A campaign by Sri Lankan media organisations was held last week in response to increased attacks on journalists.
As part of the campaign, journalists queued in post offices in Colombo and elsewhere on the island to send telegrams to the president, while wearing black masks covering their mouths which read ‘Stop media suppression”.
Earlier in the month, Sri Lankan media owners offered cash rewards for help in catching journalists’ attackers. Twelve journalists have been attacked in 2008, including Paranirupasingham Devakumar, a Maharaja Television correspondent who was stabbed to death in May this year. Devakumar was one of the few remaining journalists reporting from the Jaffna peninsula.
Many journalists were reluctant to work from Jaffna since BBC journalist Mylvagaman Nimalarajan was shot dead in his home in October 2000, days after general elections.
At least 12 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka since August 2005 when the ceasefire came to an end and the 25-year-old civil war between the government and Tamil tigers re-ignited.
Journalists also protested this month outside the Sri Lankan president’s residence after Namal Perera, a freelance journalist and deputy head of media rights advocacy group the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), was attacked.
Perera was hospitalised after he was attacked by men with iron bars while travelling in Colombo with Mahendra Ratnaweera, the British High Commission officer. They were set upon by men who had followed them on motorbikes and four men who got out of a van that had stopped them in the road.
Press freedom groups say Sri Lanka is fast becoming one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work in the world. Ranked the world’s third deadliest place for journalists last year, after Iraq and Somalia, by the World Association of Newspapers, in June the country was also added to the International Press Institute (IPI) Watch List, along with five other countries: Ethiopia, Nepal, Russia, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
The list represents countries in which press freedom conditions have deteriorated. In the case of Sri Lanka, where the conflict between the government and the Tamil rebels has recently escalated, journalists have been specifically targeted because of their reports, the IPI says.
Last month, more than 30 media organisations worldwide appealed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to speak out in support of Sri Lankan journalists. Local media groups said they have no confidence in government investigations into the attacks as the state has done little to curb violations of media freedom or the violence.
The government has been accused of taking an increasingly heavy-handed approach towards critics of its military policy. The authorities have threatened the media not to publish ‘unpatriotic’reports, and physical attacks and other forms of harassment are commonplace.
Sri Lanka has intermittently censored media reports of the civil war since it began in 1983, and has restricted access to Tamil Tiger-held areas. Fighting between government forces and the Tamil Tigers has intensified since the government formally pulled out of a six-year-old ceasefire pact in January.