Sri Lanka's Press Freedom Worst of any Democracy: RSF

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165 out of 173 in the latest worldwide index
Friday, May 1st, 2009

The Rajapakse government has managed to maintain its position in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), as the 165th worst nation for press freedom. The only countries that ranked below Sri Lanka, such as North Korea, Eritria and Turkmenistan, are all run by dictatorships.

Murders, physical assaults, kidnappings, threats and censorship are the lot of Sri Lanka’s journalists. Top government officials, including the defence minister, are directly implicated in the serious press freedom violations that accompanied the military offensive against the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels

The Colombo government’s crushing military victory over the Tamil separatists was coupled with a brutal campaign against the press and dissident voices. Sri Lanka is of all the countries with an elected democratic government the least respectful of media freedom.

The war that left several thousand dead in the north of the country was waged in the absence of any independent witnesses. Sri Lankan and foreign journalists were kept away from the battlefield, for their safety according to the army, but above all so as not to “hamper” the military offensive. The authorities also restrict press access to the Jaffna peninsula and detention camps holding Tamils who have fled the north.

The army and Sinhalese ultra-nationalists have carried on a campaign of permanent harassment of the privately-owned media and particularly specialists in military affairs. Media, which have been forced into exile or gagged, no longer dare to criticise or investigate military strategy while the press on the island was previously known for the high quality of its investigations. Neither military nor civilian casualty figures are published, apart from those of LTTE combatants killed by the army.

The cornered Tamil Tiger fighters have launched suicide attacks, one of which killed a television reporter. The separatists also try to gag journalists through threats and propaganda, on the subject of their defeat and crimes against civilians.

Tamil journalists, particularly those who defend the “cause”, have to beware of the paramilitary groups, such as the EPDP in the Jaffna peninsula and the Karuna group in the east. These paramilitaries can count on the friendly protection of the security forces.

Violence against the press that was for a long time restricted to the Tamil media, now affects journalists working in Sinhalese and English. Armed men attacked the popular TV station Sirasa of the MTV group, apparently because it was not sufficiently “patriotic”. Editor of the highly independent Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, was assassinated in Colombo, in January 2009. Police have proved incapable of arresting the suspects, as in every case of murder and assaults against journalists in the past three years.

The government has deliberately sown fear among Tamil journalists by imprisoning three of them and accusing them of “terrorism”, including two of the most independent, J. S. Tissainayagam of the Sunday Times and N. Vithyatharan of the Uthayan press group. They are all being held without any evidence against them.

The foreign press has found it harder than ever to work in the island. The brother of the president, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, threatened reprisals against the BBC and al Jazeera, after the two media did reports in the country. Photojournalists working for the international press were forced to flee the country after being threatened by army supporters. Several dozen journalists and free expression activists have also been driven into exile.

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