Sri Lanka: Silencing Dissent

Date Published: 7 February 2008
Categories: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka – Silencing Dissent

-Introduction-
Since the resumption of armed conflict in Sri Lanka in 2006, threats to the media and media freedom have become very serious. There have been reports that at least ten media workers have been the victims of unlawful killings since the beginning of 2006; two have allegedly disappeared in the custody of the security forces; while others have been tortured and arbitrarily detained under emergency regulations (ERs) which grant the government sweeping powers. The right to life of media workers, particularly Tamil journalists, is under severe threat from the security forces and others. In some cases attacks have been carried out by Tamil armed groups apparently acting with the consent of the security forces. These Tamil armed groups include the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and the Tamil Makkal
Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) also referred to as the Karuna faction, an armed breakaway group from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In 2004, former LTTE commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, better known as Karuna Amman, broke away from the LTTE and formed the TMVP in April 2004. The stronghold of the Karuna faction is Batticaloa District. There have been allegations of links between the Karuna faction and government security forces by a number of groups including Human Rights Watch and Allan Rock, a senior UN official. Since around October 2007 the faction led by Trincomalee leader, Pillayan, has became more dominant following the departure of Karuna Amman from Sri Lanka and his subsequent arrest in London on 2 November 2007. For its part, the LTTE, an armed separatist opposition group that has been fighting for an independent state for minority Tamils in the north and east since the 1980s, does not allow any independent local media in the territories it controls, and closely monitors and restricts the work of journalists.

Lack of accountability for the perpetrators of human rights violations remains a serious concern. Despite demands by media associations and others for investigations into the unlawful killings of media workers there has been little progress even when suspects have been identified by reliable witnesses.

While most of the members of the media who have been targeted are from the Tamil community, since 2006 government officials and pro-government Tamil armed groups are increasingly targeting journalists of the majority
Sinhalese community who speak out against the conflict and in favour of a political settlement or who criticize the government’s policies in other respects. Measures to curb the media include the closure of newspapers; the blocking of a website; arbitrary arrests and detention under the ERs; censorship and intimidation. These measures are also increasingly aimed at artists, including filmmakers.

Amnesty International is concerned that these measures breach Sri Lanka’s obligations, particularly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which it is a state party, to respect and
protect the freedom to seek, receive and impart nformation and ideas of all kinds. The restrictions placed on freedom of expression in Sri Lanka far exceed those which may legitimately be imposed for reasons such as national
security. Violations of journalists’ right to life and freedom from torture and ill-treatment can never be justified in the name of national security and constitute violations of Sri Lanka’s obligations under international
law.

To date, Amnesty International is unaware of any investigation that has led to those believed responsible for human rights violations against journalists and other media workers being brought to justice. This includes
killings dating back to 1990. Amnesty International is deeply concerned that those who target and even kill journalists have enjoyed impunity for years.

The Government of Sri Lanka must bring to an end the harassment, intimidation, excessive restrictions and attacks on the media; in particular it must urgently ensure that all human rights violations against journalists are independently, impartially and effectively investigated, and that those responsible for them are brought to justice.

The first part of this report sets out international standards and the domestic legal framework in respect of freedom of expression. It then documents the killings and other human rights violations against journalists
and other media personnel reported in the last two years. Despite four requests, Amnesty International has not been granted permission by the Sri Lankan government to visit the country on a research mission since January 2007. This report is therefore written on the basis of secondary sources supplemented by information gathered from abroad, either via telephone calls or emails or during interviews with media personnel travelling outside Sri Lanka. There are some sections of the report that are not fully developed due to lack of verification on the ground. For example, to develop the section on LTTE abuses, Amnesty International would like to assess the ground situation in areas under LTTE control and raise its concerns about
LTTE abuses directly with the LTTE leadership in Kilinochchi District.

The second part summarizes increasing attacks on freedom of expression outside of the immediate context of the conflict. In conclusion the report makes a number of recommendations. The authorities should respect, protect
and fulfil the right to freedom of opinion and expression, in compliance with Sri Lanka’s obligations under the ICCPR and other treaties and standards. In addition, Amnesty International calls on the authorities to fulfil their obligation to conduct immediate and impartial investigations into all human rights violations against media personnel. The Constitution should specify that emergency powers may only be used in exceptional circumstances as defined under international human rights law. The definition of terrorism in the 2006 ERs needs to be clarified so that it is not misused to arbitrarily restrict freedom of expression. Amnesty International shared a draft of this report with the government but as of 16 January 2008 had received no comments. The organization looks forward to initiating a constructive discussion with the Government of Sri Lanka on the
implementation of the recommendations of this report.

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