Tamil journalists still face danger - RSF

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 01 May 2002, 19:02 GMT]
The Reporters Sans Frontiers, the French media watchdog, said in its annual report on press freedom released Wednesday that working conditions for Tamil journalists remain very dangerous in Sri Lanka, especially when they report on human rights violations. "They are easily accused of supporting the Tamil Tigers guerrilla movement. The 1998 Emergency Law allows security forces to arrest anyone suspected of maintaining relations with this banned separatist organisation. But how can anyone work in the north and east of the country without having contacts with the Tamil Tigers, who are everywhere?" the RSF report said.

Following is the text of the report on Sri Lanka:

No journalists were killed in Sri Lanka in 2001, but the impunity of the murderers of the journalist Nimalarajan, killed in 2000, still hangs over the profession. Civil war and political violence still remain major threats for the press. But the change in power, which took place in December 2001, may open the way for a political solution.

The traditional ceremony of the transition of power, after the legislative elections won in December by the opposition candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was not broadcast on television. The president Chandrika Kumaratunga did not wish to appear at the side of her victorious rival. All throughout the campaign, one of the most violent since the return to democracy, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the son of a press magnate, used the private media, often critical of the government in power, to his advantage. Meanwhile, the governmental press lashed out against him, calling him an "agent of the Tamil Tigers". Once the opposition victory was announced, the State media changed overnight: editorials in publications of the public press group Lakehouse praised the new Prime Minister was.

Working conditions for Tamil journalists remain very dangerous, especially when they report on human rights violations; they are easily accused of supporting the Tamil Tigers guerrilla movement. The 1998 Emergency Law allows security forces to arrest anyone suspected of maintaining relations with this banned separatist organisation. But how can anyone work in the north and east of the country without having contacts with the Tamil Tigers, who are everywhere?

As of 1 January 2002, the murderers of the journalist Nimalarajan have still not been identified and arrested. In spite of the mobilisation of Sri Lankan journalists and international organisations, little progress has been made in the investigation. In addition, the situation remains very difficult for journalists working in the city of Jaffna. The Tamil-language newspaper Uthayan, published in Jaffna, has been attacked for almost fifteen years by the government, militia and the Tamil Tigers. This newspaper has endured everything: a bombing by Sri Lankan planes, a ban of the publication in May 2000, and a grenade attack against its journalists. In June 2001, the managing editor of Uthayan was hit by a car. Some journalists claim that this was a murder attempt by the Tamil militia EPDP. In spite of this, Uthayan maintains a relatively independent editorial policy and a circulation of 17,000 copies, assembled by hand and distributed in one-third of Jaffna Peninsula. Its journalists recognise that they are "walking on thin ice", but they know this is why they have so many readers, all of whom are mistrustful of the official media.

For the past six years, the Ministers of Information and Defence have systematically refused foreign correspondents posted in Colombo, or those working there temporarily, authorisation to access zones (more than a third of the country) held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, Tamil Tigers). However, the army does organise trips to war zones, especially in Jaffna. Since a relative cease-fire went into effect in March, some observers are hoping that government policy in issuing press visas will be relaxed. But the issue again came to the forefront when the American journalist Marie Colvin was wounded in an LTTE zone. After taking a harder line on the issue, the government’s spokesperson said, on 22 April, that while the government allowed journalists to go into conflict areas, it would "not be responsible for any deaths or injuries that may occur". This declaration had no immediate effects, because the Ministry of Defence continued to reject all authorisation requests. However, in July, the Ministry abolished the procedure of advance authorisation for journalists wishing to go to the north and east of the country. The authorities specified that this decision was related to the many "biased" reports published by "media sympathetic to the LTTE." But in August, a high-level Defence Ministry official said that journalists going to rebel areas must have army authorisations. This unclear situation maintained by the government does not allow journalists to freely cover the conflict, especially because the Tamil Tigers are not very amenable to talking to the press.

