In Sri Lanka, there are increasing attacks against journalists critical of the government’s war with the rebel group Tamil Tigers. A movement for greater press freedom in the country is now gathering momentum.
Media in Sri Lanka feel under pressure
On Wednesday, journalists donning black arm bands in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo demonstrated outside the residence of President Mahinda Rajapakse, shouting slogans and carrying placards. They were demanding the arrest of those responsible for the recent attacks on a journalist and a British High Commission official. Journalist and defence analyst Namal Perera and British High Commission political officer Mahendra Ratnaweera were beaten up by unidentified gangs on Monday.
Since the Sri Lankan government formally ended a ceasefire agreement with the rebel group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), there have been fresh spurts of violence across the country. Monday’s incident is just one in a series of assaults on the freedom of the media in Sri Lanka, which was ranked by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) as the third deadliest place for journalists.
‘Government clamping down on critical journalists’
Sunanda Deshapriya, convener of the Free Media Movement in Sri Lanka, says that this is part of a government campaign to clamp down on any criticism of its military policy.
He says that the government cannot accept the role of the media as an independent observer, or a watchdog. ``Government has two wars in Sri Lanka. One is against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and one is against the independent media,’’ says Deshapriya.
In the past two years of civil war between the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers, over 25 cases of threats or assaults against journalists have been reported, and at least 12 journalists have been killed. Of these, 11 died in government-controlled areas, and despite official investigations, no one has been brought to justice in these cases.
‘Inciting violence against the media’
Although there is no direct evidence to show that the attacks are orchestrated by the government, Deshapriya says that the defence ministry’s censorship guidelines on its official website can also trigger violence against the media.
According to Deshapriya, the defence ministries official website prohibits any writing on military procurement, military promotion, or military strategy. ``The website says journalists writing on these issues are traitors. Defence ministry asks soldiers and people to take care of those media. That is directly inciting violence,’’ says Deshapriya.
Government denies role
Sri Lanka’s Mass media and information minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa denies that there are any such curbs or attacks on media freedom and says that the media have merely been requested not to divulge information that would help or encourage the insurgents. About Monday's attacks, he says that the government has no involvement in the attacks, and no government arms were involved.
``This is a clear indication that someone is trying to tarnish the image of the government. We want to find out who these people are and we have deployed three police teams to investigate into the attacks,’’ says Yapa.
Journalists are now counting on the growing international pressure to help improve their first situation. In a first reaction, the Sri Lankan government has now formed a ministerial panel to investigate all complaints regarding press freedom.