Government accused as Sri Lankan news office is torched

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The Independent Online

The building housing a news website that had been repeatedly critical of the Sri Lankan authorities has been destroyed in what activists say is just the latest assault on media freedom in the country.

Reports suggest a group of unidentified men broke into a bungalow in Colombo that served as the offices of Lankaenews.com and set it alight in the early hours of yesterday. Staff who rushed to the scene discovered a blackened interior and the website's computers and a reference library, built up over the last 20 years, destroyed.

Staff said the attack followed a number of threats and the website's publication of an article that questioned the veracity of testimony that the country's defence secretary, who is also the president's brother, had given in a recent court hearing.

The website's editor, Sandaruwan Senadheera, who last year fled into exile in the UK following the disappearance of a colleague, has accused the authorities of carrying out the assault.

Speaking last night from the UK, Mr Senadheera said: "This is not just one thing. It's one thing in a chain that has been happening to the independent press. Two years ago a prominenteditor was killed and a TV channel was attacked; six months ago another private channel was set alight. The government is responsible. Three days earlier we had revealed an intelligence report about the defence secretary and we think that is why this has happened."

The Sri Lankan government has adamantly denied the accusation and ordered an investigation into the fire.

The media minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, told the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror newspaper the attack had been carried out by people seeking to destroy the image of the government. "Those responsible for the attack on LankaeNews have committed this heinous crime just so as to direct the blame on the government and to create problems for us. Their intention is to create unpleasantness for us."

But campaigners say the arson is just the latest in a series of assaults on media organisations that have been critical of the government, headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Human rights activists say at least 14 journalists and media professionals have been killed in the last five years and more than 35 have reportedly gone into exile. Among the most prominent attacks on the press was the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, in January 2009. His family and colleagues accused the government of responsibility for the killing, though this was denied. No one has yet been brought to trial over the shooting.

The website that suffered yesterday's arson attack has itself been at the centre of assaults on media freedom. Last year, Prageeth Eknaligoda, a columnist and cartoonist for LankaeNews.com, disappeared in what is widely believed to have been a case of abduction. Last month, his wife wrote to UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon and asked for his help, saying the Sri Lankan government did not appear interested in investigating the matter. "Our children are the ones who suffer most at the disappearance of their father," she said.

Meenakshi Ganguly, a regional spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, said: "The LankaeNews has come under repeated attack, with the editor forced to flee the country. The president has ordered an investigation after this recent attack, but it is hard to believe that there will be any serious effort to identify the perpetrators. Sri Lanka has no space, it appears, for dissidence."

Press freedom activists appealed to writers taking part in the recentannual Galle literary festival to boycott the event, saying it was inappropriate for them to celebrate writing while local journalists and dissidents were not able to speak out. The award-winning South African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut announced he would not take part.

Many observers believed a clamp-down on media and dissidents would ease following the defeat of Tamil rebels in the spring of 2009, in an operation that ended a decades-long civil war that had cost thousands of lives. It was also hoped the situation might ease following President Rajapaksa's re-election last year.

However, Mr Senadheera, who oversees the operation of LankaeNews.com from the UK, said this had not happened. "It's totally going downhill," he said. "After his re-election, it's gone from bad to worse."

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