Free press under siege in Sri Lanka

There has been a violent and deeply worrying crackdown on dissent, reports Amnesty's Deputy Asia-Pacific Director

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“They cut my hair and put it into my mouth, then gagged me. They struck both my legs, breaking one at the ankle. They used a piece of wood to smash the fingers on my right hand until they bled. They said, ‘This will stop you from writing’.”

These are the words of Poddala Jayantha, who was an outspoken critic of the Sri Lankan government’s treatment of media and also led the country’s main journalism union. In June 2009, he was abducted and tortured by armed men who broke his fingers so he could not write.

Jayantha had only returned to Sri Lanka a few weeks before the assault – he had left the country earlier in 2009 following the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, a newspaper that had also criticised the government.

Today he lives in exile as he fears for his own safety in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately he is far from alone.

Since the 2009 end to the Sri Lankan armed conflict, when government forces defeated the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), the government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has intensified a crackdown on dissent in a bid to tighten its grip on power. Human rights activists, the judiciary and opposition politicians are among those who have been targeted through threats, harassment and violent attacks.

The government-sponsored abuse fits a disturbing and deliberate pattern of silencing critical voices, which has created a real climate of fear in Sri Lanka. This is a situation that we at Amnesty International are highlighting in a new report, “Assault on Dissent”, published yesterday.

Journalists and other media workers have also been among those who have had to suffer the most obvious repression. While much of Sri Lankan media is firmly in the hands of the authorities, the government has targeted outlets that remain independent and criticize official policies or the government’s conduct during the armed conflict.

Since 2006, at least 15 media personnel have been killed, while countless others, like Jayantha, have felt compelled to leave the country. Critical reporters are subjected to harassment and threats from authorities, often through government-run media, while their offices are raided.

Websites with articles critical of the government face frequent cyber attacks, while their offices have been raided by police or burned down by unidentified arsonists. The government has also used amendments to legislation – such as providing for the imposition of exorbitant “registration” fees – to shut down critical online outlets.

Our report documents dozens of such cases. In particular, media outlets active in the Tamil-majority north, where the bloody final months of the armed conflict played out, have been targeted.

An example is the daily Jaffna-based newspaper Uthayan, which has suffered repeated violent attacks over many years. Its editors have been beaten up, its offices vandalised, and just in the past month two of its staff members were hospitalised after armed men attacked a distribution office in Killinochchi.

The violent crackdown on dissent in Sri Lanka has to be seen in the context of the country’s armed conflict. The government is essentially carrying on a war-time security regime that criminalises freedom of expression.

Authorities reserve particular ire for those who dare to criticise its conduct during the armed conflict, when tens of thousands of civilians are thought to have died at the hands of the LTTE and the army.

With the government showing no political will whatsoever to reverse this disturbing trend, the international community must deliver a strong message in support of Sri Lankans who continue to advocate for human rights change in the face of extreme danger. These abuses cannot be allowed to continue with impunity. We urge all countries, including the UK, to highlight and put pressure on Sri Lanka to end the current cycle of abuse.

Equally important is that Sri Lanka should not be allowed to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November unless there have been concrete and substantial improvements in the country’s human rights situation.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right – the Sri Lankan government must not be allowed to ignore this.

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