International and local media rights groups observing UN World Press Freedom Day have condemned a spate of murders, abductions and intimidation of journalists in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement (FMM), citing statistics for the past 12 months, said that seven journalists had been killed, two were missing, three media personnel had been arrested while four had been attacked. At least three journalists had fled the country, while eight had been threatened or harassed, the group said.
Washington-based Freedom House said spiralling violence against the media had prompted it to downgrade the island nation from having a “partly free” media to “not free” in its annual `Freedom of the Press’ survey, released to mark the 3 May occasion.
“Sri Lanka’s… status was downgraded to ‘Not Free’, to reflect new official restrictions on media coverage as well as a rise in attacks against journalists – particularly ethnic Tamils – and media outlets in the north and east, where the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels effectively resumed their civil war,” the report said.
It pointed out that in Sri Lanka the murder of journalists “had emerged as an alarming pattern” against a backdrop of impunity “with half-hearted or ineffective efforts being made to punish those responsible.”
Call for bigger UN role
Deploring the escalation of violence directed at the media, the FMM renewed its demand for the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression to visit, and for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to expand its presence in the island.
|As a direct consequence of the increase in hostilities between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), fundamental rights, including the freedom of expression and media freedom, have severely deteriorated over the past year.|
“As a direct consequence of the increase in hostilities between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), fundamental rights, including the freedom of expression and media freedom, have severely deteriorated over the past year,” the FMM said in a statement.
The group also criticized the suppression of Tamil journalists who work in difficult conditions in the conflict-torn north and east and are at the mercy of both the security forces and armed groups.
Displaying the growing concern in the international community, the US ambassador in Sri Lanka, Robert Blake, called on the Colombo government to step up protection for the island’s journalists.
“Last year, Sri Lanka had the honour to host the United Nations' observance of World Press Freedom Day. But in the year that has followed, Sri Lanka has seen newspapers shut down, broadcasters taken off the air, and journalists from all communities murdered, abducted or intimidated,” Blake said.
His statement said that Sri Lanka as a democracy had to “protect and reap the benefits of a media that is vibrant and truly independent and provides a voice to all without censorship or fear of reprisal.”
The call comes three days after a journalist, Selvarajah Rajivarman, 25, working for the Tamil newspaper, “Uthayan” in the strife-torn northern Jaffna peninsula was shot dead by unidentified gunmen near his office.
“Culture of impunity”
The FMM blamed both the government and the LTTE for “being unable or unwilling to put an end to a culture of impunity that has cost some journalists and rights activists their lives and places others at severe risk.”
Apart from acts of violence aimed at journalists, the media in Sri Lanka is also being strangled by administrative, legal and economic pressures, including government regulations, unofficial censorship and hate campaigns by state officials, the FMM charged.