Plight of journalists in Sri Lanka worsens after Geneva UNHRC Resolution-CPJ

By Bob Dietz

The sorry situation faced by Journalists in Sri Lanka has seemingly worsened after the US sponsored resolution was passed by 24 to 15 at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 22nd.

Vigil on 2nd anniversary of Prageeth Eknaligoda’s disappearance-24 Jan 2012, Pic by Sampath Samarakoon-courtesy: VikalpaSL

Bob Dietz, coordinator of Asia Program at media watchdog Committee for Protection of Journalists ( CPJ) has written three blogs on the Sri Lankan situation for the CPJ website.

Dietz has reported across the continent for news outlets such as CNN and Asiaweek. He has led numerous CPJ missions, including ones to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.

Here are the three Blogs by Bob Dietz-

Sri Lankan government calls journalists ‘traitors’

The Sri Lankan government must immediately halt its intimidation of journalists who supported the adoption of a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution calling for an investigation into the country’s alleged abuses of international humanitarian law during its war with Tamil separatists.

Journalists in the capital, Colombo , told CPJ they were concerned by a state-controlled media campaign against them, which called them “traitors” for supporting the U.S.-backed motion. News accounts reported that Wednesday’s vote, which passed 24 to 15, with eight abstentions, infuriated the Sri Lankan government.

The BBC said that after the vote, state television launched an attack on Sri Lankan journalists, both at home and in exile, saying they were helping the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels and “betraying the motherland.” The broadcaster also said that although the journalists who had participated in the Council sessions were not specifically named, Sri Lankan state television “repeatedly zooms in on thinly disguised photographs of them, promising to give their names soon and ‘expose more traitors.'”

“Things are quite tense here. We’ve had anti-U.S. and anti-resolution protests the past few days, and now we’re waiting to see who they will hit out at next,” one journalist in the country told CPJ.

“The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has a long and alarming record of intolerance to criticism,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The international community must be extra vigilant in ensuring that Sri Lankan journalists are not subjected to reprisals for voicing their concerns to the Human Rights Council.”
The U.N. resolution called on Sri Lanka to investigate abuses carried out by its military in 2009, at the end of the decades-long war with Tamil separatists.

Rajapaksa’s administration has verbally attacked journalists in the past in an effort to intimidate them, CPJ research shows. In a 2008 letter to Rajapaksa, CPJ voiced concern over government officials repeatedly calling journalists “traitors” in public. At least nine journalists have been murdered in the Rajapaksa era, all of them unsolved, according to CPJ data.

Amid Sri Lankan denial, threats rise for journalists

In the wake of the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution calling for an investigation into Sri Lanka ‘s alleged abuses of international humanitarian law during its war with Tamil separatists, the government has resorted to outright threats of violence against journalists who might dare to return home after taking part in the Geneva discussions.

Thursday, CPJ called on the government to immediately halt its intimidation of journalists who supported the adoption of the HRC’s resolution. Several were labeled “traitors” on state-run television. One journalist previously denounced as a traitor was J.S. Tissainayagam, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. After intense international pressure, he was released in May 2010 and now lives outside the country.

According to the pro-government Daily Mirror, “Minister of Public Relations Mervyn Silva warned that he will break the limbs of some journalists, who have gone abroad and made various statements against the country, if they dare to set foot in the country.”

“‘I’m the one who chased one of those journalists ‘Poddalajayantha’ out of this country. I will break the limbs of all these journalists, in public if they dare to set foot in the country,'” the Minister warned, the Daily Mirror said.

Threats from Silva, a former labor minister, have to be taken seriously. On December 27, 2007, accompanied by a large group of men, he stormed the state-run television station Sri Lanka Rupavahini Cooperation and assaulted the news director, T.M.G. Chandrasekara. The station’s staff held the minister and his supporters while police were summoned, and videotaped the minister’s apology for his actions. Silva was apparently angry because a speech he had delivered the previous day was not fully reported by the station.

Given the anti-media atmosphere being pumped up by the government, Silva will not have to apologize if his threat of violence should ever materialize:

Still smarting from the international slapdown it received in Geneva , another pro-government paper, The Island, termed India a “loser” for its backing of the resolution. ” India has failed to carry Asia, or at least South Asia with it. In other words, Sri Lanka has won against India in Asia ,” The Island said. China and Russia , long-term opponents of what they consider outside interference in countries’ internal affairs, voted against the Geneva resolution.

There are many issues that Sri Lanka will have to face in the coming months and years. These include economic growth, energy dependence, international status, and maintaining democratic institutions while the Rajapaksa government trends increasingly toward authoritarianism.

But the greatest danger I see in the government’s inability to accept even a watered-down version of an international call for investigation into Sri Lanka ‘s efforts to end decades of ethnic violence, is that the rejection will become the issue that defines the country. Instead of emerging victorious and resilient after ending the hatred of so many years, Sri Lanka will continue to wear a shroud of failure for its inability to confront its unfortunate past and move into a new era. More than three years after the end of its national tragedy, Sri Lanka continues to fight battles domestically and internationally that should have ended with the declaration of victory on May 6, 2009.

Eknelygoda’s wife latest victim of Sri Lankan intolerance

On Thursday and Friday, we wrote about the ugly government backlash to last week’s U.N. Human Rights Council resolution calling for an investigation into Sri Lanka’s alleged abuses of international humanitarian law during its war with Tamil separatists.

That campaign of intimidation continues: In the magistrate’s court where Sandhya Eknelygoda has been trying to gain any information about the whereabouts of her husband, Prageeth, who disappeared on January 24, 2010, she came under harsh questioning — observers at the court called it intentionally intimidating — from government lawyers about her presence at the UNHRC in Geneva. Before she returned home from Switzerland , her name had been denounced in the government-controlled media as one of the government’s critics — several of whom have been denounced as “traitors.”

Eknelygoda told colleagues in Colombo that Monday’s entire court session was about how she went to Geneva , who funded her trip, why she betrayed her country, and how much she was paid to do that. Her lawyer objected to the line of questioning, but was overruled, she said.

When she had returned home on Sunday from Geneva , she told reporters, “I only wanted to bring the disappearance of my husband to the notice of the international community. But, those who are allied with the government insulted me, saying I went there to betray the country,” she said. You can see a video report of her statement on YouTube.

Eknelygoda and her two teenage sons have been waging a quiet but steadfast campaign to pressure the government for information about their husband and father. CPJ and four other media support groups wrote to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in March 2011, asking for his intervention in the case. Ban referred the issue to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNESCO, where it has been allowed to languish, despite pleas from Eknelygoda and her supporters.

Nor has a January 2012 ruling by Sri Lanka ‘s Appeal Court that former Attorney General Mohan Peiris could be called in as a witness into the disappearance of Eknelygoda been acted on. In a November 2011 posting, “Sri Lanka’s savage smokescreen,” CPJ reported that Peiris told the Asian Human Rights Commission that Eknelygoda had taken refuge in a foreign country and that the campaign against his disappearance is a hoax, although he failed then and ever since to provide detailed information about where Eknelygoda had fled.

At the time, CPJ said that Peiris’s statements “do more than point up the government’s indifference to Eknelygoda’s fate and the mental anguish of his wife and two sons. Peiris’s statements highlight the disregard with which the government views international opinion.”

Given the response in the government-controlled media following last week’s Geneva vote, that indifference and disregard have moved on to outright hostility