Tasnim Nazeer investigates the murders, death threats and past abductions of journalists and activists in Sri Lanka which highlight growing fears for the future of press freedom in the country.
Press freedom has been a significant problem in Sri Lanka since the civil war, which lasted nearly three decades from 1983 to 2009.
The conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was one of south Asia’s longest running wars to date. The LTTE wanted to establish an independent Tamil state and accused the Government of perceived systematic suppression of minority Tamils in the country, by successive Sri Lankan governments.
From 2005 to 2015, when Mahinda Rajapaksa served as President and oversaw a brutal end to the war, many journalists and activists reporting on alleged war crimes and human rights abuses at the hands of the Government were either killed, tortured or disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
In 2015, Maithripala Siresena became President and pledged to launch investigations into the killings of journalists, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances since the final military operations in 2009.
Sirisena’s Government ensured that there were improvements in free expression, with blocked news websites restored and media restrictions eased. The time for journalists had come when they could finally speak their mind without the fear of being reprimanded. However, many questions were left unanswered as to who exactly was behind the killings of journalists.
In November 2019, the brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, became the Sri Lankan President and made his brother Prime Minister. It is important to note that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, also well known as the “terminator”, served as a former Defence Secretary during Mahinda’s presidency and had been linked to numerous human rights violations including allegedly orchestrating white van kidnappings of journalists and activists that were either tortured or killed.
The Rajapaksas have denied such allegations, but many journalists are concerned now that the brothers have acquired power.
Media Freedom with Caution
Activists and families of journalists who had been killed have still not received justice or accountability.
“I think this Government has gotten smarter,” Sri Lankan writer Indi Samarajiva told Byline Times. “They don’t beat or kill journalists in the streets now, they bring them in for questioning or attack their character in the press itself or on social media. They understand that self-censorship is more powerful than state censorship and that is what’s happened.
“The media organisations that work with the Government get richly awarded, the journalists that try to do their jobs are underpaid and endangered. So, it’s not a hard choice for people. It’s just a climate where keeping your mouth shut or toeing the line is the best decision.”
Many journalists in Sri Lanka have faced harassment and threats to having their reputations tarnished if they carry on reporting against those in power.
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BBC correspondent Azzam Ameen was one such journalist whose private conversations were recently leaked in a bid to get rid of him from the frontline.
Ameen Izzadeen, deputy editor of the Sri Lanka Sunday Times told this newspaper that Ameen had been forced to resign “as a result of threatening messages directed at him on social media largely by Government supporters” and that a “phone recording of a conversation he had with an opposition party politician was deliberately leaked to harm his media credibility”.
“Although the new President, at a meeting with journalists during the election campaign, had promised to honour media freedom and urged journalists to fearlessly exercise their freedom of expression, independent media outlets and their journalists exercise their media freedom with much caution,” he said. “A senior journalist has already left the country, fearing reprisals for what she wrote as an editor of a state-run newspaper during the previous government. Some journalists who are seen to be critical of the government are trolled on social media platforms.
“However, the President appears to show an eagerness to improve his image as a statesman. He understands that the country needs to improve its human rights record not only to extricate Sri Lanka from the United Nations Human Rights Council scrutiny and win the west’s backing but also to improve his image which was tarnished by allegations during the war era and after the war.”
Byline Times spoke to a former journalist, who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons, about what the future holds for restoring freedom of speech in Sri Lanka without the fear that reporters could suffer a similar fate to those who have been harmed before.
“No one has been abducted, disappeared or killed after Gotabaya Rajapaksa has come into power that I know of, but there have been journalists who have been attacked,” they said. “We cannot say for sure on whose orders these have come from. I do not feel that there are any solutions that the international community realistically could do to influence press freedom in Sri Lanka, but the important thing is for journalists who are working in Sri Lanka to stay alive and weigh up the risks if you intend to speak out.”
