The media silence on Sri Lanka’s descent into a brutal dictatorship is shameful. Edward Mortimer, a board member on UK-based Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice (alongside me and many others), writes in the Guardian:
It is now over a year since the president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, claimed victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But war is still being waged on the “paradise island” – by the government, against the country’s journalists.
Last week alone saw one media outlet receive a threatening letter and the head of another charged with fraud by the supreme court after publishing stories critical of the government. And two international NGO workers involved in protecting journalists had their visas revoked.
The situation has been deteriorating for some time. According to Amnesty International at least 14 media workers have been killed in the country since 2006 and more than 20 are thought to have fled – more per capita than have left Iran. Arbitrary arrests, abductions and assassinations have been documented for over three decades. No one has ever been prosecuted for these attacks on the media.
In January last year, as the Sri Lankan army closed in on the last remaining pockets of resistance held by the LTTE, the government imposed a media blackout on the war zone. (It also denied humanitarian access to civilians trapped by the fighting and, like the rebels, displayed callous contempt for civilian life.)
Away from the killing fields, the local media suffered a sharp spike in attacks. Just days after independent broadcaster MTV was raided by gunmen, Lasantha Wickrematunge – editor of the Sunday Leader and prominent government critic – was assassinated in broad daylight in a high-security zone regularly patrolled by the army.
The end of the war has changed nothing. Phones are tapped. Emails hacked. Media outlets harassed and journalists threatened. One – Prageeth Eknaligoda – has been missing since January’s presidential election. Small wonder that so many journalists say they now resort to self-censorship.
This global silence plays into the hands of the Sri Lankan government’s apologists, both those who delude themselves and say, as one did in a meeting at London’s Frontline Club last week, that missing journalists have merely run off with mistresses, and those who are paid to delude others. The government has spent lavishly on public relations firms such as Bell Pottinger – which counts General Pinochet and Trafigura among its past clients – and its US subcontractor Qorvis, which also represents Equatorial Guinea’s unsavoury dictator. The pardoning on World Press Freedom Day of JS Tissainayagam, a journalist previously sentenced to 20 years’ hard labour, is part of this PR strategy.