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After Sri Lanka’s Detention of IFJ Activists, Fears of Bigger Crackdown on Journalists

Jacqui Park Jane Worthington (Pic RSF)

Two directors of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) were detained for entering Sri Lanka illegally as the country’s minister of information and the media accused them of “anti-government activity.” Meanwhile, IFJ’s affiliate in Sri Lanka, the Free Media Movement (FMM), used the incident to highlight media repression in the country and urge leaders of the Commonwealth who are due to hold its biannual Summit in Colombo in mid-November, to boycott the event because the Government’s suppression of the media violated Commonwealth principles.

IFJ’s Asia-Pacific Director Jacqui Park and Deputy Director Jane Worthington who were attending a media workshop jointly organised by FMM and IFJ were detained against their will on Tuesday, October 29 and not allowed to take their scheduled flight back to Australia, the next afternoon. They were however released later without charges and flew out on Friday, November 1.
“The IFJ believes this move by Sri Lankan officials is an attempt to intimidate and harass journalists inside and outside Sri Lanka to prevent reporting on the realities of life in Sri Lanka in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, CHOGM, which begins in Colombo on November 15,” the media watchdog said in statement.
The Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) said the two media freedom activists were “subjected to harassment by means of lengthy interrogation by defence and immigration officials and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for three days. Although they were accused of violating the visa regulations, the authorities have released them to fly out of the country without any charges.”
The CID officers had claimed that the two media freedom activists had violated immigration laws by arriving in Sri Lanka on tourist visas although they had attended the workshop. However, “a careful look at the detailed descriptions provided on the website of the SL Department of Immigration, would reveal that there is no special visa category for journalists. But if anyone travels to Sri Lanka as a reporter, they should obtain press accreditation, which has nothing to do with any particular visa category,” said RSF.
The Sidney Morning Herald reported “Any journalist coming to Sri Lanka has to obtain accreditation and these two had not done that,” said Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, “There are clear guidelines and those have not been followed so our authorities have the right to take action.” He also accused Park and Worthington of Anti-government activity, said the newspaper.
IFJ insisted, “According to the Sri Lankan Government-operated Electronic Travel Authorisation system website, attending workshops is not prohibited under the conditions of the Sri Lankan tourist visa. The IFJ is adamant that no breaches of visa conditions have occurred.”
The contents of Park’s laptop were apparently downloaded by sleuths said statements by both RSF and IFJ. Park was also shown a copy of a dossier of her 17 visits to Sri Lanka during over the past 15 years.
IFJ’s statement also highlighted its concern for the Sri Lankan media that has long been subject to media repression that places Sri Lanka in 162nd position of 179 countries in RSF’s Press Freedom Index 2013. It said, “The IFJ has grave concerns about the safety of media personnel inside Sri Lanka arising from this incident. The IFJ is also deeply concerned about the safety of media personnel in Sri Lanka over the long term, most immediately once international leaders leave the country after the CHOGM meeting ends on November 17.”
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) echoed IFJ’s concern of Sri Lankan journalists. “People close to the FMM say that surveillance has been stepped up, and its members are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward how best to protect themselves now and in the long term,” said Bob Dietz, coordinator of CPJ’s Asia Programme.
The CPJ statement goes on to say “The FMM might be harassed, but that hasn’t stopped them today from issuing an Open appeal to CHGOM :‘The FMM earnestly hope that delegates representing democratic traditions will raise the issue of freedom of expression rights in Sri Lanka in the appropriate forums and discussions during upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting…'”
Commonwealth leaders have come under pressure, much before the detention of Park and Worthington to boycott the Summit because of the country’s abysmal human rights record including allegations of war crimes in the civil war that ended in May 2009. As of the time of writing the only Commonwealth leader who has stated his intentions not to attend is Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Sri Lankan Editor Held at Knifepoint as Gang Searches Documents

Rifled belongings in the home of journalist (Pic. courtesy Sri Lanka Mirror)

