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Press freedom under threat in SriLanka as harassment of journalists surges

Throughout the Sri Lanka’s quarter-century-long conflict with Tamil separatists, both the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers used the media for propaganda purposes and resorted to violence to suppress the free flow of information. Journalists working for Sinhalese, Tamil and English media were intimidated, abducted, imprisoned and murdered during the conflict. For this reason, Sri Lanka was often defined as one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world.

'Stop genocide, save Tamils'
July 24, 2006. Memorial to commemorate Black July, 1983, where the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhalese ethnic nationalists massacred thousands of Tamils in Sri Lanka

Since the end of the civil war, more than a decade ago, there has been a notable drop in physical attacks against journalists, and the government gradually relaxed the restrictions placed on the media. However, a campaign of intimidation ran throughout Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, from 2005 to 2015. Moreover, while the government that ruled the country between 2015 and 2019 initially supported investigations into journalists’ murders and abductions, then lost its momentum and no justice was eventually delivered for abuses perpetrated in the civil war years.

After five years, the November 2019 elections have brought the Rajapaksas back to power. With Gotabaya, also known as the “Terminator,” as president and his brother Mahinda as Prime Minister, many journalists are concerned that there will be a fresh round of violence and abuse.  Such fear is not unfounded, as during his brother’s presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was Secretary of Defence and used his position to crack down hard on press freedom.  After his installation on November 18th, 2019, it took less than a week for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to start impacting freedom of press in Sri Lanka.

Investigations against media outlets by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) began with a Police visit to the office of the Tamil newspaper Thinappuyal on November 22nd. According to the Tamil Guardian, the Sri Lankan police questioned the newspaper’s management and requested details of all reporters to be handed over. The incident was shortly followed by a Police raid on November 26th. The target was the office of Newshub.lk, an independent Colombo-based news portal that the Police raided searching its electronic equipment for defamatory material on the new president. On the same day, the newsreader of the YouTube channel leader.lk was subject to an eight-hour interrogation. Two days later, the editor of voicetube.lk was summoned by the CID and questioned for several hours about her last activities with another website where she no longer works. On December 9th, a journalist was assaulted because of the content that he published on the media institution where he works.

Internet Media Action (IMA) said that the raids of media offices were conducted without a valid court order and declared that “questioning journalists for hours, raiding premises and offices that house websites, without a valid reason or even without a legally valid court order, is a formidable pressure on media freedom.” The Free Media Movement (FMM), the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), and the Professional Web Journalist Association (PWJA), expressed deep concern over journalists being investigated by the CID and over the continuous threats, harassment and violence they face. On January 28th, six journalist organizations set up the programme titled “January 2020, is still black,” demanding justice for journalists who have been victims of various crimes as a result of engaging in the media profession. Attorney-at-law and member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Ramani Muththettuwegama pointed out that among the professionals, the profession that has posed the greatest danger and casualties has been the journalism profession.

International media rights groups, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, have also condemned the targeting of journalists since the presidential election, with harassment, threats of arrest or death, surveillance, and lengthy police interrogations linked to their reporting. According to the Press Freedom Index, compiled by the French-based Reporters Without Borders, Sri Lanka ranked 127th this year, slipping down by one position from 2019.

The crackdown on dissent has further intensified in recent months, facilitated by the government’s highly militarized response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has expressed alarm at the clampdown of freedom of expression in parts of the Asia-Pacific during the Covid-19 crisis, including in Sri Lanka. As Rajeeban Arsaratnam, a journalist working for the Tamil journal Thinnakural told Human Rights TV, “the government is using the Coronavirus pandemic as a way to push forward its agenda.” Indeed, Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that is responsibility of journalists to report “the real issues.” Clearly, as a senior writer of the Tamil Guardian told Human Rights TV, “the question of what the real issue is, is quite important, and having a ministerial figure saying to report the real news is quite alarming.” 

