

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 26 March 2002, 22:36 GMT]
The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a report on 'Attacks on the Press 2001' released Tuesday that Sri Lanka Police ignored evidence suggesting that militias backed by a pro-government party may have murdered Nimalarajan in retaliation for his reporting on vote rigging and intimidation during the 2000 parliamentary elections in Jaffna.

Sri Lanka's Free Media Movement and sections of the press have accused the Eelam People's Democratic Party (the EPDP), a key ally of President Kumarartunga, of killing Nimalarajan. The CPJ said that Colombo "almost never prosecutes attacks against journalists, fostering a climate of impunity that heightens the dangers for all members of the press."

Following is the full text of the CPJ report released Tuesday.

"Sri Lanka's mettlesome media endured another year of extraordinary political volatility. Although the administration of President Chandrika Kumaratunga finally lifted onerous censorship regulations and eased restrictions preventing journalists from reporting fully on the country's long-running civil war, journalists were still routinely threatened and harassed for their reporting. Impunity for crimes against journalists continued to be the norm, contributing to a culture in which political violence occurs frequently because it goes unpunished.

On May 30, Kumaratunga ordered the Media Ministry to revoke a June 1998 order imposing censorship on the press. The administration had enforced the restrictions, which were tightened further in 2000, as part of an effort to curb reporting on politically sensitive issues, including the government's handling of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are fighting for an independent homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil minority. The civil war has dragged on for nearly 20 years, costing more than 60,000 lives and shattering Sri Lanka's economy.

Local journalists had hoped that lifting censorship regulations would be followed by a broader effort to grant reporters freer access to the conflict areas. Currently, journalists require permission from the defense ministry to travel to war zones in the north and east of the country, though their requests are seldom granted. The occasional media visits were typically limited to military guided tours.

A July announcement by the government's Special Media Information Center that access restrictions had been lifted on areas in the north and east was followed within weeks by a Defense Ministry clarification stating that areas held by the LTTE remained off-limits. Journalists did say they were able to obtain permits to visit government-controlled conflict areas more quickly and easily than in previous years and acknowledged government efforts to improve communication between the military and the media. However, an initiative sponsored by the Sri Lankan Editors' Guild to work with government officials to formulate a set of rational guidelines on war coverage foundered as the administration was consumed with various political crises.

Marie Colvin, a veteran war correspondent for London's Sunday Times newspaper was seriously wounded when Sri Lanka Army troops opened fire at her, while she attempted to cross the northern front lines.
In April, Marie Colvin, a veteran war correspondent for London's Sunday Times newspaper, did manage to cross the front lines and report from the LTTE-controlled Wanni region, only to be shot by Sri Lankan soldiers on her way out of rebel territory. Colvin was hit by shrapnel from a grenade fired by the Sri Lankan army, receiving wounds in her head, chest, and arms. Her left eye was permanently blinded by the attack. Though Colvin was traveling with a group of unarmed civilians, soldiers apparently mistook the group for LTTE members. Colvin shouted out that she was a journalist, but the soldiers fired anyway. Colvin was beaten, threatened, and interrogated by soldiers before being taken to a military hospital in a nearby army garrison town. The next day, the government Department of Information issued an ominous statement noting that Colvin had overstayed her visa and appeared to have "her own secret agenda with the LTTE." Sri Lanka's overseas missions were "asked to be cautious when recommending journalists for visas."

Though authorities decided not to press charges against Colvin, they did arrest six men for allegedly helping to arrange her visit to rebel territory. In early July, Kumaratunga allowed the country's harsh emergency laws to lapse rather than face certain defeat in parliament, where her ruling People's Alliance no longer held a majority of seats.

The emergency regulations were first imposed in March 1983 and required monthly approval by parliament in order to be extended. The regulations gave the executive branch broad authority to take whatever measures it deemed necessary to preserve law and order- including the authority to restrict the press.

However, the government immediately invoked the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to preserve the administration's sweeping powers, including the authority to detain anyone suspected of involvement with the LTTE for up to 18 months without charge. Activists from the Tamil Media Alliance protested that journalists could be detained under the PTA simply for "failing to provide information about the activities of terrorists."