One journalist jailed

On 2 January 2001, Subramaniam Thiruchelvam, correspondent with the governmental press group Lakehouse and the Tamil-language newspaper Valampuri in Point Pedro district (Jaffna Peninsula, north of the country), was arrested in Colombo by an officer of the Terrorist Investigation Division. According to the journalist's family, policemen beat him several times. He was also handcuffed night and day for several days. Police claimed that he confessed, but his family said this confession was obtained under torture. Subramaniam Thiruchelvam was accused of collecting money for the Tamil Tigers movement. The journalist, who lives in Jaffna, had been in the capital for a family ceremony for more than a month. According to his family, he was denounced, though he had nothing to do with Tamil separatists who are fighting against the government. Several weeks after his arrest, he appeared before a judge, but because the TID had not completed the preliminary investigation, the legal procedure could not start. A hearing was due to take place on 16 March but was postponed indefinitely. According to provisions ER18 and ER19 of the Emergency Law, the journalist could be detained without being charged for up to six months, solely for the needs of the investigation. It was not until 30 March, after police issued a report saying that there was not enough evidence against him, that a judge in Colombo ordered that Thiruchelvam be released. The reasons for his arrest remain unclear.

Two journalists arrested

On 20 January 2001, M. Vithyathara, assistant editor of the Tamil-language newspaper Uthayan published in Jaffna (north of the country), was arrested and questioned for two hours by police who asked him to reveal the names of people who helped him meet the head negotiator of the Tamil Tigers. The newspaper had published an interview with him the previous day.

On 21 March, A. Fasmi, correspondent with the Tamil daily Thinakkural in Mannar (north-west of the island) was arrested and questioned for several hours by an officer of the 21-5 Brigade of the Sri Lankan army in Mannar. This interrogation followed the publication, in the Colombo-based daily, of an article about the rape on 10 March of two Tamil women by members of the police counter-subversive unit of Mannar. Both women were accused of having links with the Tamil Tigers. After this interrogation, the journalist received threats of death and reprisals by phone. According to him, some of the calls came from members of the 21-5 Brigade. Shortly after this incident, a judge in Mannar ordered the arrest of three policemen and a Naval officer identified by the victims. After Reporters without Borders protested, the government spokesperson specified in a press release that the investigation on A. Fasmi was not related to his articles, but because he had incited an inhabitant of Jaffna to give soldiers a bribe to find his missing son. The journalist admitted helping the father of a missing person, but denied inciting him to give any bribes. The government spokesperson also said that the journalist only began publishing articles about the rape case on 27 April, six days after his arrest. But Reporters Without Borders has copies of articles with A. Fasmi's by-line dated 20 April. In late April, the Navy issued a press release saying that all articles published about these rapes were totally false.

Ten journalists attacked

On 16 April 2001, Marie Colvin, an American journalist with the British weekly Sunday Times, was wounded during a clash between the Sri Lankan army and fighters of the LTTE near Vavuniya (north of the country). The journalist was walking with a group of LTTE rebels when they encountered an army patrol. A shoot-out occurred between the two groups. The LTTE fighters abandoned the injured journalist who was rescued by government soldiers. The army transferred Marie Colvin to a hospital in Colombo where she was treated for injuries to the head, left eye, chest and arms, probably caused by shrapnel or grenades. Marie Colvin had arrived in Colombo on 27 March with a press visa issued by Sri Lanka authorities. A few days later, she contacted supporters of the LTTE in order to work in the rebel zone and interview fighters and leaders of the separatist movement. In an article published in the Sunday Times on 15 April, Marie Colvin wrote that she was near army lines and that the rebels had promised to take her outside their zones of activity. She is one of the rare foreign journalists to have entered areas held by the LTTE and interviewed Thamilthevlan, the number two leader of the movement.

The Director of Information, Mr. Rubasinghe, announced on 17 April that the Minister of Defence asked the Foreign Affairs Minister to be "more careful and prudent" in making recommendations for issuing visas to foreign journalists. In his press release, Mr. Rubasinghe accused Marie Colvin of having a "secret agenda with the LTTE" and of not observing Sri Lankan regulations for accessing "danger zones". On 18 April, Mr. Rubasinghe declared to the press that the journalist would not be prosecuted even though she had broken the law. On 26 April, it was learned that military police arrested six people for allegedly helping Marie Colvin enter zones held by the Tamil Tigers. They were detained in Vavuniya (north of the country) under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. They were paid 100,000 rupees (approximately 1,200 euros) to take the reporter to Tamil Tiger camps. As of 1 January 2002, the three guides are still in jail. Representatives of the Human Rights Commission visited them at the camp of Sri Lankan army Brigade 2-1 in Vavuniya (north of the country).

