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SRI LANKA: ‘Attacks on Media Will Continue’

COLOMBO, Jan 7 2009 (IPS) - It was typical of what Sri Lankan media has been facing over the years: a pre-dawn raid on a media house, employees beaten up and costly equipment destroyed. Maharaja TV, the latest victim, was also promised the routine, impartial inquiry by the government.

‘I would be happy and pleasantly surprised if anything comes out [of the government investigation],” Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, political analyst and executive director at the local think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives, told IPS. “The culture of impunity will continue.”

The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), expressing shock over the incident, commented: “The only difference this time is the massive extent of the attack.”

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, masked gunmen stormed the premises of the MTV/MBC broadcasting station at Pannipitiya, south of Colombo and a few kilometres from Parliament building. Holding staff at gunpoint they proceeded to destroy the main control room.

Chevaan Daniel, channel head of Maharaja TV (MTV), part of Sri Lanka’s giant Maharaja Organisation, told IPS that the gunmen, dressed in black, used explosives to systematically destroy every piece of equipment on the premises.

“It was a sight of utter and total devastation,” Daniel said. Empty bullet shells were strewn on the floor of the premises of MTV/MBC, which runs the most popular radio and TV stations in Sri Lanka.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, security experts say the fact that the gunmen were armed with T-56 assault rifles, pistols and hand grenades and came in an unmarked (no number plates) vehicle and went about their job with military precision, points to the involvement of a pro-government group.

Sections of the state media had accused MTV/MBC of being ‘unpatriotic’ in its coverage of the fall of the Tamil separatist rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi on Jan. 2 and other victories of the Sri Lankan army in the north of the island.

MTV (which stands for Maharaja TV and is unconnected to the U.S. channel) denied the allegations and said it devoted more than 20 minutes – much more than other channels – of its 30-minute newscast on the fall of Kilinochchi and showed footage of the celebrations by residents in Colombo.

Soon after the attack, President Mahinda Rajapakse condemned the incident and ordered a full probe while several members of his cabinet visited the broadcasting station and expressed concern.

But suspicion quickly fell on the government or its agencies and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was among groups that called for an independent parliamentary investigation.

“Even with its condemnations, the government can no longer be trusted to act with impartiality when it comes to those who want to silence Sri Lanka’s media,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia coordinator. “Far too often, the government or its unofficial allies have been prime suspects behind attacks on journalists and media organisations.”

“Violence and threats against such privately owned media outlets and journalists trying to impartially report on the conflict must stop,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

Most independent observers were agreed that the intimidation of media will continue and that the investigation ordered by the government will take a familiar route and lead nowhere.

Jehan Perera, columnist and executive director at the National Peace Council (NPC), linked the attack to the government’s determination to hold on to power by silencing or eliminating the opposition.

He said the government would do anything to get away from human rights violations and increasing concerns of the international community.

U.S. ambassador Robert O’ Blake and Canadian high commissioner Angela Bogdan led those who condemned the attack in press statements. MTV’s Daniel said envoys from many countries had expressed concern and called for an impartial investigation.

Despite a proliferation of media rights groups emerging in the past decade in Sri Lanka, journalists have never felt as threatened as they do now.

Fifteen journalists and media industry workers have been killed since 2006 while another 15 have been abducted or arrested by police. At least two newspaper offices have been ransacked and equipment destroyed. No one has been arrested, detained or blamed by the government in a single case despite ‘extensive investigations’ by state agencies.

In 2008, a particularly difficult year for the media, the government introduced new rules controlling TV broadcasting and new media which journalists say were ‘’draconian and repressive” and amounted to censorship.

The new rules control content and restrict TV licences to just one year against five to seven years earlier. They also seek to control content on MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), a popular form of news dissemination in this war-torn country.

Daniel said he has had little time to recover from Tuesday’s attack as “I had to get the ‘troops’ together and continue broadcasting under difficult odds”. He said the attack was a slap on the face of freedom of expression of every single Sri Lankan. “People should not only have the right to expression but also the right to listen.”

Media analysts said the broadcaster’s Sinhala-language SIRASA TV channel was the most popular TV channel on the war-torn island. NPC’s Perera said SIRASA was very positive to views articulated by peace-promoting organisations ‘just like mine’.

Perera said for the last two decades society has been led to believe that the main issues in Sri Lanka were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), terrorism and protection of the motherland. “People think these are the root cause of all sufferings in Sri Lanka and nothing else matters,” he commented.

LTTE rebels are now defending just a few areas under their control in the northern region which the government says will fall any moment now. There was no word on the movements of the group’s elusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran or whether he was still in northern Sri Lanka.

Saravanamuttu said there was no demonstrable commitment by the government to properly investigate crimes against the media. “The regime is using the war to consolidate its hold on power.”

‘’It is time to raise the antennas to issue early warning signals, locally and internationally, about the situation of democratic freedoms and human rights which have become unmanageable disasters in Sri Lanka,” the AHRC commented.

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