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Press Freedom Prize to Uzbek Journalist Bekjanov, Tamil Newspaper ‘Uthayan’


PM David Cameron with Uthayan’s publisher (L) and Editor (Pic.Daily Mirror)

The Press Freedom Prize awarded by Reporters without Borders (RSF), Le Monde and TV5Monde, went to a journalist and a newspaper whose sacrifice for the freedom of information in the face gargantuan challenges can only be described in superlatives. The honour presented in two categories – individual journalist and newspaper – went to Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov and the Sri Lankan Tamil-language daily ‘Uthayan.’ 


The awards, given at the Strasbourg city hall were received by Uzbek human rights defender Nadejda Atayeva on behalf of Bekjanov who has been in prison for the past 14 years, and by Vallipuram Kanamayilnathan and Eswarapatham Saravanapavan, editor and publisher of the ‘Uthayan.’
“This year we again salute the exemplary courage of men and women for whom reporting the news is a daily battle,” RSF’sPresident Alain Le Gouguec said. “Their activities embody the universal value of media freedom in a real and concrete way. Thanks to them, information becomes a force capable of enlightening, mobilising and advancing the cause of freedom.”
This blog will write in more detail on Muhammad Bekjanov tomorrow.
The ‘Uthayan’ is a regional Tamil-language newspaper published in Jaffna, in a majority Tamil-speaking region of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, which was a war zone for most of the 30-year civil war that ended in May 2009. Founded in 1985, the ‘Uthayan’ was repeatedly targeted by Sri Lanka government, a paramilitary group that loyally served the government’s bidding – the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party (EPDP), the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) that was sent by India to guarantee the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, a multiplicity Tamil rebel groups before 1987 and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels after that.    
While all the above are to be blamed for attacks on the ‘Uthayan’ and on media freedom in general in northern Sri Lanka, it can said unequivocally that the most sustained and deadly assaults came from the government military and the paramilitary group EPDP. What is also important is that these attacks cover the period from its founding in 1985 to April this year, which demonstrate that the intimidation has continued much after military combat came to an end in 2009.
Issuing an open joint letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai while she was visiting Sri Lanka in August, RSF and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) said, “Jaffna based ‘Uthayan‘ alone, has come under brutal attacks over 37 times and at least five of its journalists have been killed since 2002. While all these crimes were committed in an extremely militarised area, no one so far has been brought to book.”
As pointed out by RSF-JDS, the repeated attacks on ‘Uthayan’ is a clear indicator of impunity enjoyed by the Sri Lanka military and the EPDP. Journalists and newspaper distributors were abducted and murdered, the newspaper offices were attacked on many occasions resulting in the death of employees, the press was burnt and in a particularly brutal incident in 2011, news editor Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan was beaten up and left for dead. Threat to the life of Kuhanathan was so great that he not only worked but lived on the newspaper’s premises for many years.
Writing following the April incident in the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) blog, its Asia Program coordinator Bob Dietz said “These attacks on the offices of ‘Uthayan‘ have been going on for years and typify the threats faced by the Tamil press in Sri Lanka. They also highlight the abysmal record of impunity that attackers enjoy in Sri Lanka. Under the ruling Rajapaksa regime, the record of abuse aimed at Sri Lanka’s media is unmatched in the country’s history.”
‘Uthayan’ publisher Saravanapavan, who is a member of parliament from the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is also the proprietor of the ‘Sudar Oli’ published in the country’s capital, Colombo. The ‘Sudar Oli’ too has come under threat; in 2009 its editor N. Vidiyatharan was abducted and held in detention for four months by the Sri Lanka police.
The ‘Uthayan’s contribution to media freedom was acknowledged earlier this month when Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron visited the newspaper in Jaffna, while in Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Speaking after touring the newspaper’s offices Cameron said, “Thank you for being so brave.”  He said he would convey the concerns and fears of ‘Uthayan’ journalists to the government.  

