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Sri Lankan defence ministry brands media as “internal enemy” in war against LTTE

Predator of press freedom: Sri Lanka's Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (R) bows during a ceremony to honour fallen service members during National War Heroes Day in the Sri Jayewardenepura suburb of Colombo June 7, 2008. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was added to the Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) list of “Predators of Press Freedom” on May 3.Photo: Reuters/Buddhika Weerasinghe

The Sri Lankan defence ministry has initiated a campaign against independent news media, especially journalists who cover military affairs. The ministry’s website is carrying virulent attacks on journalists critical of the government, accusing them of being in cahoots with the “terrorist enemy,” the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Two long articles—headlined “Stop media treachery against armed forces members!” and "Deriding the war heroes for a living - the ugly face of defence analysts in Sri Lanka”—- were recently posed on the ministry’s website, attacking news media that dare to contradict official press releases about the fighting in the north of the country.

“While the civil war continues to claim innocent victims in both communities, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is lambasting journalists who do not toe the line of his propaganda,” Paris-based Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said. “He is directly threatening the safety of journalists by accusing them of agreeing with the enemy. The government has turned Manicheism into a state doctrine in which those not with the army are deemed to be with the Tamil Tigers.”

RSF added, “We call on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to restore trust and serenity to the government’s relations with the press.”

By blaming journalists for the military’s failure to “eradicate the LTTE terrorists,” the articles directly expose them to the possibility of reprisals. “Media freedom in this country has been encroached upon by few sociopaths that can be found in almost all anti-Sri Lankan outfits,” the website says.

The editorial, posted on May 31, makes serious allegations against International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) affiliate Free Media Movement (FMM), former FMM Convenor Sunanda Deshapriya, Sunday Times Associate Editor and defence columnist Iqbal Athas, and eight news outlets.

FMM and Deshapriya are accused of “terrorist propaganda” while Sirasa TV, Sunday Leader, Morning Leader, Iru Dina, Daily Mirror, Sunday Times, Lanka Dissent and Lanka E are accused of carrying content that “humiliated, scorned and blamed” soldiers of the Sri Lankan Army.

Athas has suffered similar attacks in the past, but the invective of defence personnel, including Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, has increased recently following the abduction and assault of journalist Keith Noyahr on May 22 and with threats issued against several journalists.

“Whoever lures disgruntled members of the armed forces to act against the good order and the military discipline of the service is committing treachery against the nation,” the site says.

FMM said, “We are deeply fearful that these charges are in effect a death warrant to journalists and editors of the media mentioned in the statement. These allegations criminalise independent media and viciously clamp down on their ability and democratic right to question tactics, promotions, procurements and allegations of significant corruption in matters related to defence and governance.”

The defence ministry also accuses the press of putting out false information although the army itself has often tried to minimise its losses, for example, after one of the most violent clashes in recent years in the Jaffna peninsula last April.

Pressure on the independent media is mounting amid repeated incursions by the security forces into LTTE-controlled areas and deadly bombings in the Colombo region that are blamed on the Tamil Tigers.

Keith Noyahr, assistant editor and defence correspondent of the English-language weekly the Nation, was abducted and beaten on May 22 in an attack apparently linked to his reporting on the government’s counter-insurgency campaign. TV reporter Paranirupasingam Devakumar and a friend were murdered six days later in an area of the Jaffna peninsula that is under military control. No suspect has been arrested.

Iqbal Athas, a reporter who specialises in military affairs, stopped writing articles for the Sunday Times several weeks ago after being the target of a campaign of intimidation. According to FMM, Sirimevan Kasthuriarachchi, a journalist who does defence reporting for the newspaper Divaina, was threatened with reprisals by thugs who forced their way into his home on May 29.

Frederica Jansz, the publisher of the monthly Montage and a contributor to the Nation, was followed by suspicious-looking vehicles in Colombo a week ago and the body of a bird was found outside her home in what might have been another threatening message.

Press freedom activists have also been the target of intimidation. On May 27, soldiers went to the Colombo headquarters of the Sri Lanka Press Institute, an organisation that is respected for its defence of media freedom, and asked for the names of its employees.

Date posted: June 9, 2008 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 869