2008: Celebrating the growth of media freedom and the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka


Media freedom and the freedom of expression took a nose dive in 2008, following trends from the year before. Print, electronic and web media were severely undermined by government and LTTE supported violence – both physical and verbal – against dissent, independent opinion and investigative journalism. Framed by escalation of hostilities in the North and East and the demise of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), journalists and media personnel were killed, received death threats, were abducted, stabbed, beaten, grievously hurt, abused, their families attacked, houses ransacked and forced to go into hiding or flee the country. Based on spurious logic and evidence, many independent journalists as well as media establishments were branded traitors and pro-LTTE.

For example, the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, Major General Sarath Fonseka, repeatedly and with complete impunity labelled independent media and journalists “traitors” in an interview published in the state-controlled Sinhala daily “Dinamina” on 2 January 2008. Fonseka said:

“The biggest obstacle is the unpatriotic media. I am not blaming all journalists. I know 99 percent of media and journalists are patriotic and doing their jobs properly. But unfortunately, we have a small number of traitors among the journalists. They are the biggest obstacle. All other obstacles we can surmount.”

Echoing these sentiments, the brother of the Sri Lankan President and Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksha stated in an interview conducted in January that media has to be censored and criminal defamation brought back. Self-censorship reached unprecedented levels, with unofficial government censorship contributing to a near complete blackout of the civilian impact and humanitarian fall out of military operations against the LTTE in the North and East. The growing use and impact of mobile phones to gather and disseminate news and information did not go unnoticed by the repressive Rajapakse regime. As early as January 2008, the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) warned that any rumors including SMS text massaging regarding the war situation would be dealt with severely. As Amnesty International noted in February,

While most of the members of the media who have been targeted are from the Tamil community, since 2006 government officials and pro-government Tamil armed groups are increasingly targeting journalists of the majority Sinhalese community who speak out against the conflict and in favour of a political settlement or who criticize the government’s policies in other respects. Measures to curb the media include the closure of newspapers; the blocking of a website; arbitrary arrests and detention under the ERs; censorship and intimidation. These measures are also increasingly aimed at artists, including filmmakers.

It was not only sections of the ruling government to blame for attacks – both verbal and physical – against media. In November, the leader of the opposition viciously threatened the senior journalists from the Daily Mirror, and its Editor. The EPDP in November wrote to the FMM asking that it retracts allegations made by the Uthayan newspaper that armed cadre of the group was intimidating and harassing its journalists. The JVP threatened journalists on many occasions over the course of the year, while at the same time decrying the attitude towards media freedom by the government. The Police were simply incapable of protecting journalists and with the breakdown in the rule of law, meaningful investigations into attacks and due process were rendered anachronistic.

Rank disdain
In January 2008, Sri Lanka was listed as one of the six most unsafe places for journalists in the annual survey conducted by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) with six recorded deaths of media personnel over 2007. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) put Sri Lanka as the fourth most dangerous country in the world for media workers and journalists. The RSF ranking followed another by the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) based in Geneva, Switzerland in late 2007 that listed Sri Lanka as the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists and media workers. As RSF noted in its Annual Report for 2008,

In the capital Colombo, the government, allied to ultra-nationalists of the right and the left, cracked down on independent press groups, closing a radio network and publications in Sinhala. Officials have made frequent statements hostile to press freedom activists and investigative journalists, forcing the best known of them, Iqbal Athas, to temporarily flee the country. Access to conflict zones is virtually impossible for journalists and the war of words and statistics between the government and the LTTE spilled over into the press.

In May, the BBC reports that Reports Without Borders (RSF) called Sri Lanka a Press Freedom predator, naming Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran as two of the worst examples in this regard. “Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse often voices virulent attacks on the press, contributing to the appalling climate that prevails there,” the RSF statement said.

In June, 29 leading media organisations around the world urged / United Nations to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to protect journalists in a letter addressed to the Secretary General of the United Nations after the Defense Ministry called journalists critical of the war effort against Tamil rebels “enemies of the state” and said it would take “all necessary measures to stop this journalistic treachery“.  While the Ministry of Defense website issued particularly frightening warning throughout the year, other officials in government were more forthcoming and farcical. For example, in June, Hudson Samarasinghe, the Chairperson of State controlled Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation (SLBC), openly called for the death of Poddala Jayantha, the General Secretary of Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA). Responding to these comments, which were uttered live on air, the Free Media Movement (FMM) averred that,

It is sadly evident that Hudson Samarasinghe harbours the certifiably deranged belief that he is in a position to issue dire warnings against independent media and openly, with total impunity, call for the murder of journalists…. By appointing him to head a State media institution, the Rajapaksa administration demonstrates an utter disregard for media freedom. In attempting to even suggest that Hudson Samarasinghe has a right to say what he wants to, the Rajapaksa administration significantly aids the growth of hate speech and is directly culpable in violence directed against journalists.

