Sri Lankan press crackdown 2.0

Rohan JayasekeraOpposition voices targeted to silence them before parliamentary elections says Index’s Rohan Jayasekera

The word McCarthyite is all too easily tossed about these days, but it’s hard not to apply it to what’s happening in Sri Lanka, as President Mahinda Rajapaksa prepares to follow his snap re-election with a blitz parliamentary vote and a ruthless crackdown on political critics and independent media ahead of it.

Rajapakse’s January re-election and last year’s military victories over separatist Tamil Tiger insurgents have not slowed his habit of publicly denouncing his critics without evidence; fully aware that his words put his targets at risk from gangs of armed supporters.

“This is clearly a politically motivated practice of making accusation of disloyalty or treason without proper regard for evidence,”says journalist and rights activist Uvindu Kurukulasuriya. Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch describes it as “a carefully coordinated witch hunt… extremely dangerous and irresponsible in a country where journalists and activists have often been threatened and killed.”

With less than a month to go before parliamentary elections, Kurukulasuriya tells Index that the main aim is simple censorship. “It is a psychology of fear through abductions, killings and other form of pressure that is brought in,” he says. “It’s not so much about what is written, but what you should not write. For instance, we are asked not to refer to this and that, or to the President, or to the Secretary of Defence. Media in Sri Lanka certainly (suffer from) a certain censorship, but this is beyond the norm.”

Since the January 2010 presidential election, the government has engaged in a campaign to silence and discredit journalists and non-governmental organizations, a trend that reached a peak with the publication on March 3 of an apparently leaked government surveillance list of more than 30 journalists and activists.

Two of the names high up the list, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Executive Director Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu and J.C. Weliamuna,  Executive Director of Transparency International, Sri Lanka (TISL) warned there are reasonable grounds for fear about the physical liberty and safety of those named.

“There has been no justice or punishment served by recourse to the criminal justice system in the numerous cases of killings, enforced disappearances and abductions,” they wrote to Rajapakse this week, “and the entrenched culture of impunity, arbitrariness and the ineffectiveness of law enforcement have only encouraged further abuses.”

“There is a fundamental misconception that opposition to specific actions and policies by the government is equal to support for the opposition,” said Saravanamuttu and Weliamuna. “It is not only a fundamental democratic principle but also part of the fundamental rights declared and protected by the constitution that Sri Lankans are entitled to the freedoms of thought, conscience, opinion, expression, association and occupation.”

“This smacks of retaliation for reporting on violations during the presidential election,” says Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director. “Despite the elections and the end of the war against the Tamil Tigers, the government seems to have a hard time getting rid of the habit of repression.”

Both the CPA and TISL played a key role in monitoring the January presidential election, reporting on electoral violations and the government’s misuse of state resources to campaign in favor of incumbent Rajapaksa.

Dozens of journalists and activists have fled the country and am atmosphere of impunity and intimidation that has worsened since January. Journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda of Lanka eNews disappeared on January 24 and remains missing, despite calls for a serious investigation. On March 9, the parliament voted to extend emergency regulations, widely used to target activists, until after April’s elections.

“In the run up to the legislative elections slated for April, the Sri Lankan government is clearly trying to divert criticism from itself after the egregious violations perpetrated against the press and other opposition candidates during the recent presidential election,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of US based free speech group Freedom House this week. “This is yet another example of the government acting with impunity and trying to discredit voices of dissent.”