|Sri Lanka’s exit from
A well-deserved slap
While Sri Lanka’s armed forces battle Tamil
Tiger rebels in the north, sections of the country’s media are
embroiled in a war of a different kind – a fight to pursue their
mission as journalists under a mantle of death threats
By Frederica Jansz
The international community should be applauded for having given
Sri Lanka the resounding slap it deserves for its continuing
disregard of human rights.
The abduction and assault of a senior and respected journalist
in the country, Defence Columnist and Associate Editor of The
Nation, Keith Noyahr, appears to have been the Sri Lankan
response to being voted out of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
Keith’s shocking abduction and assault took place a mere 24
hours after Sri Lanka was beaten to the UNHRC seat by Pakistan.
The whole disgusting and ugly incident once again smacks of
Keith has in recent weeks, in his defence column, been critical
of the Sri Lanka Army and its Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.
Spate of attacks
Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka today, critics are touted by this
government as being traitors. This in the backdrop of increasing
support – at least by the Sinhalese majority – for the
government’s military thrust against the LTTE.
Such attacks as that which took place against Keith come against
a background of increased conflict in Sri Lanka following the
collapse of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the government
and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
A number of journalists in Sri Lanka received death threats in
the wake of knife attacks on two journalists in January this
year. Lal Hemantha Mawalage, a leading news producer with the
state-run Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), was stabbed
in the southern city of Athurugiriya on the night of Friday,
Four days later, the five persons entered the Colombo home of
Suhaib M. Kasim, the Associate Editor of the Sri Lankan
state-owned Tamil daily Thinakaran. They forcibly took him to
his veranda and stabbed him in his abdomen.
Since this attack, another SLRC staff member reported to the
Police that he was threatened at gunpoint. Duleep Sanjeewa told
the Colpetty Police that two armed men threatened him with death
at his home at the end of January.
On March 14, Anurasiri Hettige, also an employee of the state
television corporation, was attacked with an iron club as he
waited for a bus in a Colombo suburb. He was the fifth employee
of the channel to be attacked or threatened within the last
The attacks were believed to have all been linked to an incident
on December 27 last year, when Minister Mervyn Silva stormed
into Rupavahini and abused senior staff over a news programme.
Silva was assaulted and daubed in paint by angry Rupavahini
employees as he was escorted out under military protection.
On the same day that Hettige was attacked, an unidentified gang
stormed the home of journalist M. Parameshwari in Gampola.
Parameshwari had spent three months in detention last year after
being taken into custody by the Terrorism Investigation
Department (TID), a state investigating branch that has wide
powers to detain any citizen without charges.
She was held on charges of allegedly associating and helping the
Tigers, who have been waging a separatist campaign for over
three decades to create a homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamil
minority community on the island’s north and east. But
Parameshwari was released by a court order after the arresting
authorities failed to prove their case.
Police are also investigating an incident where a car and a
motorcycle followed a Ravaya newspaper journalist on the night
of Tuesday, January 29. Lasantha Ruhunage complained to the
Police that he was followed on his way home from work.
The increasingly frequent attacks on journalists and a climate
of impunity for the perpetrators are a matter of serious
In the absence of independent monitors in the north and east, it
is impossible to verify or refute claims or abuses from both
sides to the conflict who blame each other.
Journalists, therefore, play an important role in reporting on
the conflict and exposing human rights violations that have
occurred. Journalists in the south of the country play a vital
role exposing corruption among politicians and the military.
But Sri Lanka has repeatedly displayed scant regard for its
obligations, particularly under the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights. The first part of this report sets
out international standards and the domestic legal framework in
respect of freedom of expression. The second part summarises
increasing attacks on the freedom of expression outside of the
immediate context of the conflict.
While Sri Lanka’s armed forces battle Tamil Tiger rebels in the
north, sections of the country’s media are embroiled in a war of
a different kind – a fight to pursue their mission as
journalists under a mantle of death threats.
Three unrelated events involving men and women working for
television, print and an online publication have brought this
dire situation into sharp focus. In all cases, media
practitioners have been under fire, triggering outrage from
local and international media rights groups.
An equally disturbing incident for the local media was the
arrest of five media workers, both from the majority Sinhalese
and minority Tamil community, for their links with
Outreachsl.com, a recently-launched website focusing on current
affairs related to the ongoing ethnic conflict. Among those
detained by the TID is Jayaprakash Tissainayagam, a columnist
for The Sunday Times and the Editor of Outreachsl.com.
