26 January 2011

Press marks cruel anniversary

Prageeth's disappearance as depicted by a cartoonist from Sampaio, Portugal - one of 12 cartoons featured in the Cartooning for Peace and RSF solidarity campaign
Prageeth's disappearance as depicted by a cartoonist from Sampaio, Portugal - one of 12 cartoons featured in the Cartooning for Peace and RSF solidarity campaign

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A year ago last January, Sri Lankan cartoonist Prageeth Eknelygoda mysteriously disappeared. Two years ago this month, independent TV station Sirasa was bombed with military precision - a couple of days before well-known editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was critical of his government's war against the Tamil Tigers, was killed.

Today, none of the cases have been solved, and no one has been brought to justice. Sri Lanka's Free Media Movement (FMM) and other IFEX members have launched a series of campaigns and actions to commemorate one of Sri Lanka's "cruellest months for journalists."

FMM joined an alliance of journalists and press freedom advocates on 18 January outside the Fort Railway Station in the capital, Colombo, demanding that the government expedite investigations into the series of attacks.

One of the protesters was Sandhya Eknelygoda, Prageeth's wife. Prageeth, the political cartoonist and columnist who supported the now-jailed opposition leader Sareth Fonseka, has not been seen by his family or colleagues since he left for work at the pro-opposition news website Lanka eNews on 24 January 2010.

Sandhya issued a public letter in December that pleaded for information about her husband's disappearance. Then, along with FMM and other press groups, she reiterated her demands to the UN country representative on 24 January 2011 - the first anniversary of Eknelygoda's disappearance. To date, she has not had any formal response or update from the police, the attorney general's office, the Sri Lankan government or even the UN.

CPJ has also put out a public appeal to help Eknelygoda's family and other journalists caught in similar straits around the world.

At the same time, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has teamed up with Cartooning for Peace and launched an international support campaign, using 12 cartoons by cartoonists throughout the world to symbolise each month that Eknelygoda has been missing.

Wickrematunge's case has fared no better. According to CPJ, on 13 January, President Mahinda Rajapaksa told Sri Lankan media his government had no evidence to continue an investigation into Wickrematunge.

"In the two years since Lasantha's murder on 8 January 2009, the government has stonewalled the investigation while it has been passed around like a hot potato from one investigating body to another," said Sonali Samarasinghe, Wickrematunge's widow.

FMM is holding a Wickrematunge memorial lecture in February.

Meanwhile, writers from Asia and all over the world are planning to gather in the southern city of Galle for a literary festival from 26 to 30 January, co-sponsored by Sri Lanka's leading tourism promotion agencies.

"We believe this is not the right time for prominent international writers… to give legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government's suppression of free speech by attending a conference that does not in any way push for greater freedom of expression inside that country," say Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), a network of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, and RSF in an appeal asking for writers and intellectuals to endorse their campaign for more free expression in Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, RSF and JDS have come under fire for calling for a boycott, which critics say suppresses free speech. RSF and JDS refute the claim, saying that the appeal urges festival organisers and writers who are planning to attend to give some thought to the situation of dissident writers, journalists and cartoonists in Sri Lanka, like Eknelygoda and Wickrematunge.

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