1 May 2008
Sri Lanka: Joint action by IFEX members incites government action
Sri Lanka has long been considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for practising journalists. In early 2008 this already perilous situation escalated, with the media suffering increasing cases of intimidation from the government. Commentaries published on 5 June on the Defence Ministry website called journalists critical of government action "enemies of the state" and specifically criticised IFEX member Free Media Movement (FMM). This climate was further pronounced by almost weekly violent incidents against the media.
In May, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and more than 45 international organisations responded to the situation by launching the campaign, "Stop the War on Journalists in Sri Lanka". The campaign calls for the government of Sri Lanka to honour the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression by protecting and supporting its journalists. It culminated in a joint letter written by IFJ and the International News Safety Institute, which was signed by 29 IFEX members and sent to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon on 20 June.
The letter said that the Sri Lankan authorities "risk encouraging those who have used extreme violence against journalists and other news professionals." The signatories condemned recent violence against the media within the country, and urged Ban to "persuad[e] the government of Sri Lanka to...immediately stop all actions which undermine the independence and safety of the news community."
The Sri Lankan government responded directly to the joint action almost immediately. On 25 June, a presidential sub-committee of cabinet ministers was appointed to look into media grievances, namely allegations that local journalists trying to cover the country's civil war have been threatened and harassed. IFJ views this development as "a positive step in opening a dialogue to resolving the dangers journalists face in Sri Lanka," but "this view is expressed with caution."
Caution seems apt in this case: shortly after the committee was formed, a state-controlled Sinhala newspaper published allegations that the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) sent Tamil tigers masquerading as journalists for training in Denmark and Norway. In the wake of this accusation, the deputy head of SLPI Namal Perera and British diplomatic employee Mahendra Amaraweera were brutally assaulted in a kidnapping attempt on 30 June. FMM expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the committee given the attack, stating that members need "to prove their commitment by resolving killings and assaults."
Since then, there have been no public statements issued by the sub-committee to indicate that it has taken any action. FMM reports that although "all committee members except one visited the hospital within three hours of the attack…threats against SLPI [are] continuing."
Despite this, ensuring the success of the sub-governmental committee remains the primary objective for both local and international organisations. With this goal in mind, IFJ and several other press freedom and human rights organisations are currently planning a series of advocacy actions and a return international mission to Sri Lanka in the second half of 2008.
IFJ – Stop the War on Journalists in Sri Lanka, says World Press Freedom Community: http://www.ifj.org/fr/articles/stop-the-war-on-journalists-in-sri-lanka-says-world-press-freedom-community
IFEX – JOINT ACTION: Twenty-nine IFEX members alert UN secretary-general to statements by government and military that "put journalists in grave danger": http://www.ifex.org/sri_lanka/2008/06/20/twenty_nine_ifex_members_alert/
EJC – Sri Lanka to investigate claims of threats to media: http://www.ejc.net/media_news/sri_lanka_to_investigate_claims_of_threats_to_media/
By Sam Burton, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression/IFEX Clearing House Intern