“Attacks on media must stop”

The Sri Lankan government is under intense local and international pressure to halt attacks against journalists and media organisations after a newspaper editor was killed and a private television station attacked by unidentified armed gangs.



The incidents came as the military announced making significant headway in its battle against Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists in the north and northeast of the island. Ground troops took control of the rebels’ main headquarters in Kilinochchi on 2 January and shortly after, a key access route to the northern Jaffna peninsula, Elephant Pass. An offensive to capture the northeastern Mullaitivu District is under way.



The government’s successes have inspired an increase in patriotic fervor among the dominant Sinhalese community, raising concern in some quarters that revenge attacks were being conducted against media perceived as insufficiently pro-government.



“Sri Lanka prides itself as a functioning democracy. Yet media freedom, a vital pillar of democracy, has increasingly come under attack,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of the US-based Human Rights Watch. He added that the recent military victories should not be taken as a signal that dissent could be stifled.



The chief editor of the anti-establishment weekly, The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, was gunned down on 8 January in broad daylight near a military checkpoint by assailants on motorbikes who surrounded his car as he drove to work. He died later in hospital of head injuries.



The killing came barely two days after the main control room and studios of a private television station, MTV Networks, were badly damaged in a pre-dawn assault by an armed gang using automatic weapons, grenades and a landmine.















Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
Mourners light candles near a portrait of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the slain editor of The Sunday Leader, outside a Colombo cemetery soon after he was buried

Mourning and protesting



Thousands of mourners gathered on 12 January to attend Wickrematunga’s funeral. Political and rights activists with black arm-bands shouted slogans denouncing the murder and demanded a speedy investigation.



Media rights organizations, the UN and foreign governments, including the USA, the EU and India, condemned the attacks as hundreds of journalists and activists took to the streets of Colombo the day after Wickrematunga’s killing to demand justice.



Underlining international concern over the killing, German Ambassador Jurgen Weerth, the most senior foreign envoy in Colombo, paid tribute in a short eulogy just before the burial. "Today, humanity has lost a voice of truth," he said.



A statement from the UN Resident Coordinator's office in Colombo said: "We respected him as a fearless and indefatigable journalist and an unrepentant defender of freedom of expression. His untimely demise reminds us all of dangers still faced by the media and journalists in exercising the fundamental right to inform and to hold and express opinion."



The World Bank called for a transparent investigation into the attacks, saying "violence against the media has a profoundly negative impact on the media to fulfil its core watchdog function".



The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), an independent think-tank in Colombo, said Sri Lanka had been “repeatedly identified” as one of the world’s most dangerous places for independent journalists. “This latest attack on one of Sri Lanka’s best known and most senior journalists confirms fears of a planned terror campaign against critical voices, conducted with complete impunity.”



14 media workers killed since 2006



According to Amnesty International, at least 14 media workers have been “unlawfully killed in Sri Lanka” since 2006, the year that the newly installed government of President Mahinda Rajapakse stepped up the anti-rebel offensive. “Others have been arbitrarily detained, tortured and allegedly disappeared while in the custody of security forces,” the organisation said, adding that more than 20 journalists had left the country after receiving death threats.



President Rajapakse condemned Wickrematunga’s killing, saying it highlighted "the existence of forces that will go to the furthest extremes in using terror and criminality to damage our social fabric". He said he would initiate an immediate investigation, but the main opposition United National Party called for an international probe, saying it did not trust local investigators to do a proper job.



A lawyer-turned-journalist, Wickrematunga’s trademark was his investigative reporting which exposed corruption and nepotism. His newspaper satirised politicians and businessmen and was a critic of the military campaign. On previous occasions, he had been beaten up, his house fired at and newspaper presses sealed under emergency regulations.



Local and international media have been denied access by the government to report the military’s air and ground assaults on targets in the north and prevented from verifying claims of casualty figures. Journalists have to rely on information given out by either the government or by the Tamil Tigers.



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