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Sri Lanka journalism 'under threat'

Reporters Without Borders demonstration in London
The issue of Sri Lankan press freedom has triggered protests around the world

By Saroj Pathirana
BBC Sinhala service

A spate of attacks on reporters, threats from unidentified groups and the murder of a leading newspaper editor are all jeopardising the future of journalism in Sri Lanka.

Many bright young students say they fear taking up journalism as a career choice in the island nation and a number of experienced journalists have already left the country because of threats to their lives.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) group has called on the authorities to take steps to end the prevailing climate of fear caused by "government cronies increasing their pressure".

The government has also been criticised by the International Press Freedom Mission, which in a report on Wednesday condemned its "inaction and failure" to take attacks against reporters seriously.

'Challenges ahead'

The BBC's Ethirajan Anbarasan in Colombo says many journalists in Sri Lanka are understandably shocked by the recent killing of Sunday Leader editor, Lasantha Wickramatunga.

Sri Lankan TV attack
Critics say press freedom is under attack in Sri Lanka

On Friday another editor - Upali Tennakoon of the Rivira weekly - was attacked, along with his wife.

"Sri Lanka is not a place for journalists any more. This was the message I was getting again and again during my conversations with my journalist friends in the capital, Colombo," Ethirajan Anbarasan says.

A private media station, MTV-MBC, was ransacked two days before Mr Wickramatunga's murder on 8 January by a group reportedly armed with claymore mines, a weapon only available to the rebels and military forces in Sri Lanka.

Some young journalists, however, say that the recent spate of threats and attacks has inspired them to expose the truth about the war and threats to the media.

"I think it is important that we continue with the duty that was carried out by the current generation of journalists although there may be challenges ahead," says Salindri Kalpana Kurukula.

Ms Kurukula is among a group of trainee journalists who have just completed their media studies at Sri Lanka College of Journalism (SLCJ) run by the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

Editors say it is very difficult to motivate their staff to carry on with their work in the atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

Many journalists no longer wish to comment in public as a result of the prevailing mood of hostility.

Funeral in Colombo

Lankadissent, a pro-opposition web newspaper, closed its operations on the same day that Mr Wickramatunga was killed.

A member of its editorial team said that staff no longer wanted to put their lives at risk.

The pro-rebel TamilNet website is already banned, while a leading member of another popular web newspaper - who did not wish to be named - told the BBC that he now no longer wishes to remain in the country.

'Dangerous profession'

Amila Prabodha Gamage, another recent graduate of SLCJ, says many new journalists feel comfortable only writing light controversy-free features following the death of Mr Wickramatunga, who was a leading investigative journalist.

Mr Gamage's teacher at SLCJ, Namal Perera, was assaulted by an unidentified group in 2008.

Staff members of Sunday Leader newspaper hold a portrait of editor Lasantha Wickramatunga in the suburbs of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, Jan. 9, 2009
Mr Wickramatunga was killed on his way to work

"The opposite point of view is no longer tolerated in Sri Lanka and many fear to get involved with investigative journalism," Mr Gamage told the BBC Sinhala service.

Meanwhile, many parents of young journalists have been urging their children not to join the "dangerous" profession.

"When I initially joined this trade, my parents were quite afraid for my safety. That is even more the case now," he said.

Rejecting accusations that the government was responsible for the attacks, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has accused "internal and international forces" of trying to undermine army victories on the battlefield.

Calling Mr Wickramatunga a "personal friend", Mr Rajapaksa ordered a swift and thorough investigation.

But that was not enough to stop many journalists from either leaving the country or temporarily refraining from writing about the war, says our correspondent.

"Journalists here believe that if it can happen to Lasantha Wickramatunge then it can happen to anybody," Ethirajan Anbarasan says.

Dissent also seems to be no longer so easily tolerated among the Sri Lankan diaspora. Anyone critical of the government in some Sinhala circles in London is met with increasing hostility.

Young journalist Amila Prabodha Gamage thinks that while journalists may need to consider national security - as the country is at war - that doctrine should not unduly interfere with the public's right to know the truth.

"The war itself is a brutal thing so there cannot be a positive result. Because it is public money spent on the war, the public should be told what is actually happening on the battlefield.

"But what is happening in Sri Lanka is that the Tamil Tigers' point of view is completely censored. That is unjustifiable and biased."



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