125 journalists in jail. 3 in Sri Lanka. Bloggers next?

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) came out with a disturbing report last week, in which it noted that out of 125 incarcerated as of 1st December 2008, 56 of them were online journalists including bloggers. As CPJ notes,

[it is] a tally that surpasses the number of print journalists for the first time. The number of imprisoned online journalists has steadily increased since CPJ recorded the first jailed Internet writer in its 1997 census. Print reporters, editors, and photographers make up the next largest professional category, with 53 cases in 2008. Television and radio journalists and documentary filmmakers constitute the rest.

“Online journalism has changed the media landscape and the way we communicate with each other,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “But the power and influence of this new generation of online journalists has captured the attention of repressive governments around the world, and they have accelerated their counterattack.”

Bloggers in Sri Lanka aren’t recognised as journalists (save for a single statement by leading media freedom organisations in 2007) and do not enjoy the legal protection afforded to traditional media personnel. Independent online media websites have been increasingly hacked into this year. With traditional print media now embracing citizen journalism and with web audiences / consumers growing apace, there is no doubt that the regime’s attention will focus on the web and Internet in the future. Arguably, this already evident is some of the legislation it proposes for media regulation.  

CPJ also highlights the case of  Tamil columnist and editor J.S. Tissainayagam, detained and after a couple of months charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 2008. As the CPJ notes,

In a statement posted on its official Web site, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights said the journalist and “his business associates” had produced publications “designed to embarrass the Sri Lankan government through false accusations.”

The CPJ gets it slightly wrong here. The website of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights has no mention of Tissa’s case. That credit goes to the perennially priapic Rajiva Wijesinghe who responded, in his capacity of Secetary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, to a press release by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Secretary General of the Governement’s “Peace Secretariat”. Rajiva is also the Secretary General of the Government’s “Peace Secretariat”, where his incredible response was published. In this response, it is noted that one of the charges Tissa stands accused of under PTA is for writing the following passage,

‘Such offensives against the civilians are accompanied by attempts to starve the population by refusing them food as well as medicines and fuel, with the hope of driving out the people of Vaharai and depopulating it. As this story is being written, Vaharai is being subject to intense shelling and aerial bombardment’.

Tissa isn’t the only journalist to languish in Sri Lanka’s prison system, but his case (also because he was the Editor of an independent media website) brings to light the appalling record of the Rajapakse regime to strengthen and safeguard human rights, including the freedom of expression. As Human Rights Watch noted on 3 December

Article 14 of the Sri Lankan constitution enshrines the right to freedom of speech. However, since 2006 the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse has increasingly intimidated and tried to silence the media, nongovernmental organizations, and others with independent or dissenting views of the government’s military policies and human rights practices. Senior government officials have attacked such critics as supporters of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and traitors of the state. “The government’s disregard for the basic rights and well-being of three well-known detainees raises even greater concerns for the hundreds of others detained under the security laws,” Adams said.

In an editorial I wrote on Groundviews a few months ago I noted that,

Salient points of Tissa’s case point to a larger and more chilling deterioration of media freedom in Sri Lanka under the Rajapakse administration. Tissa’s case in particular reveals a particularly twisted logic, and through it, confirms fears that the regime in the South now completely mirrors the intolerance of media freedom and free expression the LTTE is known and reviled for.

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