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Lots of talk but little progress in Sri Lanka over journalist murders

Image: Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at a seminar on the safety of journalists in Colombo in December 2017. Despite Sri Lanka’s commitments to address impunity, no justice has been secured in the cases of 10 murdered journalists. (AFP/Ishara S. Kodikara)

By Steven Butler/CPJ Asia Program Coordinator .

It was the police line-up from hell. Forget all those “Law and Order” scenes where a victim stands anonymously behind a one-way mirror. Sri Lankan journalist Namal Perera had to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with 42 army intelligence officers in April, each of whom, Perera explained to me while demonstrating his fiercest tough-guy glare, faced him with a cold stare and arms folded aggressively.

Perera had to think back to that day nine years earlier, on June 30, 2008, when attackers on two motorcycles and in an unmarked white van chased him and his friend as they left the Sri Lanka Press Institute in Colombo, where he was deputy director at the time. He recalled how, as the van blocked their car, he looked straight into the eyes of its driver, before assailants bashed the windshield, beat him and his friend with clubs, and fled as a crowd gathered. After receiving assurances of protection from police last year, Perera picked out those eyes and one more pair from the lineup.

Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war–during which CPJ documented repeated violence against journalists–ended in May 2009. Yet authorities have not secured a single conviction in the cases of 10 Sri Lankan journalists murdered there in retaliation for their work since 1992. This lack of progress led to Sri Lanka’s consistent appearance from 2008 to 2015 on CPJ’s annual Impunity Index, which highlights countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free.

Namal Perera pictured in the hospital after being attacked in 2008. The journalist identified two of his assailants last year. (The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka)

Namal Perera pictured in the hospital after being attacked in 2008. The journalist identified two of his assailants last year. (The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka)

Perera’s case is unusual–a victim who survived and could ID his attackers.

Impunity for crimes against journalists remains a front-line issue in Sri Lanka; indeed, ending impunity was a promise of the government of President Maithripala Sirisena when he defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in elections in 2015. In the past three years, threats against journalists have sharply receded. The freer atmosphere is the main reason why Himal Southasian was relocated to Colombo a few months ago, after being virtually shut down in Kathmandu, Aunohita Mojumdar, the magazine’s editor told me. And it’s why UNESCO says that it chose Colombo for its conference in December on promoting freedom of expression and the rule of law “through ending impunity for crimes against journalists.”

Senior government leaders attending the conference said all the right things. “All attacks will be fully investigated,” promised Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, while lamenting the destruction of evidence by the previous administration. “We have a long way to go to investigate the crimes of the past, including the murder of journalists,” said Mangala Samaraweera, Minister of Finance and Mass Media.

After listening to police spokesman Superintendent Ruwan Gunasekara rattle off a list of cases and the progress or lack thereof, Law and Order Minister Sagala Gajendra Ratnayaka stood up to clarify. “Where we started in most of these cases, we were starting below zero. The evidence was destroyed, many years had lapsed,” he said. “But I want to assure everybody that the government is committed to this. We’ve asked the police to prioritize the cases on freedom of expression.”

Can the cases be solved? None of the local journalists with whom I spoke while in Colombo are holding their breath.

Discussion of these cases in the Sri Lankan press is surprisingly open, including the identities of those believed responsible for ordering hits on journalists, after the suspects’ names were read out in parliament under privilege. Newspapers have reported that the attack squad that went after Perera was the same one that less than six weeks earlier kidnapped and severely beat Keith Noyahr, a prominent columnist at the weekly The Nation. (Perera told me that he believes the attackers were put on to him because his business card was in Noyahr’s wallet when he was abducted.) Noyahr later emigrated to Australia. He has cooperated with police investigators, but did not return to appear in court nor identify the suspects last year, according to press reports.

Perhaps more significant, reports citing court officials say that same attack squad is linked to the 2008 murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, who, as founder and editor of the Sunday Leader, was perhaps the most high-profile journalist to be murdered in Sri Lanka. In February last year, police arrested five military intelligence officers in connection with the murder, although the suspects are out on bail and no formal legal case has been filed.

Of course, it’s just common sense that if a squad of military intelligence officers repeatedly attacked or killed journalists, they had orders from someone higher up the chain of command. The names of those suspected of giving the orders are more than whispers among journalists in Colombo, who allege that those same individuals continue to occupy high-level positions in a coalition government concerned about future electoral prospects and facing declining popularity over a banking scandal. “The previous regime has not magically gone away,” said Sanjana Hattotuwa, founding editor of the news website Groundviews.

Hattotuwa’s view is why many journalists say that despite assurances, they doubt there is enough political will to pursue cases to the end.

Skepticism runs deep for other reasons. Of the 10 journalists murdered for their work, all but one–Wickramatunga–are Tamils, the minority ethnic group whose Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) organization engaged in the long, bloody secessionist war, until its defeat in 2009. As R. Bharati, president of the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance, pointed out to me, in a tone of resignation, none of the arrests so far have advanced justice for murdered Tamil journalists. V. Premnath,editor of the Tamil daily Uthayan, added, “Even after 2015, we are facing so much intimidation and harassment by state authorities, the military and police.”

Aside from the smattering of arrests, only one conviction related to an attack in which a journalist was killed has been secured: in 2014 authorities convicted a LTTE leader of conspiring and abetting a 2008 suicide bombing at a political event that killed at least 27 people, including reporter Rashmi Mohamed.

“The culture of impunity is part of our psyche,” said Deepika Udagama, chair of Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission. “Even the public has gotten used to this idea of selective justice.”

Back at the UNESCO conference, remarks from the prime minister that attacks against journalists stopped under his administration were met with confusion. “What am I?” journalist Freddy Gamage asked me later, in disbelief. Assailants severely beat Gamage on June 2, 2016, following his reporting on local corruption. And, just two days before the conference, local outlets reported how Tamil radio anchor Shanmuganathan Manoharan was attacked in the northern city of Jaffna on his way home from work.

As for Perera, who now works at the Australian High Commission in Colombo, he hopes for justice but says he is not sure if he will see a conviction in his case.


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