On 7 June, Mr. Prabakharan, teacher and free-lance journalist with the Tamil-language weeklies Virakesari and Saranagar, was attacked near the village of Bogwantala (200 kilometres east of Colombo). He was returning from work, together with two students, when about fifteen men attacked them, hit the journalist in the head with a stick, aggressed the students, then ran away. Mr. Prabakharan had recently written articles implicating a gang in gem and alcohol smuggling. In addition, Mr. Prabakharan had refused a few days earlier to participate in a strike organised by a teachers' association to support a teacher accused of hitting a student. He received threats after this refusal. On 8 June, two suspects were arrested and released on bail. The reasons for the attack are still unknown.

On 16 July, Buddhika Weerasinghe, journalist with the daily Lakbima, and one of his colleagues with the Free Media Movement (FMM) were attacked in a street in the capital while they were putting up posters. These posters denounced the impunity that the attackers of some fifteen journalists still enjoyed two years after the incident. The journalists' car was vandalised and their posters stolen. According to the two journalists, the attackers were probably members of presidential security forces, also implicated in the 1999 attack. The FMM launched a campaign so those responsible for these attacks would be tried and the journalists compensated.

On 19 July, Bipula Amarasingha, photographer with the public press group Lakehouse, and another photographer with the private daily Lankadeepa, were attacked by police while covering an opposition demonstration in Colombo. Police hit them both with sticks, and, later during the demonstration, fired rubber bullets at Bipula Amarasingha.

On 24 July, Talith Senarath Yapa, cameraman with the public television channel Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, was wounded while covering the Tamil Tigers attack of the Colombo International Airport. The reporter was filming the incident from the control tower when he was wounded in the leg by rebel gunfire.

In the evening of 11 August, while returning to his home, Percy Fernando, correspondent with the daily Lakbima and the television channel Swarnavahini in Chilaw (west of the country), was attacked by unidentified assailants with sticks. According to the journalist, this attack followed a report broadcast the previous day on Swarnavahini in which he said that 1,500 people had participated in an opposition demonstration in the city. On the morning of 11 August, Maximus Fernando, a UNP (opposition) city councillor, called the journalist and accused him of underestimating the number of demonstrators. Fernando received anonymous death threats by telephone a few hours later.

On 18 August, Udaya Wijesinghe, journalist with the private radio station ABC, was harassed by members of the Air Force. While covering the crash of an Army jet in the Katunayake region (north of Colombo), he was insulted and accused of violating security rules. Commander Krishan Yanapath then hit the journalist. The following day, the Minister of the Media called for an investigation, and a high-level official presented his apologies.

On 26 November, Sarath Kumara Rajapaksha, correspondent with the daily Dinamina in the centre of the country, was attacked in a street of Ginigathena by two men who had already attacked him in his home. They criticised him for articles he had published in this governmental newspaper. The wounded journalist was taken to hospital.

On 26 December, Dharmaratnam Sivaram, of the Tamilnet Web site, and Mr. Wijetharan, journalist with the independent Tamil-language daily Thinakathir (The Light of Day), were stabbed and beaten by unknown assailants. While Sivaram was writing his final article for the day's edition of Tamilnet, a group of men armed with clubs and knives came into the offices of Thinakathir, published in Batticaloa (east of the country). They ran toward the journalist and hit him in the head. Before leaving the offices, they attacked Wijetharan and sacked the newspaper's offices. Police arrived several minutes after the attackers left. Sivaram was taken to the city hospital and given six stitches for a head wound. Several hours later, police announced that they had arrested three suspects but did not reveal their names nor their motives. Tamilnet is the best-known news Web site on the political, military and human rights situation in the areas torn apart by war between the army and the Tamil Tigers.

Four journalists threatened

On 17 June 2001, the Tamil-language daily Thinakaran, the Sinhala-language daily Divaina and the English-language government-owned Daily News published an article claiming that the Tamil journalists Dharmaratnam Sivaram, journalist with the web site Tamilnet, and Vasantharaja, reporter with Ravaya, had been cited in a list of LTTE spies in the online magazine The Global Spy Magazine. The front-page article in Thinakaran, also bore Sivaram's picture. On the following day, two men who appeared to be armed attempted to enter the home of D. Sivaram, where the editor avoids staying for his safety. Sivaram was already the target of a vilification campaign in July 2000, when he was accused of being "a Colombo-based LTTE spy" and of "betraying his country to help the Tamil Tigers movement."

