Sri Lanka Continues to Strangle the Press
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Sri Lanka Continues to Strangle the Press

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On March 26, BBC World Service Director Peter Horrocks announced the suspension of BBC broadcasts on the state-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) after “continued interruption and interference” of its Tamil-language broadcasts. Incidentally, the disruptions began on March 16, a day after the UN Human Rights Council began its examination of war crimes in the final stages of a bloody civil war in Sri Lanka, which ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers.

Reporters Without Borders, an international NGO that monitors press freedom, slammed the move. “The replacement of the BBC’s coverage of the Human Rights Council’s activities by completely unrelated programming is a direct violation of the Tamil population’s right to information,” the organization said, alongside its partner Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. Further, in a direct indictment of the Sri Lankan government, the group’s statement added that the decision by SLBC “was a political decision taken at the highest government level.”   

The incident comes on the heels of the attempted murder of journalist Faraz Shaukatally on February 15. Shaukatally, an investigative journalist for the privately owned Colombo-based magazine The Sunday Leader (whose editor incidentally was murdered in 2009) and an outspoken critic of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government was shot by three unidentified gunmen at his home.

Then, on Wednesday, six masked men attacked the offices of Tamil-language pro-opposition Uthayan paper in Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka and beat its staff. This is not the first time the paper has been targeted. According to the BBC, the paper has been attacked time and again with several of its staff members having been killed in recent years. 

Intimidation and assassinations have made Sri Lanka one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, who in turn have been forced to self-censor their work. According to Reporters Without Borders, Sri Lanka is among the world’s democratically elected governments that least respects press freedoms.

The end of the brutal civil war in 2009 and allegations of war crimes against Sri Lanka have made the government of President Rajapaksa sensitive to press scrutiny. The Paris-based media watchdog contends that “the president and his aides, above all his brother, defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is on the Reporters Without Borders list of Predators of Press Freedom, control the state media and use intimidation to get privately-owned media journalists to censor themselves.”

Last year, Gotabaya Rajapaksa openly threatened to kill Frederica Jansz, then-editor of The Sunday Leader, after she called him to check whether he had pulled strings to change the schedule for a Sri Lankan Airlines flight to suit the whims of a family friend.

The editor was looking into claims that the schedule change was to be made to allow a Sri Lankan Airlines pilot, who was dating a niece of President Rajapaksa, to personally fly the aircraft that would carry a “puppy” for Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s wife from Zurich. The president’s brother went into a fit of rage, hurling expletives at Jansz and threatening her. “People will kill you,” he allegedly said. “People hate you. They will kill you.”

Jansz was sacked in September 2012 after Asanga Seneviratne, a businessman allied to the Sri Lankan president, bought the anti-establishment magazine. Under the new management, the magazine has reportedly issued retractions of past articles and lost some of its most outspoken columnists. Jansz is one of many Sri Lankan journalists to have fled the country because of fears for personal safety.  

No wonder then that Reporters Without Borders ranked the country a dismal 162 out of 179 countries in the press freedom index for 2013. A worrying trend: Sri Lanka’s record is somewhat matched by its South Asia neighbors.

Indeed, according to the media watchdog, “The Indian subcontinent was the Asian region that saw the sharpest deterioration in the climate for those involved in news and information in 2012.”

Amid the political turmoil, the Maldives slumped to 103rd place, a drop of 30 places. Pakistan ranks 159 on the index, while India, the world’s largest democracy with a vibrant media environment found itself ranked 140th – its lowest ranking since 2002 – amid increasing violence against journalists and growing internet censorship.

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