NEWS
Sri Lanka: After Lasantha
08 Jan 2010
BY INDEX ON CENSORSHIP


Lal Wickrematunge’s brother, Lasantha, was murdered one year ago. Here he assesses the ongoing cost of the war in Sri Lanka

When the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, shut the sluice gates of the Mavil Aru reservoir in July 2006, depriving many of the people in the eastern province of Sri Lanka access to water, a provoked President Mahinda Rajapaksa vowed to wipe out the rebel group. Three years on, in May 2009, the fighting ended with the defeat of the LTTE and the death of its elusive leader. Tamil civilians, who had been forced to withdraw with the LTTE into a tiny area of land in the face of the advancing armed forces, were evacuated into government-controlled camps where they remain, guarded by the military. A total of 270,000 were still living in these conditions at the time of writing this article (November 2009).

The repercussions for the media in their attempt to report this bloody war and its tragic consequences have been profound. In January 2009, armed goons forced their way into the country’s largest private television station, MTV, and set fire to the transmission equipment after detonating grenades. Ruling politicians had gone on record to say that MTV was a proxy of the LTTE.

Just three days after this attack, Lasantha Wickrematunge, the founder editor of the Sunday Leader and my brother, was shot dead within the high security zone. This was followed by a similar attack on Upali Tennakoon, editor of a newspaper group owned by a friend of President Rajapaksa, though he wasn’t killed. Many were of the view that this attack was an attempt to divert attention away from the killing of Wickrematunge, and perhaps to show that journalists close to the regime were also being targeted. Lasantha’s death is still unsolved, as are the other abductions, assaults and killings of journalists that have taken place. There is no expectation that any of these crimes will lead to successful prosecutions. Many journalists who have been branded as traitors have had to flee the country. Those who remain have resorted to self censorship.

A culture of impunity prevails and the media are constantly under pressure, while the general public, still savouring the victory over the LTTE, seems unconcerned with the attacks on the private media.

During the time Lasantha was editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader two cases of defamation were filed against him by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan secretary of defence, concerning two articles that appeared in May — profiles of Rajapaksa and the late LTTE leader.

With the death of Lasantha, these cases are continuing against the publishers.

Attacks on journalists continue. In June, Poddala Jayantha, a reporter working for a state-owned newspaper who is also an official for the Free Media Movement, a voluntary organisation that promotes freedom of speech, was badly beaten and had his leg broken.

In September, Jayaprakash S Tissainayagam, editor of the now defunct monthly magazine North East Herald, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He had been arrested in 2008 and held under a detention order only to be charged under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, the first Sri Lankan journalist to be charged under the act. He was accused of writing and publishing articles that caused racial hatred and promoted terrorism. The articles had criticised the government’s treatment of civilian Tamils caught up in the war. He was found guilty largely based on an alleged confession he made to the police while in custody. He has appealed against his sentence.

The war in Sri Lanka generated as much interest internationally as within the country. The government excluded the media from the theatre of war and handed out unverified updates through a state-controlled Media Centre for National Security, which was supported by a dedicated minister with the official status of defence spokesperson.

The pressure against reporting anything considered adverse by the government to its military thrust was not limited to the local media either. Several international journalists were considered persona non grata in Sri Lanka. Others had limited or no access to the north or east of the country. The government also refused entry to overseas politicians considered partial to the Tamil refugee community.

Bob Rae, a Canadian MP, was stopped at Colombo Airport and sent back even though he had an entry permit issued by the Sri Lankan Embassy in Ottawa. Non-governmental organisations have also been chastised for ostensibly helping the LTTE. This is a popular stance with the majority community, which has thrown its support behind President Rajapaksa since the death of Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, who seemed to be invincible for more than two decades.

In response, the independent media (Sri Lanka has a well-entrenched state-owned and controlled media) reported the highs and lows of the war using clandestine sources. The government was quick to clamp down on alternate views to those disseminated by the state, and senior government officials and military officers named and shamed media personnel by calling them traitors. The now famous quote, ‘Either you are with us or against us’, was used by the defence secretary, who is the brother of the president.

At the end of October, the Sunday Leader’s editor-in-chief Frederica Jansz and news editor Munza Mushtaq received threatening letters.

Written in Sinhala in red ink, they resembled the letter received by Lasantha in January. Even the handwriting was similar. A complaint has been lodged with the local police and also with the Criminal Investigations Department.

The attention of the international community is now focused on the plight of the displaced people still languishing in the camps. The government has made promises in various forums that they would be sent back to their homes within 180 days, but the clearing of mines has delayed progress. The government’s promises have met with much scepticism at home and abroad.
Riding on a wave of popularity, President Rajapaksa is expected to call presidential elections at the beginning of next year, two years before his first term expires. He is expected to win comfortably. This does not augur well for the prospects of a free media.

Lal Wickrematunge is managing editor of the Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka. The newspaper was awarded the Guardian Journalism Award at Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Awards 2009

3 responses to “Sri Lanka: After Lasantha”

  1. D. Deshapriya says:

    It is known fact journalist both local and international were bought by LTTE for money. And we have seen many lies and misinformation buplish by these sources. In such instances a need to regulate media during the war is essential. There are tons of papers and other sources criticising govt on a daily basis. But if the media publish lies and misinformation to carry out LTTE agenda there will be consequnces. Look at the way SL is publishing rubish without any responsibility ,to put the whole nation into problems, over personnel grudges. Don’t think you gutter journaist can get a way with doing any damn thing.
    Your intentions are very cheap.

  2. Harshi says:

    Well said P Perera. I totally agree with you. No one deserve to die. At the same time Sri Lanka as an soverign nation has the right to withdraw access from people if they are mean menace. Yes it was quiet right to deport the British journalist.

    Lal, Lasantha’s brother is keen on free media. Lal, but what are your thoughts on the Mahinda administration for giving all Sri Lankans – Sinhala, Tamil and everyone freedom to live without terrorism and bombs? You forgot to say anything on that. Parents didnt take the same transport to work and back thinking if both dies what would happens to the kids. No one was sure of coming home after leaving the house. Sinhala people abroad, specially in the West was asked why they were killing Tamils, I am not sure if Lasantha was a good man or not, but he did upset few people – digging into their private lives via his newspaper. This he did to everyone. Man who takes up weapon has the tendency to die from it. I feel he has hisself to blame. Lal, you also forgot to mention the number of killings JVP carried out in the South of the country in 1989. Mahinda administration used their intelligence to win the war instead!

    I really hope he will win this election. No one else could develop the country like he could. You only have look at Hambantota and few other projects he has started already – just 6 months after the war.

  3. P Perera says:

    Death of Mr. Lasantha was indeed a blow. A good man he was.

    However, in the case of Bob Rae, a known anti-Sri Lanka troublemaker, well known for fanning the flames of hatered against Sri Lanka I am not so sure.

    Mr. Rae was coming to Sri Lanka at a time that the country needed to recover from the just concluded war – therefore, I totally agree with the Sri Lankan authorities for sending him packing. Mr Rae is a politician, and the island nation did not need him to fan the flames any further. Whether or not he had a visa to come to the country is irrelevant – all sovereing nations have a right to change their minds at anytime.

    The bottom line is that this island nation has seen real peace since the ending of the LTTE menace. I wish we in the West can learn from tiny Sri Lanka.

    Cheers!