28 March 2012

State media outlets label journalists "traitors"

Difficult environment for journalists? Thousands of people in Sri Lanka took to the streets in February to protest against the proposed UN Human Rights Council resolution on alleged human rights abuses during the country's civil war
Difficult environment for journalists? Thousands of people in Sri Lanka took to the streets in February to protest against the proposed UN Human Rights Council resolution on alleged human rights abuses during the country's civil war
Rohan Karunarathne/DEMOTIX
Sri Lankan authorities have openly threatened journalists who supported a UN resolution calling for an investigation into the country's abuse of international laws during its war with Tamil separatists, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Officials are calling these journalists "traitors" and one threatened to break their legs.

The UN Human Rights Council resolution, passed on 22 March, called for an investigation into human rights violations carried out by the military in the last phase of the country's long civil war.

"In its failed efforts to block the council resolution, the Sri Lankan government saw fit to put its own citizens at risk through vicious personal attacks on rights advocates," said Human Rights Watch. "It's a credit to Human Rights Council members that they saw through the government's scare tactics to avoid accountability."

Human rights advocates and journalists attending the UN session in Geneva were labelled traitors and their photos were published in national media and blogs, reports Human Rights Watch. The BBC reports that although the activists and journalists were not specifically named, Sri Lankan state television repeatedly zoomed in on thinly disguised photographs of them, promising to give their names soon and to "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.

Perhaps it was Sandhya Eknelygoda, the wife of disappeared journalist and cartoonist Prageeth. In the magistrate's court where Sandhya has been trying to gain any information about the whereabouts of her husband, who disappeared on 24 January 2010, she came under harsh questioning from government lawyers about her presence at the UN session, reports CPJ. Before she returned from Geneva, she too had been denounced in the government-controlled media.

In another instance, "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," according to the pro-government "Daily Mirror". CPJ says that given Silva's history of violence against the media, his threats need to be taken seriously.

IFEX members have documented numerous examples of state media outlets that criticised advocates and journalists who supported the resolution or took up the campaign for human rights.

For instance, "Ceylon Daily News" attacked three leading rights advocates and a journalist who were advocating for the resolution, alleging that they were supporters of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and were acting to "betray Sri Lanka," says Human Rights Watch.

According to IFJ, the attacks have become particularly harsh since the country's main media associations and journalists' unions commemorated "black January" this year, to protest against the continuing impunity for attacks on free expression that historically have occurred in the month of January.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government has a long and alarming record of denouncing its critics, say the IFEX members. Earlier this month, Sri Lanka's military authorities told all news and media organisations that they would have to get prior approval before releasing text or SMS news alerts containing any news about the military or police - a restriction that was purportedly lifted last August.

Those that write about them without permission "have to be prepared to abducted by a white van," a source told CPJ - referring to white Toyota Hi Ace vans with deeply tinted windows that have been used to abduct critics in the past - and have seemingly made a return.

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