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Sri Lanka: Media Kept On Tight Leash

By IPS Correspondents

29 April, 2009
Inter Press Service

COLOMBO, Apr 29 (IPS) - As the latest round of Asia’s longest-running guerrilla war winds down, scores of journalists here are experiencing intimidation and harassment for being critical of the military campaign against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The issues currently in focus are the rising number of civilian casualties, repeated calls for a ‘ceasefire’ by the U.N. and the international community, and a government plea for international humanitarian assistance to tackle a mounting crisis.

"Maybe journalists don’t want to talk about these things given the fear psychosis that has engulfed the media," noted a veteran journalist, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal. Some journalists have even opted to leave the country.

N. Vithiyatharan, Editor of the Uthayan and Sudar-Oli newspapers, was released on Friday after two months in detention after a local magistrate in Colombo ruled that there was no evidence to link him to a Tamil rebel air strike in Colombo in February 2009.

Vithiyatharan, a member of the Tamil minority community, said in a newspaper interview on Saturday that he was detained by the government to prevent him from highlighting the grievances of displaced Tamil civilians in the north.

His plight is typical of dozens of journalists, the majority from the Tamil community, who have been branded as pro-LTTE, anti-war or anti-national, in the past 18 months since President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government intensified the battle against the LTTE in January 2008.

Thousands, combatants and civilians, have died or been injured in the conflict. The rebels are now confined to a small patch of land of the northern coastal jungles along with thousands of civilians whom the government says are not being allowed to leave - they are being used as human shields by the Tigers.

Colombo has seen a flurry of visits by international leaders with the foreign ministers of Britain and France also due in an effort to persuade the government to enforce a ceasefire to allow the civilians to leave the conflict zone.

Since before ground troops began advancing about six months ago into the deep jungles of the north to oust the rebels from their headquarters in Kilinochchi and other areas, reporters have not been allowed into the conflict areas and any criticism of the military is frowned upon by the government.

Iqbal Athas, the award winning defence columnist of The Sunday Times and considered Sri Lanka’s best-known writer on military affairs, has not written his column for weeks and is said to be abroad.

Jehan Perera, Executive Director at the National Peace Council (NPC), which has been at the forefront of promoting a peaceful end to the conflict, says the restrictions on war reporting are in place because the government doesn’t want information on the high civilian cost of the war reaching the public.

"This has kept the morale of the people high as they only hear the government side, and are told about the successes only. The international community also doesn’t know what is going on and may have been more critical of the war if they had the information [on civilian casualties, etc]," Perera, also a political columnist, said.

The war successes have also won heavy support from large sections of the population. On Saturday, Rajapaksa’s ruling party swept a regional poll in the Western Province securing a two-thirds majority and wiping out the main Opposition United National Party in many of its strongholds in the capital, Colombo.

Stressing that the cost of the war is very "high" Perera said, if balanced reporting was permitted, there would have been more criticism of the cost of the war and more critical voices would have entered the fray.

The government has been roundly condemned over the past several months for muzzling the media on war reporting. In February 2009, a group of journalists’ associations and trade unions in the Asia-Pacific region meeting in Hong Kong expressed their deep concern over continuing violations of media rights in Sri Lanka, and urged the Sri Lankan Government to uphold the law and live up to its responsibilities.

In a joint statement the groups the groups drew attention to bad situation for the media in Sri Lanka and highlighted cases of particular concern: the murder of prominent editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, an arson attack on the facilities of independent broadcaster Sirasa TV, a knife attack on a newspaper editor and his wife, and continuing verbal threats by ministers and other senior government members directed against journalists and media workers.

"Several of Sri Lanka’s most well-known journalists have left the country fearing for their lives," the group said. Sri Lanka’s biggest media body, the Sri Lanka Press Institute, has a special fund to take care of journalists under threat or send them abroad.

In January, the U.S. State Department urged the government to prevent attacks and intimidation of the media. "A free and independent media is vital to ensuring the health and continuation of any democracy," it said.

President Rajapaksa regularly has briefings with editors of newspapers and has denied his government’s role in the killings or abductions, claiming this is the work of disgruntled groups bent on tarnishing the image of the government.

Rather than backing down from the chorus of media protests, the government has been on the offensive over what it says is biased reporting. On Feb. 1, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, warned that foreign media organisations would face "dire consequences" and be "chased out" of the country if they did not behave "responsibly."

In a statement, he accused some international news organisations of partisan reporting on the situation regarding civilian casualties and suffering in conflict areas.

Some analysts however say the clash between the media and the government has been going on for decades. Lakshman Gunasekara, senior journalist, former editor of the state-owned Sunday Observer and media activist, says that for the past 30 years of the armed conflict, the media has displayed ethnic biases in its coverage of the war.

"A dominant section of the media has played down perceptions and problems of minorities," he said, adding however that at the same time the media has tried to fulfil its expected ‘watchdog’ role of critical coverage of public affairs and governance but, in doing so, has suffered violent suppression under successive governmental regimes.

Gunasekara said the current governmental regime, like its predecessors, have regularly used the real contingency of combating insurgency as an excuse to muzzle the national media.

A northern journalist, who has reported on the war for more than two decades, said, "We have to report only what the government is saying. Anything negative would have serious consequences."

He said after the operations were intensified in January 2008, even field commanders who freely spoke to the media were silent and inaccessible.

"The strategy is that the government doesn’t want any setbacks or losses on the field to be known to the public and also soldiers on the field as it would affect their morale," the journalist told IPS.

Gunasekera says that there has been media repression in other war-affected countries, but the media has braved this and raised issues. "Here, perhaps due to the severity of the tight controls and fear of repercussions, the media has been silent," he added.

Gunasekera says that dozens of journalists have been killed during the past 25 years, while scores more have been harassed and intimidated.

In January, the government said 9 journalists had been killed since January 2006, 27 assaulted and another 5 abducted. Of the abductions, 4 were found while one remains missing, Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena said in Parliament, adding that the police have gathered vital information with regard to the killing of journalists.

However despite these assurances, not a single perpetrator of these criminal acts has been brought to book.

Copyright © 2009 IPS-Inter Press Service.


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