In August, 11 political parties including the UNP, SLMC, JVP and the SLFP Peoples Front noted that,

…independent media and journalists in Sri Lanka today are terrorized through a spate of killings, abductions, assaults, arbitrary arrests and detentions. They are subject to violence, both physical and verbal, to a degree that is unprecedented.

The joint statement pointed to a number of outrageous and undeniable attacks on media personnel, institutions, NGOs and journalists aided and abetted by the State and armed groups. The signatories asked the government to urgently and meaningfully investigate and curtail these abuses.

Killings, Abductions and Attacks
In April, the Jaffna correspondent of Shakthi TV, Paranirupasingam Thevakumar, 34, was abducted while he was returning to his residence in Vaddukkoaddai and hacked to death. The Free Media Movement in a statement noted that Thevakumar was the 9th journalist/media worker killed in Jaffna since 2006 and that three more journalists/media workers had been abducted in Jaffna since the same year.

Sri Lanka holds the record for the greatest number of disappearances reported to the UN. Poddala Jayantha, Provincial News Editor of the Sinhala language weekly newspaper Silumina and the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA) alleged in January that the Police had staged an attempt to abduct him.

In June, a journalist and employee of the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) Namal Perera and a political officer at the British High Commission Mahindra Ratnaweera were assaulted in broad daylight in an attempt to abducted Namal. The car they were travelling in was smashed and both severely injured. The Sri Lanka Press Institution and the Newspaper Publishers Association offered a reward of Rs. 5 million (about US$50,000) for information on the assault, but none was forthcoming.

Web media developments
Web media in general, and blogs in English, Sinhala and Tamil in particular saw growth in 2008. For example, the analysis of key social, economic and political events from popular bloggers like Deane’s Dimension, Indi and Dinidu De Alwis to name a few, have become a daily read for many audiences, including the readership of mainstream print media. The Sri Lankan blog aggregator, Kottu.org, has a vast collection of Sri Lankan blogs and has created a launch pad to access and engage with a large spectrum of opinions, allowing for the re-interpretation as well as deconstruction of mainstream media news and information. Although contested as a positive attribute, by encouraging discussion and formulating ideas the growth of blogging has narrowed at some level the democratic deficit and secured dissent. This is particularly evident in sites such as Beyond Borders and In Mutiny, featuring high quality (English) content and debate, by youth, for youth. Kottu over the course of 2008 featured daily posts on theatre, art, poetry, IT, higher studies, puberty, pre-puberty blues, post-puberty blues, love, lack of love, social revolutions, peace, media, democracy, fascism, liberty, religion, music, ear rings, tattoos, books, reviews and a huge array of photos from Flickr that capture moments both private and public of the varied lives of bloggers. Blogs like Dare to be Different (run by a politician)  jostled for attention with the Voices in My Head. From personal rants on the top 10 Extremists in Sri Lanka to more thoughtful analyses of Sri Lanka’s socio-political dynamics, Kottu’s collective voices offer far more food for thought than most mainstream media today. The voices are overwhelmingly young, vibrant and passionate.

Perhaps on account of this explosive growth in web journalism and its growing readership, the government and other actors demonstrated more awareness and greater hostility towards web journalists and media personnel, including bloggers. In April, JVP guards attempted to intimidate and expel a journalism from ‘Lanka E News’ who went to report one of the party’s press conferences in Colombo. More disturbingly, the AG’s Department noted in April that ,

“The government has received a complaint that the [Tamil National Alliance] website directly contributes towards dividing the country and that it promotes the concept of a separate Eelam state.”

Journalist J.S. Tissanaiyagam and five of his colleagues from the news web site http://www.outreachsl.com were detailed by the TID. Some are still in custody. http://www.tamilnet.com continued to be blocked by all major ISPs in Sri Lanka and over all Internet connections. Indika Gamage, Editor of the erstwhile Lanka Dissent website alleged in May that the website was subject to hacking attempts that disrupted its news and reporting services. He went on to note that ,

The Defence Ministry recently set up an electronic media observation unit at a building adjacent to Standard Chartered Bank in front of the President’s House in Colombo to monitor websites reporting on the situation in Sri Lanka. LD learns through reliable sources that this particular unit staffed with electronic and IT experts, is experimenting on how to disrupt websites.