Media Watchdogs Urge CHOGM Leaders To Get Tough With Sri Lanka

Sandaya, wife disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda at protest

As Sri Lanka (ranked 162nd of 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders’ Media Freedom Index) prepares to hold the biennial Commonwealth Summit in capital Colombo, media freedom watchdogs are asking attending leaders to press the host government for answers for the country’s abysmal standards of media freedom including the murder and disappearance of journalists.

In a letter addressed to leaders of the Commonwealth, which is the 54-member group of Britain’s former colonies, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said, “We ask that in formal and private meetings with (Sri Lanka’s) President Rajapaksa, you urge him to ensure a credible, independent investigation into the cases of disappeared and murdered journalists, make the findings public, and efficiently prosecute the perpetrators in an effort to help reverse the pattern of impunity.”

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be held from November 15 to 17. Human rights violations have a long history in Sri Lanka. However they reached unprecedented heights in the final six months of a civil war fought between successive governments dominated by ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The six-month period that ended in May 2009 with the military defeat of the LTTE saw between 40,000 and 70,000 (some figures put it as high as 146,000) people killed. Responsibility for those deaths lie with government troops and the LTTE, both accused of perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The government of President Mahinda Rajapakse has not only refused to hold an independent investigation into the alleged war crimes, but is accused of continuing rights violations, including media freedom. This has led to strong protests being voiced against holding CHOGM in Colombo for basically three reasons: 1) it would be legitimising a leadership accused of war crimes; 2) it would be a grave violation of the Commonwealth principles; 3) Sri Lanka could use its position as the Chair of the Commonwealth in the next two years, to fend off an international investigation into war crimes. 
“Critical or opposition journalists continue to face intense intimidation in Sri Lanka. Our research shows that at least 26 journalists have gone into exilein the past five years, which is one of the highest rates in the world. And while work-related murders have declined since 2009, the slayings of nine journalists have gone unpunished over the past decade, which is one of the worst records of impunity in the world. […] At least one journalist has simply disappeared,” says CPJ.
Meanwhile in Britain, the controversy over the Royal Charter that would give Parliament some regulatory control over the media took a new turn in late October. The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) wrote to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth asking her not to sign the Royal Charter because it would affect Britain’s standing in the world as a liberal democracy and in the Commonwealth.
“If the UK moves to control the press through the force of law then it will have a terrifying knock-on effect throughout the Commonwealth and much of the developing world where Britain has a key leadership role.
“At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next month in Sri Lanka, the British Government – with The Prince of Wales as your representative – should be campaigning for the protection and expansion of free expression throughout the Commonwealth, not least in countries like Rwanda, Singapore and Sri Lanka itself, which persistently lag at the bottom of world press freedom indices alongside Syria and North Korea. Further, the British Government, which decriminalised defamation in 2009, should also take strong steps encouraging Commonwealth countries to repeal criminal defamation laws. But Britain will be in no position to do that if you have signed a Royal Charter which will be seized on by enemies of free speech everywhere eager to impose similar controls,” the letter said.
Despite uproar on media repression, Sri Lanka seemed in no mood to let up on controlling the media’s access to information during CHOGM. Although it demurring earlier, Sri Lankan authorities agreed to grant press accreditation to visiting journalists covering CHOGM, while reserving the right to deny visas. But while they agreed to allow journalists from Britain’s Channel Four, that produced three documentaries on war crimes in Sri Lanka known as ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,’ the government has denied visas to the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI). IBAHRI has jointly organised a meeting with Sri Lanka’s Bar Association on November 13 on the Commonwealth and the independence of the legal profession.
“By denying entry to the IBAHRI delegation the Government of Sri Lanka is demonstrating to the world its determination to block freedom of speech and independent discussion in the country, leaving the Commonwealth Heads cocooned and isolated. If the Commonwealth is to have any relevance in today’s world, it must act swiftly and decisively to ensure that Sri Lanka engages meaningfully with human rights,” said IBAHRI’sco-chair, Sternford Moyo.
In August this year UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai visited Sri Lanka. Coinciding with her visit, RSF and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), a group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, wrote an open letter to the High Commissioner highlighting deteriorating media freedom conditions in the country.
“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 RSF-JDSletter.

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.