Tissainayagam has been held by the TID since March 7, along with
four others who were involved with the website. No formal
charges have been pressed and access to legal representation has
been denied. The five journalists have been held for alleged
links with the Tamil Tigers, including receiving funds from the
Tigers or fronts operating on their behalf.
But local and international media groups have condemned the
arrest and said that funds for the online project were received
from legitimate sources. The Paris-based media rights watchdog
Reporters without Borders (RwB) said that funding for the
website had come from Funding Local Initiatives in Conflict
Tissainayagam had received Euros 12,000 (US$ 18,800) in November
2007 for the operation of the website. FLICT is backed by the
German development agency German Technical Cooperation, or GTZ.
“The anti-terrorist Police are accusing the journalists of
receiving money from the Tamil Tiger rebels, but after
investigating, we can confirm that the funds in question came
from a German foundation and from Tamil exiles,” RwB said. “We
condemn the fact the some of these journalists were badly beaten
during their first few days in detention, and that this was
clearly done to extract confessions from them.”
In fact, the websites of two government institutions – the
Constitutional Affairs and National Integration Ministry and the
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) – have
openly backed the many projects launched under the FLICT
According to RwB, V. Jasikaran, one of the five detained in the
website case, had received money from members of the Tamil exile
community in Germany to help students in the east of the island.
The current attacks on media freedom in the country will only
add to Sri Lanka’s worsening rights record. In 2006, for
instance, the island had dropped to 141st in the annual media
freedom rankings published by RwB, from an impressive 51st
ranking in 2002, when the CFA was in operation.
The government, however, sees the reality in a different light.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has asserted that there is absolute
media freedom in the country and the government is not bound to
be answerable for isolated incidents as and when they occur.
It is indeed fitting that winners of the Nobel Peace Prize from
three continents called on UN members to reject Sri Lanka’s
candidacy for the UNHRC.
Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Adolfo Pérez
Esquivel of Argentina, and Jimmy Carter of the United States
each published statements urging opposition to Sri Lanka because
of its abusive human rights record.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa charged that “the
systematic abuses by Sri Lankan Government forces are among the
most serious imaginable,” citing widespread torture and
“Governments owe it to Sri Lankan human rights victims – and to
victims of human rights abuses around the world – to ensure that
the Sri Lankan bid fails,” Tutu declared. Tutu won the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1984 for his leadership of the campaign to end
apartheid in South Africa.
Adolfo Pérez Esquivel compared the routine torture and the
hundreds of “disappearances” and extrajudicial killings
committed by Sri Lankan Government forces to the “dirty wars”
waged by various Latin American governments against their own
citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.
“As Latin Americans know all too well, there are few crimes more
horrible for a government to commit than summarily removing its
own citizens from their homes and families, often late at night,
never to be heard from again,” declared Esquivel. “Latin
American governments can do a great service to the people of Sri
Lanka by rejecting their government’s candidacy for the Human
Esquivel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his opposition to
the “disappearances,” extrajudicial killings, and torture used
by the military government of Argentina in combating domestic
Nobel laureates speak out
Former US President Jimmy Carter observed that the UN
established membership standards for the HRC in 2006 so that it
would be “led by countries with a greater commitment to human
A statement released by the Carter Centre in Atlanta “calls on
the General Assembly not to re-elect Sri Lanka to the Human
Rights Council,” citing “the country’s deteriorating human
rights record since its first election to the Council in 2006.”
Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his work to resolve
international conflicts, advance democracy and human rights, and
promote economic and social development.
The Nobel laureates added their voices to the Sri Lankan and
international campaigns against the re-election of Sri Lanka to
the council. Human rights organisations within Sri Lanka urged
UN members to “hold the Sri Lankan Government accountable for
the grave state of human rights abuse in the country” by
rejecting its candidacy, observing it “has used its membership
of the Human Rights Council to protect itself from scrutiny.”
A coalition of more than 20 Non-Governmental Organisations
(NGOs) from all regions of the world wrote to UN members to
oppose Sri Lanka’s re-election to the council, citing its
government for a wide range of serious abuses, including
hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances,
widespread torture, and arbitrary detention.
The website established by the NGO Coalition for an Effective
Human Rights Council detailed how Sri Lanka rejects the
recommendations of UN human rights experts, launches harsh
verbal attacks on senior UN officials who report on human rights
issues, and refuses to engage in serious discussions to allow
international human rights monitoring.