The Ministry of Defense vehemently refuted these allegations and threatened legal action if they were not retracted.  Lanka Dissent went on to note in July, commemorating its first year of operations that,

We were harassed by the authorities for our reporting. Our e-mail ‘in-box’ was hacked into. Our e-mail was used to insult and threaten other site administrators. Our site was completely blocked, denying access to us. We were compelled to immediately change our domain parking at a cost. The threat on media was extending to the cyber world as well.

New Legislation and Censorship Impacting the Media
The Minister of Mass Media and Information has on 10th October 2008 promulgated a new set of regulations cited as the Private Television Broadcasting Station Regulations, under powers conferred by the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Act, No.6 of 1982. These new regulations seek to regulate all aspects of private television broadcasting, including the production, dissemination and archival of web media generated by citizens. The overbroad and ill defined set of regulations, lifted verbatim in parts from Indian Cable TV regulations, created fear in the media community that draconian legislation would make outright censors out of Internet Service Providers and telecommunications service providers, already widely suspected of surveillance and covert monitoring of human rights advocates. The initial draft raised a number of very serious concerns at the time, that included amongst many others:

  1. The lack of any clearly defined framework for the nature and scope of the ‘agreement’ enumerated in Regulations 9 (b) and 10 (b) has disturbing and negative implications for the rights of all wired and wireless broadband customers in particular – including all ADSL, 3G mobile telephony and 3G HSPA mobile broadband modem users – as well as all citizens, since those who may not be a customer of an ISP could still use the internet to disseminate video productions (e.g. video content that is uploaded through a cybercafé).
  2. Since all State owned and privately owned ISPs in Sri Lanka are risk averse and for example have blocked http://www.tamilnet.com since July 2007 without any public acknowledgement of the source and legality of the orders so given, it is highly probable that ISPs will impose draconian limitations on the qualitative nature of video content produced, disseminated, archived or otherwise referenced through their networks.
  3. It is unclear whether political parties who choose to produce and disseminate video content to educate the general public on their practices and policies will be able to do so henceforth under Regulations included in this Gazette. Whereas today political parties can potentially broadcast their message using any of the means flagged in Regulation 2 (b) (i) through to 2 (b) (v), content deemed to contravene Regulation 13 (e) by the Minister may result in the ISPs as well as traditional broadcasters refusing to help produce, transmit and archive party political content especially from political parties not part of the incumbent government. However, because it is the nature of government to change after elections, ISPs and traditional broadcasters may find that content that was fit to be broadcast under one regime may be precisely that which puts their license at risk under another. This will invariably lead to a situation where the general public and voters will be denied video content that can educate them on vital issues, alternatives, vital policy debates and severely undermine their right to information.

J.S. Tissanaiyagam: Creating a fear psychosis
J.S. Tissanaiyagam, a working journalist and Editor of the http://www.outreachsl.com website and North-Eastern Monthly, was detained under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act No 48 of 1979 (PTA) on 7th March 2008, held and interrogated for over 180 days without any formal charge by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) and remains incarcerated to date. Salient points of Tissanaiyagam’s case point to a significant and chilling deterioration of media freedom in Sri Lanka under the Rajapakse administration. In fact, this case confirms fears that the Rajapakse administration effectively mirrors the intolerance towards the freedom of expression the LTTE is known and reviled for. On 12th August 2008, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, Secretary General of the Government’s anachronistic Peace Secretariat, in his capacity as Secretary, Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights published a letter to Brad Adams from Human Rights Watch.  Prof. Wijesinha quoted a passage from one of Tissa’s articles – ‘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’. – and goes on to note that this is evidence that Tissanaiyagam has transgressed Sri Lankan laws and is furthermore cited in the charge sheet against him.

