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CJA Joins Groups in Expressing Dismay About Media Crackdown in Sri Lanka

The Commonwealth Journalists Association has added its voice to worldwide dismay over the new Sri Lankan goovernment's post-election harassment of journalists and news media.

The Commonwealth Journalists Association has added its voice to worldwide dismay over the new Sri Lankan goovernment’s post-election harassment of journalists and news media.

The Human Rights Watch has reported that since the Jan. 26, 2010, presidential election, authorities have detained and questioned several journalists, blocked news web sites and expelled a Swiss journalist. At least one journalist has been assaulted and several have been threatened.

These do not take into account the litany of press freedom abuses that occurred in the days leading up to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resounding victory in the balloting over former army chief Sarath Fonseka.

“The CJA community has a heavy heart as a result of the continuing stories of threats, assaults, mysterious disappearances of journalists, and the clamp down on media’s ability to tell stories of the election,” said president Hassan Shahriar from Dhaka. “We urge President Rajapaksa to intervene and stop this nonsense.”

Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said in a statement on Jan. 29: “Now that the president has been re-elected, there appears to be a settling of scores of critics of the government. Just days after the election, someofficials seem to be on a campaign to abuse their power.”

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders also appealed to the president to put a stop to arrests and intimidation of journalists working for privately-owned and foreign media. The organization reminded the president of the statements in support of press freedom that he has made on many occasions,, including a meeting with a Reporters Without Borders representative in October of 2008.

Reporters Without Borders said police and unidentified groups have been targeting the media, especially media that supported Fonseka. Sri Lanka’s five main journalists’ organizations have condemned the “post-election media suppression.” (See statement below.)

The following serious press freedom violations have been reported by Reporters Without Borders:

  • 1. Police on Jan. 29 arrested Chandana Sirimalwatta, the editor of Lanka, a newspaper that supports the JVP opposition party, after he responded to a summons for questioning about an article published on 26 January. The president’s brother, defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, threatened to burn the newspaper down a few days ago.
  • 2. Plain-clothes men using a car with the license plate 32/ 84 32 placed seals yesterday evening over the entrance to the office of the Lankaenews website. Men searched the office earlier in the day. The website itself has been rendered inaccessible for the past few days by the state telecommunications company Sri Lanka Telecom.
  • 3. In an interview for the Colombo-based Daily Mirror newspaper yesterday, Tamil government minister Douglas Devananda threatened the Jaffna-based newspaper Uthayan with unspecified reprisals.
  • 4. Reporter Karin Wenger of the Swiss public radio station DRS is facing possible deportation on 1 February following the withdrawal of her press accreditation. “I had a visa and accreditation that were valid for the election,” she told Reporters Without Borders. “I think this decision is linked to the questions I asked an official during a news conference after the results were announced.” A presidential adviser referred to her insultingly as a “white face.”
  • 5. Ravi Abewikrama, a reporter with state radio broadcaster SLBC was attacked yesterday by one of the station’s officials for criticising the biased election coverage imposed by the head of the station.
  • 6. Soldiers took up position on 26 January around and inside the buildings that house two privately-owned TV stations, Sirasa and Swarnavahini, in Colombo.
  • 7. Soldiers roughed up photographers working for foreign news agencies when they tried to attend a news conference given by Gen. Fonseka on Jan. 28. One was forced to delete the photos on his camera’s memory card. Soldiers also prevented journalists from working freely near a hotel being used by Fonseka the previous day.
    Reporters Without Borders also urged President Rajapaksa to assign more police officers to the search for political reporter and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who has been missing since 24 January. His family has had no news of him since that date.

    Statement from Sri Lanka’s five media organizations – SLWJA, FMETU, SLMMF, SLTJA and FMM. 30 January 2010

    Stop post election media suppression – an open appeal

    We five major media organizations in the country express our deep concern over the increasing media suppression in post presidential election situation. The presidential election was marred by various threats to non state media and misuse of state controlled public media. In the post election period media situation is becoming serious day by day as clearly shown by development in last few days. We Five Media Organizations condemn theses suppressive measures in strongest terms and express our unconditional solidarity with the media and journalists who are under attack.

    Here are major incidents reported so far.

    Lanakenews journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, disappeared on 24th January night on his way home from the office. There has been no news on his whereabouts till now. Only answer police has given to the complaint made is that they are doing their investigations.

    State controlled Sri Lanka Telecom blocked the www.lankaenews.com on the election day making it impossible for Sri Lankan citizens to visit the site . Lankaenews had been providing much needed space for opposition news and opinions. The Election Commissioner (EC) ordered Sri Lanka Telecom to lift the blockade as a response to the complaint made by its editor to EC. But soon after the final election result was announced by the EC, Sri Lanka Telecom re-imposed the ban, this time more strictly Meanwhile the editor and staff of the lankaenews continue to receive death threats on their phones. On 28th January night unknown group surrounded the lankaenews office located in Rajagiriaya, Boralla and stayed there nearly two hours inquiring about the staff. The vehicle they arrived had the number plate of 32-8432.

    Further it has been reported that at least four more websites with critical content has been blocked by state as well as privately owned servers in Sri Lanka. Those are www.lankanewsweb.com, www.srilankagaurdian.org , www.infolanka.com, and www.nidahasa.com.

    On 28th January morning Ravi Abewikrama, a programme producer of Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation (SLBC) was assaulted by SLRC deputy transport manager G.D. Somapala at the office of SLRC Chairman Ariyarathana Atugala. Later Chairman Atugala, additional Director General Devappriya Abeysinghe threatened programme producers Kanachana Marasinghe, Herburt Kumara Alagiyawanna and Gamini Pushpakumara using abusive language. These media personal are being targeted for their leading role in advocating the compliance of Election Commissions media guide lines by the institution to ensure fair coverage for all sides.
    On 28 January the leader of the major opposition collation partner, the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) Somawansas Amarasinha told a press conference that Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa calling on his mobile from Rajapaksa’s mobile threatened to set fire to Lanka newspaper which is a pro JVP Sinhala weekly .Later it was reported that unofficial ban on carrying this news item was imposed. Incidentally non of the TV news bulletins carried the news.

    On the top of this it has been reported to our organizations that number of provincial correspondents have been threatened and intimidated over the issue of election reporting.

    These incidents show clearly that media suppression is on the increase in post election period. These developments will hamper any informed discussion on the aftermaths of presidential election and the malpractices reported. The result will be the violation of people’s right to information. This in turn will seriously limit people’s ability to make informed judgments on political developments. We would like to reiterate that in the light of the parliamentary election due in few months time, it is all the more necessary to re establish our peoples right to information without delay by making the media environment free..

    In this context, considering that the press freedom as the expression of people’s right to information and freedom of speech, we, the five media organizations in Sri Lanka earnestly urge all democratic forces in the country, diplomatic corps in Sri Lanka, United Nations, International human rights, press freedom and journalists safety organizations to use their good offices to ensure that government of Sri Lanka stop the media suppression and create a free and democratic post election environment.

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