SRI LANKA: Group claims responsibility for Tamil journalist's murder, threatens peace activists

Journalists say they do not feel protected and that lack of mainstream media coverage is disappointing

By Arthur Rhodes
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Monday, June 6, 2005

Colombo --- On May 2 a group calling itself the Theraputtabhaya Brigade drafted a letter claiming responsibility for the Apr. 28 kidnapping and murder of well-known Tamil journalist Dharmaratnam Sivaram.

"It is with a heart full of joy that we are informing the patriotic people of this country that we had to put an end on April 28th 2005, at 11:20 pm, to the infamous and traitorous operation [Sivaram] carried out defacing and darkening the international face of Sri Lanka with the help of a sinful, traitorous herd [sic] calling themselves mediamen, born of Sinhala parents," read the letter. In closing, it stated its intention to inform "all those who are doing harm to the motherland…to prepare to become manure to [her] very soon."

Over the course of the next 12 days the letter was delivered or faxed to the offices and homes of some of Sri Lanka’s most prominent peace and co-existence advocates. Many of the recipients are members of the independent media.

"Sivaram’s killing and this threatening letter are clearly an attempt to silence journalists who are writing about the possibility of peace. They are telling us 'tow the line or else'," said Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wikrematunge, who was one of the first to receive the note. "It is also a political move of maximum benefit because Sivaram was regarded by many in the Sinhalese community as a terrorist so his death will not receive as much public outcry as the murder of a Sinhalese journalist. They can intimidate journalists without the worry of too much backlash from the public."

Though violence against members of the press is not new to Sri Lanka, Sivaram’s death and the threat against pro-coexistence journalists comes at a crucial moment in the nation’s stalled three year peace process. The national government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are currently undertaking discussions for a power-sharing mechanism that would evenly distribute the aid received by Sri Lanka for the process of post-tsunami rebuilding. Some of the worst affected areas are in LTTE controlled territory and an supporters of the discussions say that an aid sharing will be crucial to ensuring that the people of this region are able to rebuild in a timely and equitable fashion.

"If the joint mechanism to share aid is successful, it will mark the first occasion that the national government and the LTTE will have proven that it is possible for them to work together. This raises a concern amongst chauvinistic nationalists, who wish to perpetuate an hegemony of the Sinhalese majority, that this sort of institutional arrangement will lead to a rejuvenation of the peace process" said Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu. Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a pro-peace non-governmental organization focusing on civil society research. Saravanamuttu and three of his colleagues at CPA also received Theraputtabhaya’s letter.

As to why the letter targeted these specific people, Saravanamuttu explained that "these are all people who are involved in the process of informing the people about an alternative to the paradigm most often presented by politicians and the national media. It is a paradigm that advocates for a peaceful future as opposed to one that is rooted in a past of chauvinism and bigotry. Those who must perpetuate old-guard nationalism to maintain their power fear that we are a source of alternative ideas with access to a mass channel and that these ideas will reach the public mind and grow into the force of the future." 

Sivaram’s death came only a few weeks after the propoganda spokesman for Jantha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a popular political party that is adamantly opposed to the Joint Mechanism, publicy denounced the work of Sivaram and many of those who would later receive Theraputtabhaya’s threatening letter.

The origins of the Theraputtabhaya Brigade are unknown, but their name and choice of imagery resonates with Sinhalese history. Theraputtabhaya was a monk who shed his robe to fight with the Sinhala king Dutugemunu and repel an army of Tamil invaders in the second century B.C.E. The letter, entitled "Announcement to the Enemies of the Motherland," was signed "Commander Mayadunne." Mayadunne was a Sinhalese king who launched a rebellion against the Portuguese colonists during the 16th century C.E.

According to Victor Ivan, editor of the popular Sinhalese newspaper Ravaya and recipient of this and many similar threats, the language of the letter is reminiscent of that used by the Sinhalese nationalists during late 1980’s when violence and threats against public figures, including journalists, was a common occurrence.

A number of those threatened have requested protection from the police, but as of yet no steps have been taken.

When asked what measures he had taken to protect himself, Saravanamuttu explained that there is not much anyone can do on his own in such a situation. "You alter your daily routines. Drive to work a different way. The normal things like that, but if these people want to kill you they will succeed. The best we can do is publicize the threat as widely as possible and inform the public so that these people will not feel as if they can operate anonymously and with impunity."

Ivan called the mainstream media’s coverage of the letter "far from satisfactory." He continued, "All of us who received the threat are for a free and independent media. For some of them [mainstream Sri Lanka journalists], it is a good thing for us to be threatened and scared or even dead. Corruption in the media is one of the biggest problems in this country and people like us expose that corruption. It is very good for them if we are quiet."

"We depend on the mainstream media to protect us from such things," said pro-peace filmmaker and dramatist Dharmasiri Banarayanake, the only artist to receive the letter. When asked if he was frightened after receiving the threat he responded, "Why should I not be? I am a man alone. My government does not help and no one knows that this is happening because the papers do not write about it."

Recently retired Minister of Information, Mangala Samaraweera, publicly denounced and promised to conduct an inquiry into the letter and the killing of Sivaram. His office was unable to comment about the progress of the investigation.

Anthony David, Deputy News Editor of the Sunday Times, a less controversial news source, believes that the answer to this sort of intimidation is a united front of publications and journalists resisting intimidation and pressuring the government to protect the press.

David, who did not receive the letter, agreed that such threats are intended to intimidate journalists. "It obviously has an effect on the quality of our work," he said. "You cannot expect journalists to stand up alone in the face of these sorts of threats. Speaking out against a particular party or writing about corruption in the government can be very dangerous, so there is self-censorship and the truth suffers. We have to use our voice to bring public pressure against such things. Today it is a political group. Tomorrow it could be a drug lord. We have to unite if we are going to stop this intimidation." 

The Theraputtabhaya Brigade’s letter was printed in the Sunday Times’ sister publication The Daily Mirror. The Times did not run an article about the letter.