Embarrassing the incumbent Sri Lankan government, or bringing it into disrepute is thus one of the key charges against Tissanaiyagam. Tissanaiyagam’s case is also a study in perverse social engineering contributing to media censorship. The regime clearly aims to make an example of him to silence other independent voices in the media, including bloggers, through fear. As Dr. Lucksiri Fernando notes in Freedom of expression and National Security under Siege: J. S. Tissainayagam’s Detention,

“Nothing seems to justify the detention and indictment of Tissainayagam… The entrenchment of PTA under the current political, economic and security conditions however, does not give any flexibility to the government to entertain enlightened thinking. It is quite possible that the government will unfairly use Tissainayagam as an exemplary case to demonstrate to the international community that it cannot be pressured and insist that its charges against him are legitimate. They will argue he was granted due process, despite the irregularities in his indictment. By not appearing to bow down to international pressures, the government will boost its domestic credibility at the same time that it sends a strong warning to other journalists who exercise freedom of expression by voicing opinions critical of the government.”

A day before Tissainayagam was detained, the TID detained Vettivel Jasikaran, manager of the news site OutreachSL, and his companion, Vadivel Valamathy, both Tamils. Quoting reports by Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) notes in its Annual Prison Census that in a court in Colombo on 30th June 2008, when their detention was extended for three months, Jasikaran said he had been tortured and that Valamathy had been repeatedly denied medical treatment following recent stomach surgery that required continued care.

In November, the International Federation of Journalism (IFJ) wrote to the Government demanding an immediate explanation for the sudden relocation of journalist J.S. Tissainayagam to a notoriously violent army prison in Sri Lanka. Noting that “the manner in which Tissainayagam has been arrested, detained without charge, indicted under draconian laws and imprisoned in appalling conditions is a gross abuse of his fundamental human right to justice” the IFJ also said that “reports have been received that his food has been confiscated by some of the 140 prisoners sharing his cell. No other food has been provided.”

Keith Noyahr and dissent’s death
Keith Noyahr, Associate Editor and Defence Correspondent of ‘The Nation’ newspaper, published by the Rivira media group, was brutally abducted in May and released after being severely beaten up. In a front -page editorial tellingly titled Freedom of Suppression, the generally pro-government The Island newspaper noted that,

“Noyahr’s ordeal has proved once again that the culture of impunity has come to stay in this country. Attacking journalists seems to have become an easier task than throwing stones at stray dogs. Perpetrators of violence against the media are confident of going scot free.”

To make matters worse, the hawkish Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse summoned and reprimanded Sanath Balasooriya and Poddala Jayantha, the President and General Secretary of Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) respectively over a protest campaign against abduction of Keith Noyahr. As recorded in a public statement issues over the incident, the journalists had been told that,

  • It is unacceptable to criticise the armed forces whilst working in State newspapers.
  • That anyone other than the leaders of the armed forces can be criticised.
  • That the aim of our protest was to criticise the armed forces and that was wrong.
  • If both journalists continue criticising the military, neither the Secretary of Defence nor the regime are in a position to prevent actions taken against them by groups / persons who revere the Army Commander.

This position was publicly articulated by the Defense Secretary, and with complete impunity, in an interview with the Daily Mirror in the same month as Noyahr’s abduction, noting that media that published reports seen as harmful towards the security forces and military operations were ‘traitors’ and stressed that such media should be banned. This followed journalists and photojournalists in particular who were banned from covering events from funeral parlours and hospitals in April, suggesting at the time that the military was incurring heavy losses, which the government wanted kept secret. The Ministry of Defense later fleshed out that which was told to Sanath Balasooriya and Poddala Jayantha in detail and noted that all media should not,

1.    Be critical of and analyse military strategies
2.    Scrutinize promotions and transfers within the military
3.    Question military procurements and tenders
4.    Espouse/ discuss anti-war positions
5.    Obtain information from military officers other than official spokespersons

As the Free Media Movement (FMM) noted in response,

The guidelines are grounded in a worldview that rejects the democratic way of life and fundamental human rights, that is fearful of both open government and free discussion, and is intolerant of dissent.

The government also viciously clamped down on independent media institutions and NGOs in particular that focussed on training and media development, human rights, democratic governance and peacebuilding. One tactic adopted by the Government was to use State media to discredit the work and individuals associated with such organisations. For example, in June, the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) was identified in a lead story published in the Dinamina as having sent “group of members connected to LTTE were sent to Norway through Denmark under the Journalist label.” Though factually incorrect and grossly misleading, the Dinamina published no retraction even after the SLPI issued a clear statement condemning the deliberately false reportage. SLPI’s statement did nothing to prevent intrusion of military personnel into its premises in June, making inquiries pertaining to the individuals working for the Institute, including its directorate.

