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Monday, March 1, 2021

Accountability for the attacks on journalists in Sri Lanka: CPJ & CJA call for establishing international mechanism 

In a joint statement the Committee to Protect Journalists and Center for Justice and Accountability has called on the member states of the UNHRC  “given the Government of Sri Lanka’s refusal to take concrete steps to implement its human rights obligations, including its duty to ensure that victims of state violence have a right to a remedy, we urge the Human Rights Council to implement the recommendations made by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, including passing a new resolution that establishes a dedicated mechanism to collect and preserve evidence to support future accountability processes, provides enhanced monitoring of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, and prioritizes support to civil society initiatives, particularly initiatives assisting victims and their families.

The press release issued by the CPJ follows:

The Committee to Protect Journalists joins the Center for Justice and Accountability in calling on the United Nations Human Rights Council to take action against impunity in attacks on journalists in Sri Lanka.

In a report released today, the Center for Justice and Accountability, with support from CPJ, outlined the Sri Lankan government’s systematic and deadly campaign to silence journalists, repress press freedom, and perpetuate impunity for these attacks.

The report details the alleged involvement of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in a campaign designed to target journalists critical of the government and its security forces and the subsequent lack of justice and accountability. The attacks against journalists include the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the abduction and beating of Keith Noyahr, the assault on Upali Tennakoon, and the disappearance of Prageeth Eknelygoda.

The report calls on members of the Human Rights Council to implement recommendations made by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights including passing a resolution that establishes a dedicated mechanism to collect and preserve evidence to support future accountability processes, provides enhanced monitoring of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, and prioritizes support to civil society initiatives. It also calls on the government of Sri Lanka to immediately cease harassment, surveillance, and attacks on journalists and law enforcement officials investigating crimes against journalists and calls on the government to conduct independent and impartial investigations into past and current attacks on journalists and hold perpetrators to account.

CPJ has documented recent attacks against journalists in Sri Lanka, as well as an environment of fear and self-censorship as a result of ongoing impunity.

Fact Sheet (CPJ)
Report: Increased Attacks on Journalists in Sri Lanka & Continuing Impunity

On February 9, 2021 the Center for Justice and Accountability released a report on the current crisis of impunity for violence against journalists in Sri Lanka, with input from the Committee to Protect Journalists. A decade ago, the Sri Lankan government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa undertook a systematic and deadly campaign to silence journalists and repress freedom of expression. In 2014, Sri Lanka ranked among the top ten countries on CPJ’s impunity index for the killing of journalists.

Today, impunity for those attacks has given rise to a new wave of repression under the new administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Human rights and freedom of expression are again rapidly deteriorating: individuals investigating attacks on journalists in Sri Lanka have been arrested or forced to flee the country, and journalists are again forced to choose between exile and self-censorship. The Human Rights Council, set to convene this month, has the opportunity to vote on a new resolution to promote accountability and take action to ensure greater protection of journalists in Sri Lanka.

Ongoing Impunity in Sri Lanka for State Sponsored Violence Against Journalists

● From 2005 to 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration launched an assault on the free
press, targeting journalists critical of the government and its security forces. The Ministry of Defense, led by then-Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa, implemented this campaign through its “white van commandos,” a team of special operatives that used white vans to kidnap and murder journalists, and the “Tripoli Platoon,” a clandestine unit within the Military Intelligence Division that surveilled and attacked journalists. At least four attacks on journalists are linked to the Tripoli Platoon: including the murder of Lasantha
Wickrematunge, the abduction and torture of Keith Noyahr, the assault against Upali
Tennakoon, and the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda.

● Despite over a decade of promises by the Government, none of these high profile attacks
have resulted in accountability, and efforts to shed light on the abuses have resulted in
political interference, witness intimidation, and further retaliation.

● Following years of impunity, the perpetrators are back in power: the former leader of the
Tripoli Platoon has been promoted and other officials implicated in war crimes have been
reinstated to positions of command, including Lieutenant-General Shavendra Silva. Silva,
was sanctioned by the U.S. for “gross violations of human rights,” and Gotabaya Rajapaksa the former Secretary of Defense implicated in Lasantha’s assassination – was elected
president in 2019.

Increased Attacks on Journalists since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s November 2019 Election

● Under a renewed Rajapaksa government, attacks on journalists have increased dramatically. Journalists have been interrogated, beaten, subject to unlawful searches and seizures and forced to flee the country. Witnesses have been intimidated, police officers advancing investigations of journalist attacks have been arrested, and state surveillance of journalists has increased.

Recommendations to Member States of the Human Rights Council:
● Given the Government of Sri Lanka’s refusal to take concrete steps to implement its human rights obligations, including its duty to ensure that victims of state violence have a right to a remedy, we urge the Human Rights Council to implement the recommendations made by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, including passing a new resolution that establishes a dedicated mechanism to collect and preserve evidence to support future accountability processes, provides enhanced monitoring of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, and prioritizes support to civil society initiatives, particularly initiatives assisting victims and their families.

● We also ask the Human Rights Council to recommend that the Government of Sri Lanka take affirmative steps to prevent violence against journalists, including:

o To immediately cease harassment, surveillance, and attacks on journalists and current
and former law enforcement officials investigating crimes against journalists
o To promptly release former CID Director Shani Abeysekera, who had been
overseeing an investigation into violence against journalists prior to his detention
o To repeal legislation criminalizing criticism of the government
o To resume and provide resources for the stalled investigations into the death of
attacks of journalists such as Lasantha Wickrematunge and Prageeth Eknaligoda.
For more information on CJA’s work on behalf of the family of Lasantha Wickrematunge.

CPJ

Read the full report here.

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