Five United Nations Special Rapporteurs have written to the Government of Sri Lanka, raising serious concerns that journalist Dharisha Bastians is being targeted for her writing and especially for her work to defend human rights, saying the continued harassment could deter other journalists from reporting on issues of public interest and human rights.
The UN Special Rapporteurs holding mandates for freedom of expression, privacy, human rights defenders, extra judicial, summary or arbitrary executions and peaceful assembly and association told the Government of Sri Lanka they were seriously concerned that the seizure of personal and professional equipment and the exposure of Bastians’ call data records, could adversely affect her work and seriously endanger and compromise her sources.
“The reported acts of harassment and violation of the right to privacy against Ms. Bastians may deter other journalists from reporting on issues of public interest, and human rights, which are particularly pertinent at this time of global pandemic,” the joint letter to the Government noted.
The five UN rapporteurs noted that throughout her career, Bastians had written extensively on human rights, extrajudicial killings and the legacy of Sri Lanka’s civil war, alleged political corruption, impunity, democracy and political rights in Sri Lanka.
“Ms. Bastians has notably worked on several important cases of human rights violations, including the murder of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009, and the alleged illegal detention of 11 young Tamil men abducted by a gang of Sri Lanka Navy personnel, and eventually killed in a Navy base in 2008-2009. These cases which remain unresolved, have implicated high ranking members of the present Sri Lankan Government, and perpetrators remain at large,” the communication to the Government noted.
In June 2020 the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) entered the home of Ms. Bastians in Colombo and seized her personal computer in connection with an ongoing investigation carried out over the alleged abduction of a Swiss embassy staffer in Colombo in November 2019.
Since December 2019, the CID has tried to link Ms. Bastians and others to this inquiry which the Government claimed was a conspiracy to bring the new regime of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa into disrepute.
Issuing a statement, the journalist said that on two previous occasions CID officials had arrived at her residence in Colombo to seize the laptop without a Court order.
The continued harassment of the journalist, who is not a party to the Swiss Embassy abduction case, has been flagged by international media rights organisations and human rights groups.
The joint letter notes that “pro-Government media have reportedly conducted a smear campaign against Ms. Bastians and her family, supported by attacks on social media, labelling her as a traitor and a criminal.”
In a series of questions posed to the Government, the UN special rapporteurs have asked for detailed information about the legal basis for the search and confiscation of Bastians’ computer and how the measures comply with international human rights norms and standards.
The UN representatives have also asked the Government to indicate which “independent authority” is in charge of oversight of State entities carrying out surveillance on Bastians’ professional equipment and asked the ruling administration to state “explicit safeguards and legal basis” for such privacy intrusive measures such as search and seizure of electronic equipment, if no such independent authority exists.
The joint letter was issued by David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and Joseph Cannataci, Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy.
Meanwhile, addressing the opening of the 45th Human Rights Council Session on 14 September UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet encouraged the Council to give “renewed attention to Sri Lanka, in view of the need to prevent threats to peace, reconciliation and sustainable development”.
“The surveillance and intimidation of victims, their families, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers should cease immediately,” Bachelet urged.