SRI LANKA: Media freedom takes a dip in Lanka

Journalists attribute the persistent attacks on media personnel as acts of revenge by Labor Minister Silva

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

COLOMBO --- Media freedom in Sri Lanka has taken a dip for the worst with the staff of a state-controlled television station and other journalists being hunted down in sinister fashion over the last few months.

Members of the staff of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation have been attacked on the roads of Colombo as well as in their homes in the past three months. The attacks began after Labour Minister Mervin Silva and several of his bodyguards forced their way into the organisation last December and assaulted senior staff members for not telecasting a speech Silva had made at a public function.

Media personnel at the television station say that the organised attacks against them taking place now are acts of revenge by Minister Silva whose violent behaviour at the institution was telecast live by the TV station and received widespread condemnation by all print and electronic media groups in the country.

Meanwhile, the army seized control of the SLRC last Monday after workers who threatened to strike unless the violence against them stopped were sent off on 'holiday'.

Reporters Without Borders in a statement called for an explanation from President Mahinda Rajapakse after the military takeover of the state television.

"The head of state should immediately order the army to withdraw from the station. This is in no way a good solution for ending escalating violence against SLRC staff since December 2007," the international press freedom organisation said.

President Rajapakse has been subject to much criticism for not sacking the controversial Minister Silva who has a history chequered with violent acts.

"Right now, working at the Rupavahini Corporation means that we are not sure of our lives. There is an organised witch-hunt and it is no secret that Minister Mervin Silva's henchmen are behind it," a senior member of organisation said on condition of anonymity fearing retribution if he is named. Minister Silva has denied having any part in the attacks.

Among the SLRC staff members, who were assaulted, were assistant director of supplies, Arunasiri Hettige, who was beaten with iron rods on 14 March and the TV station's librarian, Ranjani Aluthge, who was slashed with a razor blade as she returned home from work by bus on March 5.

Lal Hemantha Mawalage, a journalist, was attacked by two men on a motorbike as he travelled home from work late on Jan 25 and another journalist Priyal Ranjith Perera was stabbed a month later.

Sunethra Athugalpura, a female reporter with the Lakbima Sinhala newspaper had her house ransacked on March 16 days after she interviewed Minister Silva. The attacks come amidst a background where police have arrested and interrogated several media personnel for being suspected 'supporters' of the LTTE.

Three journalists, including Sunday Times columnist J.S.Tissanayagam, were among five arrested and detained by the Terrorism Investigation Division of the police early March.