On 3 August, S. Manoranjan, editor of Tamil-language publications with the public press group Lakehouse, confirmed that he had received death threats by telephone from Doctor Jayalath Jayawardena, an opposition Member of Parliament. The previous day, S. Manoranjan had given an interview on the Lakhanda radio station in which he condemned the Member of Parliament's visit to Vanni (north of the country; a zone controlled by the Tamil Tigers). He said that Jayawardena called him a "stupid Tamil idiot".

On 5 August, Lasantha Wickremetunge, editor of the newspaper The Sunday Leader, received death threats by telephone from the wife of Rohitha Bogollagama, a Member of Parliament with the UNP opposition party, after publishing an article criticising her husband.

On 22 October, Mervyn Silva, former minister and campaign director for Chandrika Kumaratunga's party, together with seven unknown people, forced their way into the offices of the Sinhalese-language daily Divaina in Colombo and threatened the journalists present. After getting rid of the security guards, he asked to see the journalist Janitha Seviratne, who was absent. Mervyn Silva threatened this journalist with physical violence for publishing an article, on Friday 19 October 2001, about his candidacy in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The group left the offices shortly after this, but threatened the newspaper's journalists that they would come to their homes. The editor of the newspaper, Upali Tennekoon, and the security guards filed a complaint at the Kotahena police station. On 25 October, Mervyn Silva turned himself in to police, after his party disowned him. He was released the same day.

Pressure and obstruction

On 29 January 2001, Mr. Yapa, Minister of Media, asked journalists to not misinterpret government actions and to "do everything so the government remains popular."

On 23 February, two governmental newspapers, the Daily News and Dinamina, denounced an opposition conspiracy to destabilise the government, whose communication was said to be orchestrated by Saman Wagarachchi, publisher of the newspaper Peramuna, and Sujeewa Gamage, publisher of the monthly Peraliya. Five days later, a fire was set in the offices of Peraliya in Colombo. The managing editor of the magazine denounced an intimidation campaign.

On 21 March, the President of the National Assembly forbade journalists with the public television channel Independent Television Network from entering the Parliament for five days. This decision followed a complaint by two opposition Members of Parliament who were called "buffoons" during the programme "Live from the Parliament" broadcast six days earlier. A journalist replied to this temporary ban by saying that he was certainly allowed to call Members of Parliament "buffoons" without this being prejudicial to the National Assembly.

On 26 March, the government's spokesperson forbade the national television channel TNL from broadcasting a story about the project to build a new presidential palace which many media considered too "luxurious". The government said this decision was made for reasons of "national security".

On 12 April, students of Jaffna University burned copies of the Tamil-language magazine Amuthu in the street. The demonstrators considered this magazine, published by a government press group, "anti-Tamil". Students complained about an "obscene" portrait of the leader of the Tamil Tigers, published in the most recent issue of Amuthu, and called for a boycott of the magazine.

On 22 April, Ariya Rubasinghe, the spokesperson for the Sri Lankan government, said that journalists could go to territories held by the Tamil Tigers, but at their own "risk and peril". "Journalists may go there, we will not forbid it, but they must understand and accept that they are risking their lives," he said.

On 3 May, Sri Lankan newspapers took advantage of International Press Freedom Day to denounce the heavy taxes that were stifling the development of the private press. Publishers must pay a printing tax, a national security tax, as well as a tax on goods and services. According to the leaders of press groups, the competitiveness of newspapers was hampered because of these costs.

On 6 May, P. Manickavasagam, President of the Tamil Media Alliance, condemned the reinforcement of the emergency laws and the laws for the prevention of terrorism. He pointed out that there were double standards of control, stricter to Tamil newspapers than to Sinhalese or English newspapers. D. Sivaram, a columnist with the Daily Mirror, said that these new laws were "a sword of Damocles hanging over Tamil journalists." With these new measures, security forces could silence journalists by arresting them and indefinitely prolonging their detention. Tamil war reporters were especially at risk.

On 11 May, unknown individuals entered the home of journalist Sampath Deshapriya, who works with the Sinhalese-language daily Lakbima. His office was searched but no documents were stolen. The journalist said the burglars were looking for very specific documents.

