Lucy Popescu

Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan and Lal Wickrematunge

Channel 4’s harrowing film Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, broadcast on 14 June, raised serious questions about the Sri Lankan government’s violations of international law in the closing months of its long civil war. The authorities’ attitude towards the media was also heavily criticised by a UN Panel of Experts set up to advise the Secretary-General on wartime accountability in Sri Lanka. Its 2011 report states that ‘the Government sought to intimidate and silence the media and other critics of the war through a variety of threats and actions, including the use of white vans to abduct and to make people disappear’.

Since 2005, there have been thirty-four murders of media professionals within Sri Lanka. No one has been brought to justice for the crimes. Despite the cessation of the conflict in May 2009, Sri Lanka remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists; the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks it above Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan. Human rights organisations have documented an escalation of harassment, intimidation and detention of media professionals since the inauguration of the current government. The police have failed to investigate threats to journalists, particularly those who cover elections or expose corruption, and this has contributed to a culture of impunity, self-censorship and enforced exile. 

A recent victim of this targeted violence is Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan, senior news editor of the Tamil daily Uthayan, who, on the evening of 29 July, was attacked and left for dead in the northern city of Jaffna. Kuhanathan, fifty-nine, was brutally assaulted by two unidentified men with iron rods while on his way home. He was discovered in a critical condition by passers-by and taken to Jaffna General Hospital, where he was immediately put on a life-support machine. At the time of writing, he is being treated for serious head injuries. 

Uthayan is Sri Lanka’s largest and most influential Tamil newspaper. It recently exposed the electioneering malpractices of the Rajapaksa regime in the run-up to local elections in the Northern Province. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which opposes the ruling coalition of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, won eighteen of the twenty-three town councils. It is believed that Kuhanathan’s editorial decision to back the TNA provoked this savage attack.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has condemned the assault, claiming it is ‘part of a pattern of seeking to suppress a newspaper which has sought consistently to provide a voice for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority’.

In May 2006, an armed attack on the Uthayan premises is believed to have been an attempt to assassinate Kuhanathan. The gunmen reportedly called out for Kuhanathan before spraying a volley of bullets at random. The journalist survived the attack by hiding in the bathroom, but two other Uthayan employees were killed and two more wounded. Later that month, a delivery van belonging to the newspaper was attacked and its driver killed.

On 28 May this year, S Kavitharan, a reporter with Uthayan, suffered an attack similar to that on Kuhanathan in Jaffna on his way to work. No investigations into the incident have since been conducted. In April 2007, S Rajeevarman, also an Uthayan reporter, was shot dead after publishing news reports on disappearances in the Northern Province.

Another publication to come under attack for its articles is The Sunday Leader, Sri Lanka’s only independent English-language newspaper. According to Reporters without Borders, on 19 July President Mahinda Rajapaksa threatened Lal Wickrematunge, the chairman of The Sunday Leader, because of an article reporting that China had given the president and his son, parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa, money to be used ‘at their discretion’. China had apparently made a grant of nine million dollars to the president and half a million dollars to the president’s son. The newspaper’s attempts to contact the president for an explanation had been unsuccessful.

The president allegedly telephoned Lal Wickrematunge and shouted: ‘You are writing lies, outrageous lies! You can attack me politically, but if you attack me personally, I will know how to attack you personally too.’ Around 100 posters with the words ‘Do not lie!’ and ‘The gods will punish you’ also appeared on the walls of the newspaper’s headquarters.

Lal Wickrematunge’s predecessor, his brother Lasantha Wickrematunge, was murdered on 8 January 2009 (LR, July 2010). Lasantha Wickrematunge was widely known for his criticism of corruption, governmental policies and the civil war. His murder was never properly investigated. 

Readers may like to send appeals expressing serious concern for the welfare of Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan; urging a full, prompt and impartial investigation into his brutal assault; expressing concern at the threatening telephone call made by the President to Lal Wickrematunge; and calling on the Sri Lankan authorities to take urgent measures to ensure the safety of journalists and protect freedom of expression, in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a state party.

Appeals to be addressed to: 

His Excellency Justice Nihal Jayasinghe
High Commission of Sri Lanka
13 Hyde Park Gardens
London W2 2LU
Fax: 020 7262 7970
Email: mail@slhc-london.co.uk 

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