Reporters Without Borders interviewed Bashana Abeywardane, a representative of Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), an association of Sri Lankan journalists and human rights activists in exile, above all in Europe, which was created with the aim of informing the international community about thehuman rights situation in Sri Lanka. Nowadays it is a close partner of Reporters Without Borders, both in its support for journalists in distress and its efforts to tell the world about press freedom violations in Sri Lanka.
Everything began almost by chance at an informal meeting in Berlin in July 2009, just two months after the official end of the Sinhalese-Tamil civil war. The aim of the meeting was to examine the possibility of creating an organization capable of coordinating the activities of Sri Lankan human rights defenders in exile. “But no one thought that this first meeting would be the one that did it!” And so the JDS blog (http://www.jdslanka.org) was created.
It was originally intended as a place to post JDS press releases and campaign ads, and as an aggregator of everything else published online about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, but it quickly turned into a news site where members were posting information every day.
Reporters Without Borders decided to provide it with financial support, with the help of the European Union and its European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. JDS was given €3,820 to help it turn its blog into a full-blown website. The site is currently under construction
and should be launched this summer.
Bashana Abeywardane told us about the birth of the project and the impact on JDS and the international community of a video posted on the blog illustrating the war crimes that were committed during the Sinhalese-Tamil civil war.
On 27 August 2009, you posted a video showing the horror of the war crimes taking place during Sri Lanka’s civil war. What impact did it have on your organization’s work?
Bashana Abeywardane: The JDS blog was launched just two weeks after the July 2009 meeting. Initially it was just used for posting our statements and republishing articles from other sources about the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka. In August, we received a video showing Sri Lankan army troops executing men and women who were blindfolded and whose hands were tied . We sent it to Britain’s Channel 4, which broadcast it on 25 August 2009. We posted it ourselves the next day.
The video played a major role in alerting the international community to the scale of the war crimes being committed in the course of this war. The number of visits to the blog soared. It suddenly became very important. We received requests for information from hundreds of news media. In response to the Sri Lankan government’s disinformation campaign, we made every effort to post as much material as possible on the blog. As the Sri Lankan government accused us of doctoring the video footage, we sent it to the office of the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions, which confirmed its authenticity.
The international community took up the issue of the war crimes taking place in the course of the armed conflict between the Sinhalese state and Tamil rebels. The international discourse changed dramatically after the posting of the video of the executions. Until then, the international community had only been interested in the situation of internally displaced people.
What is your relationship with the authorities? Is the JDS blog accessible in Sri Lanka?
BA: Our site is still accessible from within Sri Lanka. But no one can openly display sympathy or links with JDS withoutrisking serious reprisals. Our organization is on a blacklist of media that disseminate “anti-patriotic” information. Sri Lankan online journalists have paid a heavy price in the past year. There have been many examples of harassment and reprisals by the authorities. They range from arbitrary arrest to kidnapping and arson attacks on news media.This is why most of the independent news websites are nowadays operated from abroad by exile journalists.
What is the press freedom situation like in Sri Lanka?
BA: The international community regarded the end of the end of the war in a simplistic, even naive way. It was as if all the observers agreed that “as the war is over, everything will be all right.” One must not think that the end of the fighting automatically means the end of the conflict and a move towards more democracy in Sri Lanka. On the contrary, this victory has reinforced the intransigence and extreme arrogance of the Sri Lankan government, which seems to be relying more than ever on force to muzzle basic freedoms.
Less than a month after the proclaimed end of the war, the secretary-general of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association was kidnapped and tortured, and his unconscious body was dumped on a street in a Colombo suburb.The cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda has been missing since January 2010. The Prevention of Terrorism Act continues to be used as legal grounds for heavy sentences or suspensions of journalists and media who annoy the authorities. In the south, the offices of newspapers are attacked and torched. In the north, journalists must live with the threat of paramilitary groups. I think all this shows you that there is no desire on the part of the government to improve the media freedom situation in Sri Lanka.
In your view, what is the key to change in Sri Lanka?
BA: A lot of people have died in the past 35 years in Sri Lanka. No one is able to give an exact figure. Violence is an integral part of the way the state operates. Those responsible have always continued their lives as respectable citizens while the survivors have buried their dead. We must try to break this vicious circle. Ending impunity and calling the government to account pose an enormous challenge.
The recent United Nations report , despite its flaws, has the merit of highlighting an important point: the state’s criminal nature. Right now as I am talking to you, I have just learned that an unarmed worker has been gunned down by the police in a Colombo suburb. The spiral of violence continues from the south to the north of the country and then from the north to the south. Things will change in Sri Lanka if the desire of justice prevails despite the circumstances. To mark World Refugee Day, Reporters Without Borders is also publishing an article by Karunakharan Pathmanathan, a Sri Lanka journalist from the Tamil minority and former BBC correspondent who has been an exile in the United Kingdom since May 2009. The article is entitled “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
When journalists in exile defend