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Sri Lankan newspaper editor accused of helping rebels, press freedom groups rebut claims

Lankan editor accused of helping rebels, press freedom groups rebut claims
E Saravanapavan, managing director of Tamil language newspaper Sudaroli, gestures as he describes the arrest of his editor Vidyadaran at a funereal in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, February 26, 2009. Sri Lankan police arrested the editor of a Tamil-language newspaper in the middle of a funeral Thursday, accusing him of aiding a rebel air attack on the capital last week.Photo: Associated Press (AP) / Eranga Jayawardena

Press freedom groups have rubbished the charges that Sri Lankan newspaper editor Nadesapillai Vithyatharan helped Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels carry out a suicide air strike on Colombo on February 20. Vithyatharan was arrested Thursday in Colombo.

According to friends who were with him at the time, police detained Vithyatharan while he was attending the funeral of a friend in Colombo, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said. The arrest comes at a time when Sri Lankan journalists have been under increased attack.

The Associated Press reported that a spokesman for the defence ministry, Lakshman Hulugalle, said Vithyatharan was being held in connection with a February 20 attack on Colombo by two airplanes of LTTE, which is fighting a secessionist war in the north and east of the country. The attack killed three people and injured 43, according to AP. The Sri Lankan Army's website announced Vithyatharan's arrest soon after the incident.

Vithyatharan publishes two Tamil-language dailies, Uthayan in Jaffna in the Tamil-dominated north of the country, and Sudaroli in Colombo.

"Nadesapillai Vithyatharan has been a respected journalist for more than 25 years in Sri Lanka," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia programme coordinator. "The nature of his arrest and the allegations that he was somehow involved in an aerial attack on Colombo point to more government repression of critical reporting. We call for his immediate release and are concerned that like other arrested journalists he will be held for lengthy period. This is a tactic we have seen before in Sri Lanka."

“If these allegations are based on the fact that Vithyatharan received in the past phone calls from Vanni or from LTTE leaders, they are grotesque,” Paris-based Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said. “A good journalist is supposed to be in contact with all the different parties to a conflict. And if he receives phone calls, he is in no way responsible for the identity of the people wanting to give him information.”

RSf said, “Despite the assurances we obtained from the media minister, we continue to be very concerned for Vithyatharan’s safety and we call for his immediate release.” His wife has been able to visit him twice in police custody since his arrest. He had visibly been injured during arrest.

"We condemn this display of thuggish tactics against journalists in Sri Lanka," said Aidan White, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) General Secretary. "The harassment of media has now reached unprecedented levels and the world needs to speak out against the government's reckless behaviour."

IFJ believes that his arrest, especially the manner in which it was effected, is part of the ongoing "war on journalism". "Vithyatharan was snatched from a ceremony without being served any arrest warrant nor any reason given for his arrest," added White. "His arrest and the official justification for it are consistent with the growing intolerance within the Sri Lankan government of critical and dissenting voices among the journalistic community."

Launched in 2001 from Colombo, Sudarsli is one of Sri Lanka's main Tamil language newspapers. It has a daily circulation of around 20,000 copies, of which around 7,000 are read in the eastern province of the Sri Lanka. Its sister publication, Uthayan, published from Jaffna city, has a daily circulation of 22,000 and is the principal vehicle for Tamil language advertisers in the northern province. As such, it is able to carry part of the costs of publishing Sudaroli which earns little income from advertising.

Vithyatharan's newspapers have been critical of the government's all-out military push to end the war with LTTE. In a 2007 interview with CPJ in Colombo, Vithyatharan said he was proud of his papers' editorial integrity and the fact that they had covered the government fairly.

Many journalists allege government involvement in a number of recent attacks, including one that took the life of one newspaper editor, put another in the hospital, and blew up a control room of the country's leading independent broadcaster, all in a three-week period in January.

Tamil journalists like Vithyatharan have been persecuted in the past. The case of another Tamil journalist, the Times' columnist JS Tissainayagam, who has been jailed on state security charges since March 2008 under harsh conditions, has attracted international attention.

On Tuesday, CPJ testified before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about media conditions in Sri Lanka. CPJ submitted the findings of a recent reporting trip to Colombo in a special report, 'Failure to investigate', which found that recent attacks, jailings, and harassment of journalists and media outlets have grown worse under the government of President Mahinda Rajapkasa, and that there is an increasing level of impunity for those who carry out such attacks.

Date posted: February 28, 2009 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 476