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SRI LANKA: Press Freedom Burns in Colombo

Kumudini Woolf

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 31 2011 (IPS) - At 2 a.m. on Monday morning, the headquarters of one of Sri Lanka’s leading bilingual news sources, Lanka E-News (LEN), was burned down in the predawn darkness.

Preliminary investigations confirmed that petrol was used to start the fire, which completely consumed the offices of the online publication, including a library of LEN archives and thousands of valuable books.

Sandaruwan Senadeera, LEN’s senior editor who is currently in self-imposed exile following a series of death threats, said in a statement Monday that damage caused by the arson was so severe as to disable use of the premises altogether.

Considering that LEN was one of the few remaining spaces to feature dissenting opinions about the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, the destruction of its headquarters is a major blow to free speech in the country.

Watchdog groups say this latest assault on the press in Sri Lanka is just one in a string of egregious crimes that have been carried out with impunity under the indifferent eyes of the Rajapaksa regime.

In April 2010, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Sri Lanka the fourth worst country in the world for press freedom on its Impunity Index, which spotlights places where “journalists are slain and their killers go free”.

Over 10 journalists have been killed in as many years, and CPJ alone has helped over 19 journalists to flee the country since 2009. Among these statistics, a few stories in particular have sparked sustained outrage and maintained headlines even while the international community’s gaze wandered away from the war-torn island.

On Jan. 19, CPJ published a blog post detailing the brutalities of 2009, one of the worst years in history for Lankan journalists.

CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator Bob Dietz wrote, “On January 6, the independent Sirasa TV’s studios were bombed in an early-morning raid carried out with ‘military precision’, according to staffers on hand at the time. Two days later, on January 8, Lasantha Wickrematunga was killed by eight motorcycle-riding men wielding wooden and metal poles.”

“And on January 29 Upali Tennekoon, editor of the Sinhala- language, pro-government weekly Rivira and his wife, Dhammika were driving to his office when motorcyclists intercepted their car and smashed its window in an attack similar to that which killed Wickramatunga.”

Dietz told IPS, “We are in the middle of such a crisis for the press in Sri Lanka that it is now time for the United Nations to step in. The world’s gaze is turned to Egypt and this latest attack on the press is lost in the commotion because it is nothing new, it’s just more of the same pattern that we have been seeing in Sri Lanka for years now.”

“But I think strong pressure on the U.N., asserting that Sri Lanka cannot just be forgotten, is required,” Dietz added. “Because there really is an almost perfect record of impunity in these attacks, and no one has been brought to justice in any of them.”

However, thus far the U.N. has shown a lack of interest in addressing such violations.

Addressing a press briefing at U.N. headquarters on Monday, the spokesperson for the secretary-general, Martin Nesirky, said, “Freedom of the media is vital and journalists should be able to carry out their work without fear of attack or harassment.”

However, he failed to answer journalists’ specific questions about the burning of Lanka E-News or the various attacks on media personnel and offices that preceded it.

On Jan. 24, Sandhya Eknelyoda handed over a petition to the U.N. office in Colombo requesting the U.N. to mediate in the search for her husband Prageeth Eknelygoda, a political cartoonist and columnist for LEN who disappeared over a year ago and is yet to return to his family.

When asked about the status of her petition, and the possibility of U.N. assistance in the matter, Nesirky responded, “We are not aware of her petition being handed in.”

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) issued a press release on Jan. 25 supporting Eknelygoda’s petition to the Resident Humanitarian Coordinator Neil Buhne, and reiterating the need for immediate U.N. intervention.

The Sri Lankan government’s response to the battered media has run the gamut from denial to negligence to outright apathy, critics say.

“I think what’s necessary is to stop expecting the government to act responsibly and to start really bringing international pressure and an international presence into the country,” Dietz told IPS.

CPJ issued an alert on Monday in response to the burning of Lanka E-News headquarters, calling on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to “address the string of uninvestigated and unprosecuted attacks on journalists and media houses under the government of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.”

The statement stressed that “the litany of arson attacks, assaults, disappearances, and outright killing of journalists that have gone unaddressed make it necessary for the international community to act. The responsibility falls to the United Nations to lead an effective international response to a government that has failed to protect journalists, and is itself a viable suspect in many of these acts.”

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