Violence Silences Voices of Sri Lankan Journalists

Seth Mydans/The New York Times

Mervin Denegama, a Sri Lankan reporter. Despite the dangers faced by journalists, “we want to reveal the truth,” he said.

RATMALANA, Sri Lanka — A blue plastic bag sits crumpled on the floor, easy to overlook, in the office of Lal Wickramatunga, the managing editor of The Sunday Leader.

Inside the bag are the clothes and shoes of a dead man — the things his brother Lasantha, 52, was wearing on Jan. 8 when eight masked thugs on motorcycles smashed the window of his car and shot him to death.

“I keep them as an inspiration,” Mr. Wickramatunga said, “because if we don’t take what happened and make Sri Lanka a better place, then Lasantha will have died in vain.”

His brother was editor in chief of the newspaper and was one of at least eight journalists who have been killed in recent years in what appears to be a broad Sri Lankan government campaign to silence dissenting voices.

Many others have been kidnapped or assaulted, according to the reports of press monitoring agencies. Many have stopped writing or have capitulated in self-censorship. Dozens are under arrest, and dozens more have fled the country.

No one has been brought to trial for an attack on a journalist, the press monitoring agencies say.

The press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranked Sri Lanka 165th last year out of 173 countries in terms of press freedom — by far the lowest democracy on the list. It called Sri Lanka the fourth most dangerous country for journalists, after Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan.

Mr. Wickramatunga’s killing came two days after attackers blew up the control room of the country’s main independent television station, and two weeks before another newspaper editor was beaten in his car and fled the country.

His final article was about his own killing before it happened, an essay titled “And Then They Came for Me.” It ran the following Sunday in the newspaper, which is printed in this town on the southern outskirts of Colombo, the capital.

“Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced,” he wrote. “Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honor to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.”

And he added: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”

The government said it had no hand in these attacks, but it is quite open in accusing its critics in the press of treason and even terrorism as it fights to end a 25-year-long Tamil separatist rebellion.

“The ministry will continue to expose these traitors and their sinister motives and does not consider such exposure as a threat to media freedom,” the Defense Ministry said on its Web site last year.

The site then named several media outlets as culprits, after which all came under attack, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press-freedom monitoring group.

In one of the latest attacks, Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, a newspaper editor, was seized by armed men while he was attending a funeral on Feb. 26 and remains in detention, accused of conspiring with terrorists.

He was driven away in a white van, a vehicle that has come to symbolize the abductions that have terrorized Sri Lanka. “He was taken in bright daylight in front of hundreds of people — the culture of impunity writ large,” a fellow journalist said.

“It’s probably better that I’m not quoted,” the journalist said, asking that his name not be used. “I prefer not to be identified as someone who gives opinions in any way because that will directly affect my work.”

The government justifies its press controls as part of its war effort, and it has barred independent reporters from the combat area. But it seems to be reaching well beyond issues that involve the war.

“The offensive against journalists is part of the government’s all-out strategy to win the war with the Tamil Tigers,” said Bob Dietz, the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“The fear is that it will smother any criticism of the government in the future,” he said. “This is a government turning in a bad direction.”

Already the chill has spread from the reporters themselves to the people they interview, said Mervin Denegama, a reporter for Irudina, a Sinhala-language paper that shares ownership with The Sunday Leader.

“Now economists, professors, politicians, professional persons, they don’t want to speak to us,” Mr. Denegama said. “They say: ‘You cannot use my name. You can write but without my name.’ They are afraid.”

Some reporters, too, are afraid to use their names, he said, retreating behind pseudonyms.

“But I am using my own name,” he said. “We must write about real situations. It is our duty. We want to reveal the truth.”

Source :- Asia Pacific

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