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SRI LANKA: ‘Govt Targets Media Under Civil War Cover’

COLOMBO, Feb 9 2009 (IPS) - Sri Lanka’s ruling establishment has become increasingly intolerant towards the island country’s independent media, even as President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government steps up its military offensive against separatist Tamil militants in the north.

Whereas the government has accused certain media personnel of favouring the outlawed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in recent weeks, prominent journalists have been killed or threatened apparently because they exposed corruption and nepotism in high places.

On Jan. 8, Lasantha Wickrematunge, one of Sri Lanka’s leading journalists, was shot dead by two gunmen on motorcycles in broad daylight as he was travelling to work in the capital city.

Wickrematunge had anticipated his death. In an obituary published posthumously in the weekly he edited for 15 years, ‘The Sunday Leader’, he said: ‘’No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism.”

As in life, in death too, he was categorical: “It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”

Addressing the President by his first name, Wickrematunge added that it was ironical that “Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century” and went on to state: “In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual… noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.”

Wickrematunge’s death aroused the conscience of the media the world over. At his funeral, more than 4,000 people turned up. But Rajapakse’s government is yet to identify his killers.

On Jan. 9, the Sinhala radio service of the British Broadcasting Service was censored for airing the views of opposition leaders and others critical of the government’s inability to prevent attacks on journalists. That day, a website “voluntarily” shut down.

In the days that followed, government spokespersons continued their attacks on “irresponsible” journalists who were allegedly sympathetic to the LTTE. A senior journalist Upali Tennakoon was assaulted on Jan. 22, again by unknown people on motorcycles. The same day, a freelance Tamil journalist Prakash Shakthi Velupillai was arrested at Colombo airport and described as a “prominent LTTE supporter”.

Other journalists were summoned by government officials and accused of not following media guidelines while reporting the Sri Lankan army’s operations. (More than 65,000 people are estimated to have died in the civil war in the country that has been going on for two and a half decades.)

It has been estimated that at least 30 journalists have died under mysterious circumstances in Sri Lanka over the last fifteen years. On Feb. 2, BBC correspondent Chris Morris left the country soon after he was named by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse (who also happens to be the younger brother of President Rajapakse) as a supporter of the LTTE.

This correspondent found even ordinary citizens reluctant to be quoted on the government’s inaction while journalists are being attacked. As for journalists themselves, many were worried about the repercussions that could follow an on-the-record conversation with a visiting foreign journalist. “We are worried about our families and not just ourselves,” said a senior journalist.

A businessman, speaking on condition of anonymity, remarked: “In the name of conducting a war against the LTTE, the government has cracked down on any and every form of dissent. Past governments too had displayed their intolerance but never as brazenly as this one.”

‘’Lasantha Wickrematunge,” said the businessman, ‘’was less of a critic of the government’s military operations in the north and certainly not a sympathiser of the LTTE. He was targeted because he was exposing the corruption of ministers and bureaucrats.”

The Leader is locked in legal battles with Gotabaya Rajapakse, who has sued the newspaper for defamation following its exposes on alleged kickbacks in the purchase of Mig-27 fighter planes from the Ukraine.

After Wickremantunge’s death, more than a dozen independent journalists have left Sri Lanka. Groups of journalists have received financial support from international non-government organisations (NGOs) to help them leave the country and also provide funds to their families.

Despite the atmosphere of fear prevailing, a few brave journalists did speak exclusively to IPS on the record.

“Media freedom has been under serious threat in Sri Lanka for the last 20 years under successive regimes,” says Lakshman F.B. Gunasekara, founder president of the Sri Lanka chapter of the South Asia Free Media Association and former editor of the “Sunday Observer” weekly.

“While journalists who have been attacked or killed are presumed to be victims of anti-government or non-government armed groups, in the case of most of the assassinations, the finger of suspicion points towards groups linked with, or supportive of, the government or the political party in power,” he added.

Gunasekara is of the view that “attacks on the media seem to be a malaise of Sri Lankan political society as a whole and reflects the gradual collapse of civilian, institutional political practices that are, in turn, reflective of a generic weakness of post-colonial democracy in the country”.

Wickremantunge’s killing, according to Gunasekara, is a manifestation of the “depths and extremities of this malaise”.

“Officially, there is no censorship. But the repeated attacks on journalists, including the killing of some, have created a sense of panic and fear among independent-minded journalists who want to expose corruption and abuse of power in the public interest,” leading Sri Lankan journalist Zacki Jabbar said.

The “end result”, Jabbar added, “is that the people’s right to information has been drastically curtailed”.

“At least 12 journalists were killed in 2008. However, until a senior journalist working for the English language ‘The Nation’ newspaper, Keith Noyhar, was abducted and tortured, even the mainstream media here had not been taking much notice of Tamil journalists who were getting bumped off in Jaffna and other places in the north,” observed Manik De Silva, editor of the ‘Sunday Island’ weekly.

‘’Noyhar has left the country, refused to make a statement to the police and fears for his extended family,” said De Silva.

De Silva, however, was optimistic: “Despite this bloody phase, I believe that, next to India, Sri Lanka’s media is one of the most independent and free in the whole of South Asia and that’s the way it will remain. The truth will be revealed and even if certain publications exercise self-censorship, stories will get published in one paper or the other.”

(*Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, independent journalist and media educator, was in Colombo recently. He is a member of the Press Council of India, a respected, regulatory body in that country).

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