The same newspaper carried a front-page headline story on 28th August alleging that high level investigations were underway on a group of journalists who supported LTTE though the Hiru newspaper. The news story with the byline of Wijayani Edirisinghe used anonymous “sources” to speculate that the group of journalists who run the Hiru newspaper might have colluded with the LTTE intelligence section. Further, the news report claimed the LTTE had given 6 million Sri Lankan rupees (approximately US$ 55,684) to the newspaper.

Other action to stifle dissent was more direct and dangerous. In September, two grenades were lobbed into the residence of noted human rights activist J.C. Weliamuna, the Director of Transparency International in Sri Lanka. Media organisations condemned this attack, noting that it was a “reprehensible act of violent intimidation therefore is an attempt to silence critical and dissenting voices, including civil society and the media. It also represents a clear challenge to the independence and integrity of the legal profession, and contempt for the rule of law and legal processes.”  In October, a letter posted to leading Human Rights defenders and lawyers, as well as given to all Court Registrars to be handed over to lawyers who appear for human rights cases. The letter, in Sinhala, from a group that calls itself the ‘Mahason Balakaya’ (Mahason Regiment) clearly states that lawyers who defend human rights cases will be summarily killed or receive life-threatening injuries. These and other incidents created a pervasive fear psychosis in the country, with media freedom activists, independent journalists and even bloggers who expressed political opinions fearful of personal security and safety, and also those of their families, colleagues and associates.

Projection for 2009
Media censorship and repression will continue unabated over 2009.

The overall context of violence and war will subsume efforts to secure and strengthen independent and investigative journalism in Sri Lanka. Pockets of dissent will be increasingly at pressure to comply and conform to propaganda put out by the Government, the LTTE or other armed groups. Violence may well take a turn for the worse, given the culture of impunity and the significant breakdown in the rule of law. No Police investigations into a single attack over the course of 2008 yielded any meaningful results. Sections of the government will vocally and through covert action redouble efforts to clamp down on reportage of news from the battle-fronts, and those that highlight breakdown of democratic governance in the South. Fear and anxiety amongst journalists will grow and it is expected that many committed to professional standards and accurate, impartial reporting will not be able to do so from Sri Lanka. Sadly, given that the protection of journalists is almost non-existent, 2009 will see many more journalists killed – both in the embattled North as well as the volatile East and other parts of the country. Given the execrable record of investigations into such killings in the past, the perpetrators of violence against journalists and media personnel can be expected to go scot-free. It can be expected that legislation curbing the freedom of private and independent media will be pushed through parliament without debate. Combined with such official means, the unofficial censorship of news and information will continue, ensuring that the humanitarian crises in the North is hermetically sealed from independent media scrutiny.

On the web and Internet, we expect to see more attention given to websites, including blogs, that are from established mainstream print media institutions and also those set up by individuals and NGOs. This attention will result in two parallel development. One, web media will be seen as a vital channel of news, information and analysis related to peace and humanitarian events and processes in Sri Lanka. Such ‘channels’ will demonstrate a quality of discussion and debate that will not be possible to replicate in mainstream print and electronic media for fear of severe repercussions. Linked to this greater attention will be increasingly censure of independent web media. Like Tamilnet.com in 2007, it may be the case that some sites with the most impact / largest readership will be blocked, or be forced to shut down operations because of threats to key members of staff responsible for the operations of the site and its content generation.

Given the global financial downturn that is expected to get worse in 2009, many media establishments will be expected to downsize and cut costs, which will greatly impact news-gathering operations. Investigative journalism, which carries a financial burden, will probably suffer, along with the myriad of other challenges that it faces in Sri Lanka. As a result of this, it can be expected that the emphasis of media development even for mainstream print and electronic media will shift more towards an online focus, incorporating into large media sites content sources from smaller blogs written by individuals in no way connected to the field of journalism. This cross-fertilisation of content, evident already, will make it hard for the complete control of media in Sri Lanka, even though censorship that operates on outright killing of journalists and media personnel will still dent such developments.

Overall however, it will not be easy for independent media to flourish or at the very least, subsist in Sri Lanka over 2009. Many feel that the coming year will be the most difficult for media personnel and journalists interested in and writing on peace, corruption, the excesses of war, constitutional reform and the illiberal rule of the Rajapakse administration.

7 thoughts on “2008: Celebrating the growth of media freedom and the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka

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