A senior journalist was held at knifepoint in her home on Saturday by a gang of five, at least one of whom is a serving soldier in Sri Lanka’s Army, allegedly searching for documents and files. The incident happened a day before the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights arrived in the country on a week-long fact-finding mission.
Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, an award-winning journalist and associate editor of the weekly The Sunday Leader, was held at knifepoint in the early hours of Saturday morning, with her 10-year-old daughter and aged parents. The gang spent over two hours rifling through her belongings including documents and files. Meanwhile, her husband Romesh Abeywickrema, who is the business editor in the same newspaper returning home and seeing suspicious movements in the house, alerted the police. In the ensuing confrontation one intruder was shot dead and two injured as the gang tried to fight its way out. Three policemen too were injured, one critically.
What has followed are sharply differing interpretations from skimpy facts of the intrusion that have come out. While the police and the government-controlled media maintain the incident was a heist that went bust, media watchdogs and the statement of Abeywickrema point to something more insidious – an attempt to either silence her or seize documents in her possession.
Speaking to the privately-owned television station MTV, Abeywickrema said the gang had told her that they had been contracted by someone who was her enemy. “The incident raises serious suspicion as the attackers had spent several hours going through various documents and files after cutting off the phone lines” Free Media Movement’s convenor Sunil Jayasekara said in a statement. The Free Media Movement is respected media watchdog in the country.
Abeywickrema was also at the forefront of the formation a new trade union for journalists. Priyantha Karunaratne, general secretary of the Sri Lanka Journalists Trade Union (SLJTU) said that the “sordid and organized act had been carried out by those who detest and are alarmed at the practice of the SLJTU and journalism of Ms. Mandana Abeywickrema.”

Mandana IsmailAbeywickrema  (Pic

The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemning the incident urged the police to act: “[w]e call on the police to determine the genuine motives behind the attack and prosecute those responsible.”
The police however was insistent that the incident was nothing more than attempted burglary. This line of analysis was also enthusiastically taken up by the military. 
“Some statements/reports have even attempted to portray this as an attack on the media. This is far from the truth and we refute all such allegations. The Sri Lanka Army does not approve of any crime and particularly we regret this incident in which a senior journalist has suffered at the hands of a gang of thieves,” Army Spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya said in a statement.
The incident came a day before UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay arrived in the country on a six-day visit. Her visit is primarily because of a resolution adopted n the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in March this year empowering her to report to it on the human rights situation in the country following the end of the civil war in May 2009. Issuing a statement to coincide with Pillay’s visit, media watchdogs pointed to the Abeywickrema incident as an example of the threat to the media freedom in the country and urged the High Commissioner to address the issue.
“Reporters without Borders [RSF] and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka expect the High Commissioner to be firm in securing a transparent commitment from the Sri Lankan government to bring justice to those who have been victims of grave crimes against media freedom. ‘As long as crimes against the media and its workforce go unpunished, while perpetrators feel safe with the implicit assurance of impunity, media freedom in Sri Lanka is facing a grave threat. We urge Navi Pillay to remind Sri Lanka’s leaders of their accountability in delivering justice,’ said the two organisations,” reads an RSF statement posted on its website. Journalists for Democracy (JDS) is a highly respected group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists living in Europe.
Sri Lankais placed 162nd of 179 countries on RSF’s Press Freedom Index in 2013.
The Sunday Leader has incurred the wrath of the government several times. Its founder editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was murdered in January 2009 allegedly by government operatives close to the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse. His killers have not been brought to justice. Frederica Jansz who succeeded Wickrematunge and carried articles critical of the president’s brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, was verbally abused and threatenedby him. (RSF has designated Gotabaya Rajapakse as a predator of the media). Last year Jansz resigned alleging her editorial freedom was compromised, after majority shares of the newspaper were bought by a businessman with strong government sympathies. She has since fled the country.