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SRI LANKA: Once Under Attack, Jaffna Media Get Reprieve

Feizal Samath

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, Apr 13 2010 (IPS) - About eight months back, delivery boys for this northern city’s main newspaper were accompanied on their rounds by government soldiers – the first time a Sri Lankan broadsheet was being delivered under armed guard.

Today, almost a year since the war against the Tamil secessionists ended in May 2009, life for Jaffna journalists is slowly changing for the better.

“We were facing threats from some armed groups and we had to seek protection,” recalled M V Kanamylenathan, chief editor of the Tamil-language ‘Uthayan’ newspaper. Ironically, its protector – the army – was also accused – alongside other sectors – of intimidating this newspaper group in the once war-battered northern capital.

“We have gone through hell,” said the newspaper’s deputy editor, G Kuganathan. “Things are slightly improving now,” he confirmed. These days the military is polite and even apologetic when seeking to publish a press release, he added.

In the past, “they would demand publication [of a press statement] and issue veiled threats if it didn’t appear in the newspapers the next day,” Kuganathan told IPS. The military still controls Jaffna, though.

Described as having the most vibrant newspaper industry outside the island capital of Colombo, Jaffna also faced the most serious threat to journalists in this South Asian country, particularly at the height of the 25-year battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The ‘Uthayan’ and two other newspapers in the northern city that has an estimated population of 750,000 had faced the worst forms of intimidation and threats to the media. Journalists and media workers were killed and newspaper offices bombed.

During the bloody conflict with the LTTE, journalists across Sri Lanka were under pressure from all sides, including the government and the rebels.

At least 15 journalists and media industry workers across the island state were killed beginning in 2006, when one journalist working for an online newspaper disappeared. Another 15 were either abducted or arrested by police based on trumped-up charges.

Yet no one was arrested despite so-called ‘extensive investigations’ by state agencies.

According to Lakshman Gunesekera, a former newspaper editor, Jaffna’s press suffered tremendous pressure from various forces. “They withstood unbelievable pressure,” he said in a phone interview from Colombo.

Pressure on Jaffna’s newspapers, all published in Tamil – the language of the Tamil minority, which is mainly found in northern Sri Lanka – came from government agencies, LTTE militants that controlled the city at different times and Indian peace-keeping forces.

Indian troops came to Sri Lanka in 1987 to help enforce a peace pact between the Sri Lankan government and the rebels. When the pact failed, the foreign force turned their guns on the rebels. Even members of the press were not spared.

“Once a senior Indian officer threatened us with death if we didn’t toe the line,” said Kanamylenathan in his modest newspaper office in Jaffna.

The pressure on all fronts was such that at one point, according to N Parameswaram, a Jaffna freelance journalist who works for the Reuters news agency and some Colombo-based newspapers, four militant groups wanted their stories published as lead articles at the same time. “The editor had to tell them that that would be the first time in the world that a newspaper had four lead stories,” he said.

Two other Jaffna newspapers, though less popular than the ‘Uthayan’, are ‘Valampuri’ and ‘Thinakural’. ‘Valampuri’ is the mouthpiece of the pro- government Eelam People’s Democratic Front.

‘Thinakkural’ is a Colombo-based newspaper with a Jaffna edition. It toes the line of whoever is in charge in Jaffna unlike the ‘Uthayan’, which voices dissent, albeit with some restraint.

Both newspapers suffered threats and intimidation, though to a lesser extent compared to the ‘Uthayan’.

Gunasekera said newspapers have thrived in Jaffna because, next to Colombo, it is a strong socio-cultural centre. “This northern town has the most educated elite (after Colombo) and high literacy, and many want to write or express their views,” he said.

Many of the ‘Uthayan’ journalists left the newspaper following death threats while at least six workers, including two reporters, have been killed since 1985 when the paper started publication. Until tensions eased, the newspaper’s office was bombed at least twice by government jets and Indian peacekeeping forces.

Just before the August 2009 municipal council poll in Jaffna, an unknown group threatened to kill the ‘Uthayan’ workers, including freelance correspondents, if they did not cease publication. The newspaper appealed to the President, who immediately ordered the army to protect the daily.

This led to the unusual situation of armed soldiers on motorbikes accompanying newspaper distributors on their early morning rounds in the city.

“I don’t think anyone has faced the kind of intimidation and threats Jaffna’s journalists have suffered,” noted Chulawansa SriLal, convenor of Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement, the country’s most powerful media watchdog.

On at least two occasions, the ‘Uthayan’ has won bravery awards from a group of local media organisations. These are no doubt well deserved.

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