As a country where journalists are often threatened and sometimes killed, Sri Lanka seemed an unlikely setting for May’s World Press Freedom Day Conference. As if to lend credence to the skepticism, gunmen burst into a newspaper in the northern town of Jaffna and opened fire, killing two people.
For delegates who had come from around the globe to attend the UNESCO conference, the irony must have been as heavy as the humidity in the air. Or maybe, for some, it vanished with the heat as they entered the luxurious, air conditioned Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in Colombo.
Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakse, the guest of honour, condemned the attack, instructing police to “spare no effort to bring the criminals involved in this senseless act to justice.”
The authorities reacted swiftly, arresting six people. UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura expressed gratitude for “the Sri Lankan government’s promise to take every possible step to bring the culprits to justice.” The six were quickly found to be innocent and released.
Media Minister Anura Yapa blamed “armed terrorists” for the attack on Uthayan – a newspaper sympathetic to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) urged the government to investigate the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), noting that the publication had carried a cartoon of the party’s pro-government leader the day before the attack.
“Suspicion once again falls on the EPDP, which is known for using intimidation and violence,” it said.
Sources in Jaffna, under the condition of anonymity, echoed that conclusion. The UNESCO conference was disrupted the next day by rumours that a suicide bomber had been apprehended trying to enter the building. It had only been a week since a female LTTE suicide bomber seriously injured a Sri Lanka Army general. The fears quickly fell away, however, when it emerged that the alleged terrorist was a female Tamil journalist who attempted to attend the conference without an official invitation.
Indications of her good-faith intentions did not engender her release, however. She was remanded to custody while under investigation by the National Intelligence Service. The move was questioned by media watchdogs like the International Federation of Journalists and the Colombo-based Free Media Movement (FMM) as being potentially discriminatory.
“The only reason FMM could think of for asking Ms. Sivaramya for an official invitation was that she belongs to the minority Tamil community,” spokesman Sunanda Deshapriya said in a release. “FMM understands security concerns of the government in the dangerously volatile situation developing in the country but would like to emphasize that discriminatory practices usually do more harm than good.”
While Sri Lankan journalists are routinely harassed, threatened and attacked from all sides of the conflict, the cases are rarely thoroughly investigated. As Deshapriya told Inter Press Service, “The government has done little to stop murderous attacks on journalists over the last two decades.”
A month after the murders at Uthayan, no more arrests had been made, and advertising manager, Mahendran Rajungan, was skeptical about the investigation’s progress.
“The police came, but nothing happened,” he said. “They came took our statements and then went off.”
He pointed out that the newspaper had been targeted more than once before, most recently in January with the unsolved killing of the Uthayan’s Trincomalee correspondent. The Uthayan is not alone in noting government complacency as journalists are attacked. RSF has made similar accusations, pointing to unsolved cases such as the October 2000 murder of Mayilvaganam Nimalarajan, a BBC contributor shot to death in his home.
As the only international broadcaster with a permanent presence in Sri Lanka, BBC has come under rhetorical fire as well. On May 15, about 200 people gathered outside its London headquarters carrying placards, including one that read, “Bias Brainwashing Corporation.” Protesters claimed BBC’s Sri Lanka coverage was a pro-LTTE. BBC posted a response on its website, pointing out that it is also the subject of an email campaign by LTTE supporters who accusing it of taking a pro-government position.
“No matter how much we strive to maintain our guidelines of impartiality and accuracy, there will always be people on either side convinced we are biased against them,” said the BBC.
It’s a situation that makes journalists easy targets in a crossfire. And with the Sri Lanka peace process in shambles, the government appears to be exerting even more control over the media. On June 23, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a statement expressing concern over the government’s “reinstatement of a politically appointed Press Council with the authority to penalize news outlets and journalists for their reporting.” Just weeks prior, at the World Press Freedom conference, Sri Lanka had committed itself to including “press freedom and the development of free, pluralistic and independent media as core components” of state development.
The government’s duplicity would not come as a surprise to many Sri Lankan journalists, according to Nalaka Gunawardene. She said that she and other local journalists boycotted the conference, partly because of the government’s “extremely poor track record in promoting media freedom.”
“We chose not to attend this event lest we legitimise this whitewash by our mere presence,” she said.
JARED FERRIE is a Vancouver-based journalist who visited Sri Lanka in May and June. He is a graduate of the UBC School of Journalism.