Sri Lanka: Attacks on journalists increase

August 2, 2009

Months after the murder of prominent journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge in Sri Lanka, more journalists have been attacked as part of the Sri Lankan government's war on free speech.

Rights group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) said on July 22 that, under the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, 34 media workers had been killed, including 30 Tamils.

Sri Lanka has a long history of attacking the rights of those that question the government, including journalists. JDS said a high level of self-censorship existed in the Sri Lankan media thanks to an atmosphere of intimidation, harassment and violence.

Wickrematunge was murdered on January 8 after years of threats against his life while he was editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper. He drew the ire of authorities for reporting government corruption and human rights violations.

On June 1, secretary-general of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association Poddala Jayantha was kidnapped in Colombo, tortured and then dumped at a roadside with a broken leg.

A July 13 report quoted labour minister Mervyn Silva making public statements that appeared to admit to responsibility for killing Wickrematunge, breaking the leg of Poddala and threatening a third person with a similar fate.

At a meeting in Hunupitiya, Kelaniya, Silva said: "Lasantha from the Leader paper went overboard. I took care of him. Poddala agitated and his leg was broken.

"Now a fellow in my electorate is trying to stand against me. I now tell him in his own hometown, I will give him only seven more days. If he does not resign as chairman of the Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha, don't blame me later on. You'll don't find fault with me.

"If this fellow goes against what I say, I will send him to the place where I sent Lasantha."

This report has been all but ignored by the mainstream media.

The disregard for human life from the Sri Lankan government is startling. The website of the Sri Lankan Media Centre for National Security, a government department, describes the Tamil population as the "Eelam virus" and visualises this with a cartoon alien-looking creatures covering a map of Sri Lanka.

In a February 3 BBC interview, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa laughed uncontrollably while answering a question about Wickremetunge's death. He described it as "just another murder".

But for anyone looking for the true story behind the case it is hard to look past Wickrematunge's final Sunday Leader editorial published on January 11: "When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me … In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious 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.

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