It’s now a tourist hotspot, but Sri Lanka is still a very dangerous place for reporters.
by Lucy Popescu
May 19th marked the first anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s long civil war. In the past year, there has been frenzied activity to rebuild the country’s tourist industry. Astonishingly, the New York Times has made Sri Lanka its number one holiday destination for 2010. The travel brochures rhapsodise about the country’s natural splendours, stunning beaches and cultural heritage. Holidaymakers are once again pouring into this south Asian island, off the coast of India.
After almost three decades of conflict with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (popularly known as the Tamil Tigers), the Sri Lankan government declared military victory last May.
But many tourists do not know that Sri Lanka is now rated the fourth most dangerous place in the world for journalists, higher even than Afghanistan. The new peace in Sri Lanka has come at a high cost to freedom of expression and the human rights of its citizens.
More than 15 journalists are believed to have been killed since 2006. These include Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, who was murdered on January 8 2009 as he drove to work. Wickrematunge was widely known for his criticism of corruption, government policies and the civil war, and he had received several threats to his life. Just days before his death, chillingly he penned an article predicting his murder. It serves to summarise the threat facing all dissident writers in Sri Lanka:
“I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course, I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted.”
No one has been brought to justice for his murder.
According to Amnesty, despite the official end to the civil war, just for attempting to report the truth, journalists continue to be killed, physically assaulted, abducted, and harassed by both government personnel and members of paramilitary groups aligned with the state.
Newspapers have been seized and burned, newspaper offices have been vandalised and printing equipment destroyed.
On August 31 last year, a Sri Lankan court sentenced Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam (JS) Tissainayagam to 20 years hard labour for causing “communal disharmony”. Human rights groups believe that he was targeted for his earlier reporting on the conflict between government forces and the Tamil Tigers. After an international outcry, which included President Barack Obama expressing concern during an address to mark 2009 World Press Freedom Day, Tissa received a presidential pardon exactly a year later on May 3 2010. His release proves that external pressure can make a difference in Sri Lanka and the international community can play a part in this.
Emergency regulations, issued by the President, involve far-reaching and vaguely defined “terrorism” offences that have been used to silence critical voices. The authorities frequently misuse the Prevention of Terrorism Act and emergency regulations to prosecute journalists like Tissa in violation of their right to freedom of opinion and expression.
According to Amnesty, there has been a further clampdown on dissent since the presidential election concluded on January 26 2010. This has included arrests, death threats against several prominent newspaper editors, harassment of trade unionists and state employees who supported the opposition, and the intimidation of independent internet-based media.
On the day of the elections, a political cartoonist and opposition journalist, Prageeth Eknaligoda, disappeared. According to Reporters sans Frontiéres (RSF), he was abducted as he left the office of the Lanka-e-News website, his place of work, and has been missing since then. The police investigation has yielded nothing.
Many journalists and NGOs have wanted to report on the internment camps in Sri Lanka. There are almost 100,000 civilians still detained in these camps. But only pro-government NGOs have been allowed to work in many of the smaller camps. As a consequence, the outside world remains largely ignorant of the real conditions for the detainees.
In the rush to smooth the way for tourism, the government has started to bulldoze various Tamil Tiger landmark sites, including cemeteries and the homes of Velupillai Prabhakaran and other Tamil Tigers leaders. The Thileepan memorial near the Nallur temple was also defaced, apparently with the collusion of the Sri Lankan army. In a move sure to enflame local tensions, the authorities propose replacing the homes of Tamil Tigers leaders with hotels and resorts.
Many tourists never leave their hotel and most Sri Lankans are too frightened to speak about what is going on in their country. So visitors are unaware of the very different world outside the resorts where ordinary Sri Lankan citizens continue to have their basic human rights trampled on, sometimes involving violence and torture. If civil unrest erupts again, another humanitarian crisis is just waiting to happen.
What you can do
To find out more about Sri Lanka and how you can help visit www.srilankacampaign.org.
Urge the United Nations Secretary General to push for an independent inquiry into war crimes on both sides and appoint a special envoy for Sri Lanka; to ensure that all those held in camps are treated in line with international standards; and to press the government to protect human rights and promote peace and reconciliation.
Amnesty (www.amnesty.org) publishes regular reports on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
RSF (www.rsf.org) is monitoring the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda and reports on attacks against the media.