On 23 May, unidentified men threw a smoke bomb in the office of the Sinhalese-language weekly Sinhala Ravaya and the Tamil-language weekly Tamil Athavan, in Colombo. The blast caused no material damage or injuries. The managing editor of Ravaya, Victor Ivan, also president of the Free Media Movement, said the incident was a "warning" following the publication of stories favourable to the impeachment of Sri Lankan Chief Justice Sarath Silva, who was in charge of naming the country's judges. According to an associate of Victor Ivan, the smoke bomb used by the attackers was only available to the Sri Lankan army. The managing editor of Ravaya filed a complaint at the Maharagama Police Station. The following day, the Minister of Media said the government had nothing to do with this attack. This incident occurred just as Victor Ivan was being attacked in the governmental press. He was accused of supporting the main opposition party, the UNP.

On 30 May, President Chandrika Kumaratunga ordered the lifting of censorship imposed on Sri Lankan media and foreign correspondents over the previous three years. In 2000, at least three media were closed because they did not respect military censorship. The Minister of Media told the press that "there are no restrictions on war coverage either", but did not give any reason for this decision.

On 12 June, Upendra Chitral Alwis, journalist with the television channel TNL, was harassed by officers of a special police unit in Colombo. Even though he showed his press card, the officers insulted the journalist, who was investigating a murder. After complaining to a superior officer, he was finally allowed to film the scene of the


During a programme broadcast on 26 June on the public television channel, a person close to President Chandrika Kumaratunga accused the MTV-MBC audiovisual group and "malicious" journalists led by Victor Ivan, the managing editor of Ravaya, of "conspiring against the government". Three days later, activists of the party in power demonstrated in front of MTV-MBC offices.

In early July, a fifth slander suit was filed against Victor Ivan, managing editor of the newspaper Ravaya. The prosecutor accused Victor Ivan of slander for an article he wrote about a corrupt police officer. Charges were filed according to articles 479 and 480 of the Penal Code, which call for a maximum prison sentence of two years.

On 17 July, Aiyathurai Nadesan, a well-known journalist and vice-president of the Tamil Media Alliance, was interrogated by a military officer of the city of Batticaloa (east of the island). The officer reminded him that he had to obey military laws and that, if he continued to write articles favourable to the Tamil Tigers, he would be arrested according to the law for the prevention of terrorism.

On 29 July, the governmental newspaper Divaina stated that two Tamil Tiger spies, pretending to be journalists, were seen when the Tamil Tigers attacked the Colombo International Airport a few days before. Photographs taken by these two "bogus journalists" were then said to have been published on the Tamilnet web site

In late July, the government asked local media to not broadcast "false information" about the constitutional referendum called by Chandrika Kumaratunga. According to an official circular, this was not censorship, but a reminder to the press that the publication of some information could lead to legal action. This decision followed an increase in the number of protests by opposition parties supported by many private publications.

On 3 August, Mr. Perera, deputy secretary of the Ministry of Defence, and Mr. Rubasinghe, a government spokesman, told journalists that an army authorisation would again be needed to travel to territories controlled by the rebels.

On 16 August, Buddhika Weerasinghe, photographer with the weekly Lakbima based in Colombo, was fired after the daily Ravaya published an interview with him. The photographer defended a campaign begun by the FMM to mark the second anniversary of the attack of journalists by members of the presidential security force. As a victim of this attack himself, he regretted that no justice had been rendered in this case. The management of Lakbima said that the journalist broke his contract by working for another publication.

On 25 September, it was learned that a ceremony to present awards to the Tamil journalists Ponnaiahy Manikavasagam, correspondent with the Tamil-language daily Thinakkural in Vavuniya and journalist with the BBC, and Aiyathurai Nadesan, political columnist with the Tamil-language daily Virakesari, was cancelled on order of the Colombo government for political reasons. These prizes, given by an institution in the north of the country, rewarded the quality of these journalists' articles.

In early November, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and S. B. Dissanayake, a former minister of her cabinet, accused each other of being behind intimidation attempts against Lasantha Wickmeretunge and Victor Ivan, respectively editors-in-chief of the weeklies Sunday Leader and Ravaya. The government, often criticised in these two magazines, was said to be behind the attacks against and harassment of these two journalists.

On 3 November, unknown individuals threw a grenade into the Colombo offices of the Upali press group, whose journalists had been threatened with death two weeks earlier by a member of the party in power. Fortunately, the grenade did not explode.

Just before the general elections in November, authorities renewed the visa of BBC correspondent Frances Harisson. This was done at the last minute. In addition, the free-lance Swedish journalist Johan Mikaelson had his press visa refused by the Sri Lanka embassy in Stockholm.



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