Sri Lanka kills and tortures journalists

A strong article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald by Matt Wade outlines the reasons Sri Lanka remains a brutal country with little interest in addressing human rights concerns:

The treatment of journalists is one bellwether of the human rights climate in Sri Lanka. But the Australian Government doesn’t seem to be paying attention. It’s decision to decision to suspend the claims of Sri Lankans seeking political asylum is at odds with the plight of media workers there.

Despite the end to the country’s civil war 10 months ago, voicing a critical opinion in Sri Lanka remains very dangerous. In recent weeks, several journalists have fled the country fearing for their lives. They have joined scores of others living in exile because they feel it is too dangerous to report independently in their country. These include several Sri Lankan journalists I have encountered while reporting there over the past 18 months.

One media activist who worked for me as an interpreter in January has since fled Sri Lanka with his wife, also a journalist, and their small child. He found himself in a ”life-threat situation” after the presidential elections and decided it was time to leave. The family is now in a European country that still accepts Sri Lankan asylum seekers. ”I have no idea when will I be able to come back home,” he says.

Last year, a professional photographer who had taken pictures for The Age escaped to India after being accused of sympathising with the Tamil Tigers. Poddala Jayantha, editor of the Sinhalese newspaper Silumina, which has published stories critical of the government, was abducted and severely beaten last June. He was left permanently disabled by the attack. Despite his injuries, Jayantha remained in Sri Lanka for more than six months hoping to continue his journalistic career, but gave up recently and left the country. Last week, another long-time journalist activist left the country in fear for his life.

Meanwhile, there is grave concern for the wellbeing of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who has been missing since the evening of January 24.

According to some, the situation has become worse since recent elections.

The editor of the Sinhalese-language Lanka Irida Sangrahaya newspaper, Chandana Sirimalwatte, was arrested soon after Sri Lanka’s presidential poll in January and held for several weeks. His newspaper, which is affiliated with an opposition party, has since reopened but with restrictions.

Sirimalwatte fears media freedoms will deteriorate further following this month’s parliamentary elections, which were won convincingly by the coalition led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

”We are hoping for things to get better but we are ready for the worst,” he told The Age on Sunday.

Last month, the International Federation of Journalists wrote to the President raising concerns about a list of journalists, human rights campaigners and other prominent individuals in Sri Lanka that was reportedly compiled and possibly circulated by state intelligence agencies.

The federation’s Deborah Muir says the climate of intimidation in Sri Lanka now is as bad as it has ever been for journalists, and self-censorship rules the media across the island. ”For the Australian or other governments to say that there is no problem in Sri Lanka, and to accept the claims of a regime notorious for its efforts to undermine independent media voices and to stamp out free expression, appears to completely overlook the reality for people in Sri Lanka,” she said.

”How can anyone claim the situation is acceptable when just last week a long-time journalist activist finally had to flee the country in fear for his life?

”We fear more may be forced out in the next weeks or months as the regime cements its grip and seeks revenge on those it deems to be its enemies.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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