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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.