Tamil journalists are already particularly vulnerable to official harassment. In March, A.S.M. Fasmi, a reporter for the Tamil-language newspaper Thinakkural who is based in the town of Mannar, was detained, interrogated, and threatened repeatedly with death after he reported on the alleged rape of two Tamil women while in the custody of local security forces.

In July, the acting army brigadier in Batticaloa summoned three Tamil journalists for interrogation and warned them that they could be charged under the PTA if they continued to criticize the government and Security forces in print.

On July 10, President Kumaratunga abruptly suspended parliament, in order to avoid a no-confidence motion scheduled for the following week, and called for a nationwide referendum on whether the constitution should be amended to allow greater regional autonomy, a key demand of the country's Tamil minority. Independent media fiercely criticized the move, which many considered anti-democratic. On July 22, after days of vocal protests led by the opposition United National Party (UNP), the chief elections commissioner invoked the long-dormant Referendum Act No. 7 of 1981 to threaten the press that publishing "false statements" regarding the referendum was illegal. The vaguely worded order encouraged self-censorship because it did not specify a punishment. Parliament reconvened on September 6. By October 11, Kumaratunga faced another round of crippling defections and a looming no-confidence vote.

Instead of holding a referendum, the president eventually decided to dissolve parliament altogether and call new elections, which were scheduled for December 5.

During the run-up to the parliamentary elections, Kumaratunga used state media to spread the accusation that one of the defecting lawmakers, S.B. Dissanayake, had suggested murdering two editors to silence criticism of the government. Dissanayake, who had been a senior minister in Kumaratunga's cabinet, responded that the president herself had been complicit in a series of attacks against journalists and opposition figures. Journalists said the exchange lent credence to their suspicions that the most high-level government officials had plotted attacks on the press.

Particularly during the election campaign, state media often fed dangerous passions by irresponsibly accusing Kumaratunga's political opponents of maintaining links with the Tamil Tigers. Earlier in the year, in June, state media outlets accused the veteran journalist and TamilNet Web site Editor Dharmeratnam Sivaram of being an LTTE spy, a charge that seriously endangered Sivaram and his family.

In Sri Lanka, where the civil war has exacerbated interethnic tensions and political violence is frequent, branding someone an LTTE spy can be tantamount to issuing a death warrant. The government almost never prosecutes attacks against journalists, fostering a climate of impunity that heightens the dangers for all members of the press.

Mylvaganam Nimalarajan, a Jaffna-based journalist was shot dead at his home.
Perhaps the most shocking example of this impunity was the government's failure to prosecute the October 2000 murder of Mylvaganam Nimalarajan, a Jaffna-based journalist who covered the civil war for various news organizations, including the BBC's Tamil and Sinhala-language services, the Tamil-language daily Virakesari, and the Sinhala-language weekly Ravaya.

Police ignored evidence suggesting that militias backed by a pro-government party may have murdered Nimalarajan in retaliation for his reporting on vote rigging and intimidation during the 2000 parliamentary elections in Jaffna.

CPJ's repeated queries to government officials requesting information about the status of the investigation into Nimalarajan's assassination went unanswered. CPJ's advocacy did seem to stimulate prosecution efforts in a case involving Iqbal Athas, defense columnist for the Colombo-based, English-language weekly The Sunday Times, who was harassed and threatened by military officers after writing a series of exposÈs on corruption in the armed forces. In February 1998, Athas and his family were subject to an attack on their home during which five armed men forcibly entered the residence and threatened him, his wife, and young daughter at gunpoint. Athas and his wife identified Air Force squadron leaders H.M. Rukman Herath and D.S. Prasanna Kannangara as two of the assailants.

After CPJ sent letters to the Sri Lankan attorney general and justice minister in February and April, respectively, trial proceedings finally began in May. Hearings were still in progress at year's end.

Criminal defamation laws remain on the books and continue to be used to harass journalists. In 2001, Victor Ivan, editor of the Sinhala-language newspaper Ravaya, faced four separate criminal defamation suits, most of them filed by government officials whom the paper had accused of wrongdoing.

After the opposition United National Party won the December Parliamentary elections, media activists hoped to secure a slew of media reforms, including the elimination of criminal penalties for libel and defamation. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe of the UNP campaigned on a pro-media platform, as did his archrival Kumaratunga years ago.

One local journalist told CPJ that any reforms would need to be passed within the first six months of 2002, before power clouded the judgment of the new victors.



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