 On April 1st, the Police Media Division announced that any person who allegedly criticizes officials engaged in the response to Covid-19 would be arrested. At least 17 persons had been arrested by April 19th for fake news and the Human Rights Commission had expressed concern about the legal basis for some of these arrests. Among those arrested was Ramzy Razeek, a commentator who regularly posts on his Facebook account on topics related to minority rights. At least two persons were arrested for publishing online content criticizing the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Sri Lanka Young Journalists Association (SLYJA), together with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), lodged a complaint against the police media statement, maintaining that the provision of critical support to the government institutions plays a vital role in the functioning of modern democracy and that freedom of speech is enshrined in Article 14(a) of the Sri Lankan Constitution. Free Media Movement has also stressed that all media groups are necessary to deliver accurate and reliable information during the pandemic. As a result, it is fundamental that the media industry is protected by the government, especially in these difficult times.

Jaffna, 2020. Volunteers distributing dry food packages during the Covid-19 pandemic

Data collected by the Sri Lankan human rights group INFORM show that incidents of “repression of dissent” dramatically increased over the past few months, averaging to more than two incidents per day in May. Incidents include beatings, arbitrary arrests, surveillance, death threats, and hacking of electronic devices. As the senior correspondent for Asia of the Committee to Protect Journalists Aliya Iftikhar told Human Rights TV, the targeting of journalists and reporters occurs particularly when they are reporting on the Rajapaksa family, on the Sri Lankan army, or on authorities or government officials in general. An activist who works in the north said that the government’s suppression of activists means that “a lot of people have gone absolutely silent,” and several journalists have been warned that they are on government’s “watch lists.” The CPJ has reported that at least two journalists have gone into exile in recent months. Among the journalists that have fled the country since the current government took office there is Darisha Bastians, former editor of the Sunday Observer and contributor to the New York Times. On June 24th several international human rights groups released a joint statement calling on the Sri Lankan government to stop the targeting of Darisha Bastians, viewing it as an assault on human rights and press freedom.

Others describe a situation of “rampant self-censorship.” Hana Ibrahim, the editor of the Daily/Weekend Express, said that “everyone is scared” and that “we are not writing what needs to be written. We are not being critical”. Similarly, a sub-editor of the Tamil newspaper Thinnakural declared that reporting has already visibly changed, and that fewer details are being included in the articles. A journalist working for the same newspaper also told Human Rights TV that while they were writing freely before the presidential elections, everyone went silent afterwards, preferring to go into self-censorship instead of criticizing the government. “This is because we know what happened in the past, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was Minister of Defence,” the journalist said. The editor of the Tamil newspaper Uthayan told CPJ that reporters and freelancers for the paper have been threatened by unnamed people not to file a story, and shops are told not to sell the paper. 

Colombo, July 17, 2014. Protest organized by NGOs

A senior writer of the Tamil Guardian, in an interview conducted with Human Rights TV, highlighted that less attention is being given to Tamil journalists who are facing death threats and other forms of harassment. 

To worsen the situation of press freedom in Sri Lanka, the current government has declared that it will no longer support the 2015 UN Human Rights Council Resolution, which the previous government co-sponsored, to promote justice, accountability, and protection of civil society victim groups. Although the Rajapaksa government has said that it will pursue a national effort to achieve “sustainable peace,” “Sri Lanka has a long history of failed domestic accountability mechanisms. Their successive failures have bitterly disappointed victims of human rights abuses and violations, many of whom have waited years for an outcome that has failed to materialize. They need an international mechanism that is both trusted and can be effective,” said Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, South Asia Researcher at Amnesty International.  In the conversation that Human Rights TV had with the senior correspondent for Asia of the CPJ, she also expressed concern over the state of impunity for the perpetrators of crimes against journalists in the civil war years. In fact, according to the CPJ, in order to truly improve press freedom in Sri Lanka it is not only paramount that the government guarantees protection for journalists, but most importantly that it ends impunity, and that past cases are prosecuted swiftly.

President Rajapksa’s party secured a parliamentary majority in elections on August 5th, 2020. The results increased concerns that the government will exacerbate policies that are hostile to press freedom, and further repress those seeking justice for abuses committed during the civil war.

This article is based on both review of various media outlets (international and local) and in-depth interview with human rights based organisations focused on press freedom and rights of journalists. We interviewed CJP, Odkaan, Thinakkural and Tamil Guardian. Detail news could be accessed here: https://youtu.be/DDTsMAg3ccw

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