News Features

Sri Lanka’s exit from UNHRC                                                                                                           

                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 state compliance.

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, January 25.

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 three months.

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.

Serious concern

The increasingly frequent attacks on journalists and a climate of impunity for the perpetrators are a matter of serious concern.
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 Transformation (FLICT).

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.

RwB stance

“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 initiative.

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 extrajudicial killings.

“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 Rights Council.”

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 terrorists.

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 rights.”
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.