Two men who did decide to speak out in a recent press conference, giving harrowing accounts of what really happened during the white van abductions, have since been arrested on the orders of the new President. One of the men, allegedly a former driver of the white van squads, had told reporters that squad abductions were carried out on the orders of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, allegedly with the knowledge of the Sri Lankan Army. Yet, this is an issue that many people would be afraid to report on now that he is in the highest position of power in the country.
“Time for Me to Put Down the Pen”
Fears are legitimised by recent cases of threats against journalists in the country since the new President was elected.
Just a few days ago, death threats were made against Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority journalists in the east of the country stating that “these are the foreign tiger-funded reporters who publish news against the Government” and that “we will soon deliver the death penalty to them”. Tamil journalists’ photos were circled of them at a gathering to commemorate a Sinhalese journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga who was assassinated in 2009 for exposing alleged details of Government corruption. Renowned journalist Wickrematunga had foreseen his murder. “When finally I am killed, it will be the Government that kills me,” he wrote in a heartfelt piece that was republished by the Guardian and attracted global condemnation of the plight of Sri Lankan journalists in the country.
Years later, we are at a point when the international community must focus again on raising awareness of the need to protect journalists in Sri Lanka and around the world.
Another Sri Lankan writer, who does not want to be named due to ongoing threats to their life, told Byline Times: “I currently fear for my life and my family’s life and still receive death threats due to my previous writings that were highly critical of the Government. As from November 16 2019, when the Rajapaksa brothers both came back into power, I decided that now was the time for me to put down the pen for the sake of my family, but sadly I fear that it is already too late. It is a sad state of affairs, I love reporting but I feel there is no one to really guarantee our safety right now.”
Alan Keenan, a senior consultant on Sri Lanka at the International Crisis Group, said that it is “understandable” that journalists are worried and looking to “play it safe” in the current climate.
“The previous Government had promised to investigate and bring justice for the many cases of journalists attacked, intimidated, threatened and in some cases killed,” he told Byline Times. “Yet, none of the cases were actually prosecuted and nobody was held accountable for those crimes even from a Government who said it was committed to doing so. When a new Government comes into power, that includes officials in power at the time those journalists were killed or forced into exile, it is understandable that journalists would be fearful.”
Where is Prageeth?
Prageeth Eknaligoda was another popular political journalist, cartoonist and analyst for an independent online publication that backed a political opposition leader Gen. Sarath Fonseka.
Ekneligoda had reported on alleged corruption among family members of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country’s President at the time. He went missing on 24 January 2010, two days before the presidential election, after leaving work. He has never been seen since. Prior to his disappearance, it was reported that he experienced harassment, threats of violence and believed himself to be on the Government’s hit list.
Sanjana Hattotuwa, editor of the Sri Lankan citizen journalism site Groundviews, told Byline Times: “The impunity that the perpetrators of violence against journalists meted out in the past couple of years and particularly before, during and just after the end of the civil war up until 2015 is very is disturbing. What we hear is sporadic updates of court proceedings but no real justice. Meanwhile, the perpetrators are still roaming free and with impunity.
“Prageeth Eknaligoda has been missing for 10 years. His wife Sandya Eknaligoda is no closer to justice or to finding the fate of her husband. Sandya’s case is emblematic of the impunity, the miscarriage of justice, inability and unwillingness of the state and successive governments to hold accountable those who are meting out violence against journalists.”
Investigations into Eknaligoda’s disappearance were re-opened by former President Maithripala Sirisena during his tenure and nine military soldiers were charged. However, his wife continues to call for justice. Recently, she was concerned that the military was trying to derail a court case against the soldiers that had been charged with her husband’s abduction and enforced disappearance.
We should admire those who have the courage to put their lives on the line to speak the truth and expose the wrongdoings of the world, and hope that a day will come when journalists no longer have to face scrutiny for simply doing their jobs.
In Sri Lanka, many feel this can only be achieved with international support – for press freedom, for the right of journalists to keep the public informed, and for the right to establish truth, justice and accountability.