Journalists in Sri Lanka face many constraints. Local journalists can hardly do any independent research. They complain about being obstructed, defamed, threatened and even abducted. In the runup to the presidential elections last week the government eased the restrictions, but immediately after Mahinda Rajapaksa's controversial victory over former army chief Sarath Fonseka, they were again enforced. This also applies to foreign correspondents.
Journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed a year ago
Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa had just secured his re-election when local journalists started getting seriously concerned. "People who were supporting General Sarath Fonseka will be gone missing very soon," said one journalist immediately after the incumbent president's land-slide victory had been announced. He himself has gone underground since, after white vans, notorious for being used in abductions, began appearing in front of his house, and strangers started asking the neighbors about his whereabouts and callers threatened him with interrogation.
Lal Wickrematunge is the editor of the Sunday Leader. His brother Lasantha researched corruption in the president's inner circle until he was murdered a year ago. Lal never stays two nights at the same place these days. He is afraid of the president's brother, Defence Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
"We have got death threats still. Gotabhaya has filed action against us in court; and after Lasantha’s death, I met the president and we tried to put this behind us, but Gotabhaya said 'No, I want to get you.'"
During the election campaign, police stormed the Sunday Leader's printing press, alleging that the paper was about to publish libelous articles about the government.
Libel is also the reason given by the Sri Lankan authorities for blocking five news websites. The editorial office of the E-Lanka website was even surrounded by armed officers and closed down. A reporter and cartoonist of E-Lanka has disappeared.
The chief editor of the "Lanka" weekly was arrested, and the magazine has also been shut down.
Swiss reporter targeted for asking questions
Foreign journalists are also targeted by the authorities. Many were refused visas to cover the elections. Swiss correspondent Karin Wenger was allowed to come, but the authorities revoked her visa and accreditation after she had asked questions at a government press briefing.
"I asked two questions," Wenger says. "Why were there so many troops in front of opposition candidate Fonseka's hotel? And the second referred to rumours we kept hearing: Was it true that the president's brother Basil Rajapaksa was inside the election commission's office?"
An official stopped her after the press conference and started shouting at her: "I won’t be subdued by a white skin! Keep this in mind!"
Meanwhile the information ministry has withdrawn the decision to ban Karin Wenger, calling it a 'mistake'. The Swiss journalist will be allowed to remain in Sri Lanka. But the local media are facing more pressure than ever before, despite President Rajapaksa's promises that he wants reconciliation with all parts of the Sri Lankan society after his victory.
The Sunday Leader's Lal Wickrematunge hopes that the repressions will be eased soon: "the war is over. The Fourth Estate wants to get on by doing their job."
Sri Lankans are due to elect a new parliament within the next three months.
Author: Sabina Matthay / Thomas Bärthlein
Editor: Grahame Lucas