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SRI LANKA: Media Freedom Still Distant

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Jan 11 2011 (IPS) - January is indelibly linked to the tumultuous recent history of the media in Sri Lanka. Two years ago, on Jan. 8 Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge, editor of the The Sunday Leader newspaper, was murdered while on his way to work.

Shows of defiance to protect media freedom have been held all around Sri Lanka. Credit: Amantha Perera

Shows of defiance to protect media freedom have been held all around Sri Lanka. Credit: Amantha Perera

The two-year murder investigation has not yielded any credible indications or pointers to the identity of the assassins, who fled after waylaying Wickrematunge’s car on a public road in broad daylight. The blame game instead has been in full swing with charges and counter-charges flying around.

Wickrematunge was a staunch critic of the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and in a posthumous editorial published after he was killed – but reportedly written by him before the event – held the government responsible for any harm that may come to him. The government has flatly denied it was in any way connected to the murder.

When the assassination took place in 2009, Sri Lanka was a country in flux – a 25-year bloody civil conflict was reaching its end with the military poised to defeat the separatist Tamil Tigers. Four and half months after the Wickrematunge murder, the Tigers were no more, following final battles fought on a narrow beach front along the country’s northern shore. During the ensuing one and half years – as the island adapted to the absence of war – the media landscape also changed.

The reporting climate is still far from being conducive to assertive journalism, but has improved from what it was during the final phase of the war.

There has been a decline in the number of recorded attacks on the media, and no assassinations of journalists were reported last year.

Sri Lankan journalists can now travel in parts of the war-devastated north that are open to the public and report. During the final years of the war, between mid-2007 and May 2009, independent reporting from these areas was impossible.

Large areas in the north still remain out of bounds and foreigners need to seek government approval to travel and report in the north – some receive it, some don’t.

An international network filmed a long documentary report on demining work in the former war zone last October, and several foreign correspondents have also travelled to and filed from northern Jaffna. On the other hand the BBC has complained that it has been barred from hearings of a government commission looking into the conduct of the last days of the war.

“The situation has improved, we admit that ” says Sunil Jayasekera, the convenor of the Free Media Movement (FMM) the country’s foremost media rights group. “But the lack of attacks and the absence of killings do not mean that we have an environment of media freedom, there is a long way to go for that.”

Paris based media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has welcomed “the fall in the number of physical attacks, threats and cases of imprisonment” in its year ending situation report from Sri Lanka. But the press freedom group also echoed Jayasekera, warning that self-censorship is still common.

According to RSF at least 55 journalists and media workers fled the country during the last three years. Some have returned and recommenced their work. Others have returned for short stints to visit family. Most have remained overseas.

One journalist who fled the country in mid-2009, but returned for a short time last year, told IPS that he felt safe enough to visit but not to work. His predicament illustrates the current uncertain reporting climate. “I have thought of coming back, but still feel not quite sure of my safety,” he told IPS on condition of anonymity. He had to leave the country following indications from management that his security was at risk.

Jayasekera says that there are still high levels of anxiety and journalists continue to look over their shoulders. “There is a lot of political involvement in our media, there are political affiliations among owners as well as journalists. That is not a good environment within the media,” he said.

The journalist who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity said that the Wickrematunge murder drove fear into others. “He was the strongest critic of the government, but he was also an internationally known journalist and a powerful figure. Once he was killed, everybody else started questioning ‘if this can happen to Lasantha, it can happen to us.’” That fear is yet to fully disappear.

The inconclusive Wickrematunge murder investigation and the disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda still hang over journalists like dark clouds. Ekneligoda disappeared in January 2009 and so far his whereabouts have remained unknown.

The RSF report says that the government is not promoting full editorial freedom and attacks against journalist are still reported. Photographers covering an anti-government protest by undergraduate students were assaulted by uniformed police officers in December.

“If there is one conclusive investigation into at least one of these two high profile cases, it will go a long way to ease fears among journalists,” Jayasekera said. “We live in an environment where we can only report what governments or those in power wish to make public,” he said, “we have to make the government legally bound to release information to the public.”

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