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RIGHTS: Sri Lanka’s Election Aftermath – Media Under Attack

Analysis by IPS Correspondents

COLOMBO, Feb 9 2010 (IPS) - Sri Lankan journalists, for whom intimidation, threats, assault and killings seem to have become unavoidable professional hazards, are bracing themselves for a fresh confrontation with the government as curbs on reporting intensify.

In recent weeks, one journalist has disappeared, a newspaper has been sealed, only to be forced open by a court order while a few journalists and media workers have been in hiding since last month’s presidential election, which was won handily by incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“The situation had worsened after a brief respite (general feeling of freedom) a few weeks before the polls,” one veteran journalist and editor, who declined to be named for fear of repercussions, told IPS. “There was a sense of freedom or a kind of lull during the election campaign, but when the authorities feared opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka could win, intimidation against the media resumed.”

Lakshman Gunasekera, a senior journalist and former editor of the state- owned ‘Sunday Observer’, said the media not only continues to face serious repression but also may “anticipate worsening conditions … as the country enters yet another phase of intense political contest for the parliamentary elections expected in April.”

Newspaper reports this week said three journalists have been arrested in connection with an alleged coup conspiracy against the President by the losing candidate and former Army commander Fonseka. The official website of the government’s Information Department, in a report on Sunday, said several journalists were also to be questioned over the alleged coup plot, which the defeated candidate said was a cover-up for an election fraud.

Fonseka, the candidate of a string of opposition parties, polled 40 percent of the votes against Rajapaksa’s sweeping 57 percent. Both had banked on their role in ending in May 2009 the near 30-year-long battle with Tamil separatist guerrillas.

However, the losing candidate and other opposition leaders who backed him allege manipulation of votes and claim Rajapaksa lost the poll.

Reporters present at a Colombo hotel where Fonseka, the former army commander who led the military troops to victory against the rebels, and his team were staying on the eve of the election, are to be questioned to ascertain further details of the alleged plot to assassinate the president, the government website said.

The government also placed curbs on media reporting of military matters while issuing a special directive in which chiefs of the armed forces and other military officers are barred from giving interviews relating to promotions and transfers unless approved.

In the Feb. 2 directive to the media, Lakshman Hulugalle, director general of the Media Centre for National Security, said only designated military spokespersons were permitted to give such information.

The government is said to be purging the army and the police of any elements seen loyal to Fonseka and those who are believed to have refused to carry out ‘illegal’ orders by the authorities during the elections.

The ‘Sunday Times’ newspaper said this week that more than 150 police officers had been transferred while 14 army officers, including five just next to the rank of the army commander, had been sent on compulsory leave for their alleged involvement in politics, essentially in helping Fonseka during the campaign.

Last week, eight media groups, including publishers and editors, appealed to President Rajapaksa to intervene in the media crisis and ensure the restoration of public confidence in democracy and that “this unhealthy trend is curbed.” They urged him to help locate the whereabouts of Pradeep Ekneliyagoda, a journalist at a Sinhala-language newspaper critical of the President, who has been missing since Jan. 24, two days before the poll.

“All these incidents taken as a whole are creating a sense of terror within the media industry … due to the intimidation and suppression taking place in different parts of the country by unruly groups targeting members of the opposition. We believe that if this escalating situation is not brought under control immediately, there will be unforeseen repercussions,” the joint letter said.

Sunil Jayasekera, secretary of the Free Media Movement (FMM), which was among the signatories of the letter and Sri Lanka’s biggest media defender, is doubtful of a government response to the Feb. 1 letter.

“We have sent four letters in the past 18 months to the President urging him to intervene, but there has been no response and neither has the intimidation stopped,” he told IPS.

Media groups say 33 journalists and media workers have been killed since the election of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance to power in 2004 with the current President Mahinda Rajapaksa as its prime minister. Scores of others have been assaulted, harassed or threatened, at least 34 journalists have fled abroad and sought asylum, mostly in Europe.

The biggest case to date involved the assassination in January 2009 of Lasantha Wickrematunga, the award-winning editor of the English-language ‘Sunday Leader’, allegedly by elements of the military. His assailants are still at large.

Some political and defence correspondents also fear that their phones are tapped.

FMM’s Jayasekera said: “Some media workers have been assaulted while some journalists are in hiding (after the election).”

The government blocked at least three news websites before the Jan. 26 poll while the editor of another website is in hiding.

“Several websites had been blocked, the Sinhala-language Lanka newspaper editor was arrested while the newspaper was sealed by police. However, the newspaper reopened on Tuesday after the management won a court order,” Jayasekera said.

Tough action is also being taken against dozens of journalists working at state-owned newspapers, radio and television stations who called for fair and impartial reporting of the polls campaign.

“What we did was to heed the Elections Commissioner and the Supreme Court, which ordered state media institutions to be impartial and give equal coverage to all candidates contesting the poll. We are now being victimised for it,” said Herbert Kumara Alagiyawanna, a senior producer at a state- owned television, who was sacked arbitrarily.

He said of the 70 journalists who joined the call for impartial reporting, one has been sacked, nine interdicted, three sent on compulsory leave while 21 others were required to explain their actions. A couple of journalists were also assaulted by individuals identified with ruling party.

“We want to file a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court. Some senior officers working in state television also insulted the judges, saying they don’t care about judgments,” he said.

Under election rules, state media, being publicly funded institutions, are obligated to give fair and equal coverage to all contestants. When government media appeared biased for the President, the Elections Commissioner ordered the institutions to toe the line.

When the state media refused to comply, the Commissioner protested to the Supreme Court, which in turn upheld the election body’s order. But even the Supreme Court’s ruling was ignored by the media bosses at these institutions, noted Alagiyawanna.

Journalist Gunasekera, who is also the president of the Sri Lanka chapter of the South Asian Free Media Association, says the open flouting by government authorities of both Supreme Court and the Election Commissioner directives in relation to the media has added to the restrictions and intensified the intimidation imposed on the mass media.

“The sense that attackers against the media enjoy impunity from prosecution, which had existed even before the election, has now been heightened,” he said, through this manifest disregard of the Supreme Court directives.

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