[ Protester holding a placard on 14.12.14 Colombo; Vikalpa photo]
Journalists and trade union activists protest against media restrictions at the Colombo Fort railway station on Friday (photo by ucanews.com)
Hundreds of journalists and trade union activists protested on Friday against government threats to the media ahead of a contentious presidential election in January.
The protest, organized at the Colombo Fort railway station by the civil society group Citizen’s Power, condemned the interrogation of KW Janaranjana, editor in chief of the Ravaya Sinhala weekly newspaper, by the Criminal Investigation Department.
Janaranjana was questioned for several hours on November 30 over an article that suggested opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena had an edge in the race for president.
Joining Friday’s protest, Janaranjana said police had no just cause to question him.
“All these incidents are direct attempts to supress the media close to the election,” he told ucanews.com, referring to his interrogation as well as the targeting of other journalists, including an attempt to pull the broadcasting license of Derana TV by a cabinet minister.
“Some groups have threatened newspaper agents not to sell copies of Ravaya in several cities,” he added.
“The media suppression will pose a grave threat to a free and fair election.”
President Rajapaksa called for a snap election on January 8 — almost two years early — after his Sri Lanka Freedom Party made a poorer than expected showing in local elections earlier this year.
Since then, support for Rajapaksa has flagged. On Wednesday, two ministers resigned from the government and joined the opposition candidate Sirisena, who told reporters last week to expect more defections.
Sunil Jayasekara, the convenor of the Free Media Movement and a participant in Friday’s protest, said the government was clearly suppressing freedom of opinion and expression in the lead-up to the election.
“We urge the commissioner of elections and the inspector general of the police to exercise their powers to prevent high pressure and restrictions imposed against journalists,” Jayasekara told ucanews.com.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report last week Rajapakse was facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from his former health minister Sirisena, who has secured wide opposition support.
“The sudden emergence of a strong opposition candidate caught many, including President Rajapakse, by surprise,” the ICG said.
It warned the election could turn ugly and called for the international community to send monitors to observe the campaign and deter any violence.
The warning coincides with efforts by Catholics in Sri Lanka to postpone a planned Apostolic visit by Pope Francis January 13-15.
Concerns have been raised over Rajapaksa’s use of the pope’s image on campaign posters, and that a papal visit could be seen as an endorsement for Rajapaksa.
In early December, the Vatican confirmed that the papal visit would proceed as scheduled.
Additional reporting by AFP.