After almost three decades of conflict with the rebel group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sri Lankan government declared military victory on 19 May last year. But the new peace in Sri Lanka has come at a high cost to freedom of expression and the human rights of its citizens. Sri Lanka is now rated the fourth most dangerous place in the world for journalists, higher even than Afghanistan.
Amnesty International believes that at least fifteen journalists have been killed there since 2004. These include Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, who was assassinated on 8 January 2004 as he drove to work. Wickramatunga was widely known for his criticisms of corruption, government policies and the civil war, and had previously received death threats.
I wrote about Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam (‘Tissa’) in these pages (LR, October 2009). He was targeted for reporting on the civil war and was only released after an international outcry that included an expression of concern by President Obama. Tissa received a presidential pardon on 3 May 2010. Although he is still awaiting confirmation of his pardon and the return of his passport, his release suggests that the Sri Lankan government is sensitive to external criticism and that appeals do have some effect.
Far more disturbing is the disappearance of Pregeeth Ekanaliyagoda (also spelt Prageeth Eknaligoda). A political analyst, journalist and cartoonist for the Lanka eNews, Ekanaliyagoda was last seen leaving his office on the evening of 24 January 2010. It is widely believed that he was abducted by pro-government forces. His disappearance follows a pattern of intimidation of journalists by the state. His whereabouts remain unknown and some fear that he may have been killed for his outspokenness and critical reporting.
According to PEN, Ekanaliyagoda is a leading columnist who published articles in favour of the defeated opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka in the run-up to the Sri Lankan presidential elections on 26 January. The Lanka eNews website was blocked during the elections and its offices were ransacked and searched by unidentified individuals. Previously, in August of last year, Ekanaliyagoda was abducted, blindfolded and held for one night. The next day he was released and told that he was not the intended target. No one was brought to justice for his unlawful detention.
Another journalist, Chandana Sirimalwatte, editor of the Lanka newspaper, was detained under the country’s emergency regulations on 29 January 2010 and held for eighteen days, apparently for articles critical of the government. He was released without charge.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa won a landslide victory but in the immediate aftermath of the elections the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that journalists in Sri Lanka were being subjected to government intimidation, arrests, censorship and harassment. The election results were questioned by many inside Sri Lanka, including Fonseka, Rajapaksa’s main rival, who was arrested on 8 February 2010 on charges of conspiracy.
Amnesty also reported that there have been death threats against several prominent newspaper editors, and harassment of trade unionists and state employees who supported the opposition after the elections. The intimidation and violence in Sri Lanka have continued in spite of commitments by Rajapaksa to protect freedom of expression. The president’s power was further consolidated when his ruling coalition won an overwhelming majority in parliamentary elections in April 2010.
Government sources have denied allegations that state agents are responsible for Ekanaliyagoda’s recent disappearance and yet the authorities have done very little to investigate his disappearance. Family and colleagues are increasingly concerned for his safety.
The editor of Lanka eNews, Sandaruwan Senadeera, who was forced to flee Sri Lanka in 2009 after he was repeatedly questioned and harassed by the government’s Criminal Investigation Department, has recently said that Ekanaliyagoda had been researching the use of chemical weapons by both the government and the LTTE during the conflict, and that he had delivered a lecture on this subject to members of another opposition party.
Readers may like to send appeals expressing serious concern for the welfare of journalist Pregeeth Ekanaliyagoda; urging a full, prompt and impartial investigation into his disappearance; 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
H M G S Palihakkara
Ambassador, Permanent Mission of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the United Nations
#630, 3rd Avenue
New York, NY 10017
Fax: +1 212 986 1838
Updates: On 5 June 2010 prominent writer Zhang Jianhong (LR, June 2007) was released on medical parole. He is now in hospital in a critical condition, requiring intensive care and dependent on a ventilator.
On 10 June 2010 Turkish writer N Mehmet Güler (LR, May 2010) was convicted and sentenced to prison for fifteen months for his novel More Difficult Decisions than Death. Güler was charged under Article 7/2 of the Anti Terror Law of ‘spreading propaganda’ for the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).