Page last updated at 13:47 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 14:47 UK

Sri Lanka war on words continues

Protest by journalists in Sri Lanka
The issue of Sri Lankan press freedom has triggered protests at home and around the world

One month after Tamil Tigers rebels were defeated in Sri Lanka with the death of their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, the working environment for journalists shows no sign of improving, as this correspondent, who prefers to remain unnamed, reports from Colombo.

Independent journalists in Sri Lanka say they still feel threatened and intimidated.

A journalist union leader was recently abducted and assaulted on his way home in Colombo within weeks of the government announcing the end of combat operations against the Tamil Tigers on 19 May.

State run media, particularly the Sinhala language electronic media, have continuously accused those who criticised human rights violations and other excesses during the last stages of war as either supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or being paid by them.

Those accusations have not diminished with the end of the fighting.


In a television discussion after the victory over the LTTE, police Chief Jayantha Wickramaratne said there was evidence that some journalists, especially Sinhala nationals, were on the payroll of the Tamil Tigers.

Sri Lankan TV attack

"Although the police are aware of this treason I do not like to reveal the names as it might obstruct our investigations. They betrayed the noble profession and not only distorted and misreported against Sri Lanka but also worked for cash and other benefits," Mr Wickramaratne said on 28 May.

Police are yet to provide any evidence before the courts and no arrests have been made in this regard.

On 1 June, amid a growing state media campaign over the issue, Poddala Jayantha was abducted and assaulted in Colombo. Mr Jayantha was a key activist of the Sri Lankan Working Journalists Association.

He was a strong advocate of freedom of expression and a visible participant in protests against threats to media - but had avoided playing an active role in criticising the government over the past few months.

Police arrested editors of the Lankanews website, which exposed the incident, but no other suspects were found.

"It is journalists and the state media that incited this attack," says prominent human rights lawyer and media activist SG Punchihewa.

The editor of the state-owned Dinamina Sinhala weekly, Mahinda Abeysundara, is a leading figure accused by free media activists of inciting the hatred.

Mr Abeysundara has accused the prominent media activist, Sunanda Deshapriya, of "betraying the country" by producing a report on the plight of displaced people for a UN High Commission for Refugees session in Geneva.

Mr Abeysundara has also accused other journalists of being paid by the LTTE.

"I make these revelations on behalf of my country but it is not my intention to incite attacks against anybody," he told Ravaya Sinhala weekly.

"I exposed Sunanda Deshapriya's act as his speech was treacherous. I will not stop exposing these traitors".

Mr Deshapriya has not returned to the country after his trip to Geneva.

'Little progress'

The Free Media Movement (FMM) says that the government should take responsibility for the recent spate of attacks on the media.

The group accuses the government of failing to take any concrete action against the killings, abductions and threats.

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

"We have to point the finger at the government as it has a huge responsibility to stop these attacks but has failed to do so," FMM Secretary Sunil Jayasekara told the BBC.

However, the government says it does not intervene in police investigations.

Media minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene admits the investigations over attacks on the media sometimes are lacking in progress and focus.

"As a person who is regularly in touch with journalists I am genuinely shocked," he told the BBC Sinhala service. "But it is up to the security services to investigate and we do not intervene."

A senior journalist who did not wish to be identified told the BBC that euphoria created at the end of the war and vitriol spread by the state media were the prime reasons behind the increased threats.

"Not a single media institution protested when state media repeatedly showed Poddala Jayantha's image while reporting alleged payments by the LTTE to journalists. He was never given an opportunity to answer the accusations. I wonder whether there is any media ethic in this country," he said.

Funeral in Colombo
Mr Wickramatunga was shot in January by unidentified gunmen

In an earlier statement to parliament, chief government whip Dinesh Goonawardene admitted that nine journalists had been killed since President Mahinda Rajapaksa took over.

Many leading journalists left the country after the assassination of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunge in Colombo on 8 January.

Poddala Jayantha who was among those who fled, but returned to the country after three weeks. Many leading journalists are yet to return and the fear is such that many do not wish to speak even while living in exile.

Gamini Viyangoda, a writer and former editor of the Lankadissent news website, says he is not surprised to see the situation deteriorating since the writing was on the wall even before the war started.

Lankadissent, a website that frequently criticises the government, decided to close its operations just after the assassination of Mr Wickramatunge.

At the same time Mr Viyangoda stopped writing his weekly column in the Ravaya newspaper because the situation "was not conducive for the expression of free opinion any more".

"Now the war is over, this should be the hour of reconciliation but sadly the political ambitions of certain groups in the ruling coalition seem to be taking the country in a different direction," he said.

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