Freedom of speech – Sri Lankan style

October 25, 2009

Earlier this year the world’s media were largely banned from reporting in the North and East of Sri Lanka, with poignant echoes of Israel’s stance in Gaza. Some of us – mea culpa – believed the government when they claimed that it was largely for the safety of journalists and to avoid fanning the flickering flames of Tamil Tiger (LTTE) resistance – mea culpa. Unfortunately, murdering journalists and intimidating others achieves the polar opposite effect. Here is an article from Australian newspaper “The Age” which alleges serious abuse of human rights and indicates that Sri Lanka’s victory-gorged government is heading down a well-trodden path towards Totalitarianism. It’s a shame for all concerned. For a while I thought they were nice guys . . mea maxima culpa. Won’t get fooled again – and won’t be visiting Sri Lanka in a hurry, which is a shame, since it’s a nice country, full of nice people, but largely run by corrupt thugs, armed by China.

“FEARS over declining media freedoms in Sri Lanka have intensified after a newspaper editor was held by police and questioned about a report alleging tension between military officials and the Government. Chandana Srimalwtte, editor of the popular Sinhalese-language newspaper Lanka Irida Sangrahaya, was detained by armed police and questioned for publishing a report detailing tensions between military chief General Sarath Fonseka and the Government. Srimalwtte was in custody for more than three hours and investigators have made two subsequent visits to his office to question him. He now expects to be charged with ”’arousing the public against the Government” and could face two years in jail if found guilty. ”I told them I had no intention to stir up the society against the Government, I was just reporting what I had learnt from my sources,” Srimalwtte told The Age. ”The people have the right to know what powerful people are doing. They want to know about this crisis in the Government.” Sri Lanka has been ranked as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. The suppression of free speech following Sri Lanka’s civil war will only heighten the fears of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil population and give added incentive to Tamils to sail for Australia in hope of asylum. Journalists say independent reporting has become even more difficult since the end in May of Sri Lanka’s 25-year conflict between the government dominated by the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil Tigers. In June, Pobbala Jayantha, editor of the Sinhalese newspaper Silumina, which has published stories critical of the Government, was abducted and severely beaten. ”I was kidnapped for about 1½ hours,” he said. His injuries included two broken legs, which are likely to leave him with lifelong disabilities. ”I will definitely be returning to journalism, but I have to recover first,” he said. In recent months many senior journalists have fled Sri Lanka for India and Western countries and others have found work in other industries. There is concern at the police reaction to Srimalwtte’s report because the story was essentially political in nature and had nothing to do with terrorism. Despite his central role in the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers, General Fonseka was removed from his post soon after the conflict finished and given the largely ceremonial role of Chief of Defence Staff. Opposition parties now want the disaffected war hero to stand for them against President Mahinda Rajapaksa in elections likely to be held early next year. Three other reporters from Srimalwtte’s newspaper were arrested and charged after writing reports about allegations of corruption against members of President Rajapaksa’s family. In late August, journalist J. S. Tissainayagam was sentenced to 20 years’ jail when found guilty of ”causing communal disharmony” and ”receiving money from Tamil Tiger rebels to pay for his website”. In January the editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, was assassinated on his way to work. No arrests have been made. Many Sri Lankans worry about the loss of freedom of expression. ”You can’t speak the truth here any more,” one government official told The Age. ”If you speak the truth today you’ll go missing tomorrow.”