Media freedom in Sri Lanka took a severe blow over the weekend as two separate incidences involving the abuse of journalists took place.
On Friday night (the 15th) Faraz Shaukatally was shot by three unidentified gunmen in his own bedroom. Shaukatally, who is an investigative journalist for the privately owned Sunday Leader (whose editor was murdered in 2009), has been known for his exposés on corruption in the country.
What has made this incident all the more shocking is the fact that Shaukatally, while having been an outspoken critic of the government, now works for a paper that was recently purchased by a close business associate of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. An even greater comment on media freedom that journalists working with papers closely associated to the government are under threat.
While Shaukatally was recovering at the National Hospital in Colombo a rally, held by Buddhist extremists, was taking place in the outer suburbs of the city. The BBC crew that was on hand to report the incident was harassed and placed under “citizen arrest” by a mob before being handed over to the police. The police continued to detain the crew on site until their superior officer arrived and ordered their release.
While both issues are on opposite spectrums of the crackdown in media freedom, they are certainly just a few signs of the growing pressure faced by journalists in the country.
Sri Lanka is no stranger to a poor record in media freedom. Reporters Without Borders has the country ranked 162 out of 179 countries in its 2013 Press Freedom Index.
Of course attacks on journalists are not the only issues facing the media in Sri Lanka, an encroachment on the independence of media outlets has continued. In October of 2012, the Sunday Leader, one of the more outspoken newspapers in the country, was purchased by a close friend of the ruling family. The following weeks saw the departure of the editor-in-chief and several columnists over allegations of censorship.
While the Sunday Leader was purchased, other newspapers that have chosen to remain independent are doing so by avoiding certain pressing issues. This is a simple case of keeping their head below the surface and drifting with the tide.
The government has also taken steps to exert greater control over media. In July last year the Ministry of Mass Media and Information announced new regulations requiring the registration of news websites. While several websites had already been blocked by the government, they have since been unblocked.
Furthermore they have also imposed censorship over sms alerts “related to national security and security forces.”
Despite the issues facing journalists many of them are refuse to bow down. In the north of the country Tamil newspapers continue to report the issues facing the populace often at great risk to themselves.
Earlier this year distributors of the Uthayan, a leading Tamil newspaper in the country, were attacked by an unidentified group when attempting to deliver the papers.
This is not the first time this paper has come under attack; back in July 2011 the paper’s news editor (Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan) was brutally assaulted by two men armed with iron rods.
What is becoming even more disturbing for the industry is the repeated stonewalling by authorities in bringing to justice those responsible. Investigations in to the 2009 murder of former Sunday Leader editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, appear to have come to a grinding halt. In 2012 one of the leading suspects in the case died while in police custody, despite a coroner’s report being produced there appears to have been no follow up to his death. Since then no new suspects have been found.
Similarly the other attacks on journalists have gone unimpeded with no arrests and convictions being made. Not only is this a comment on the unwillingness of the authorities to put a stop to these attacks, but also an indirect green light to these groups to continue their assaults. Each attack that goes unpunished is a message that they can continue.
According to the Centre for the Protection of Journalists there are currently 23 journalists from Sri Lanka in exile, 19 have been murdered since 1992 and one is missing. The figures do not make for good reading, and certainly paints a bleak picture of the situation on the ground.
Despite the growing pressure from the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner regarding the increasing attacks, there seems to be little change. With a pending U.S. resolution against Sri Lanka to be presented at the next UNHRC meeting in Geneva this year, and questions over the country’s membership to the Commonwealth arising, the government will certainly need to look more seriously at these issues.