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BBC Crew Forcibly Prevented From Speaking To Sri Lanka President

BBC’s James Robbins prevented from speaking to Rajapakse (Pic.BBC)



Freedom of the foreign media to cover events in Sri Lanka reached a new low on Wednesday. A BBC camera crew was physically restrainedby security personnel to prevent them getting close to the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, to ask him questions. The incident occurred at an event associated with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) which Sri Lanka is hosting between November 15 and 17. 

Heightened security appears to follow an incidenton Tuesday, when a journalist of UK’s Channel Four television asked Rajapakse a question as the latter was getting into his car after opening the Commonwealth Business Forum. Media culture in Sri Lanka discourages reporters questioning officials and politicians except at press conferences or with an appointment.
The occurrence reflects the growing culture of intolerance of criticism and impunity in Sri Lanka. The country is ranked 163rd among 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index with journalists killed, made to disappear, imprisoned and forced to flee overseas.
“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,” wrote Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urging Commonwealth leaders to press Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, to unshackle the media.
Meanwhile, on November 13, Channel Four journalists who were on their way to northern Sri Lanka where much of the fighting took place in 30-year civil war that ended in May 2009 were not allowed to enter the area to film. The train in which they were travelling was blocked by pro-government protestors.
“Hundreds surrounded the train and some boarded it, a witness said, adding that police made no attempt to clear the crowd. The Channel 4 television news team, which has previously reported on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, had to return to the capital Colombo…,” said Reutersquoting Channel Four and the local police.
Channel Four is particularly shunned by the Sri Lanka government for three documentaries it made on the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war known as ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ that show civilians caught up in savage combat between government troops and rebel LTTE fighters. Political and military leaders of the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE hierarchy are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The spotlight on Sri Lanka from CHOGM has also shone on Sri Lanka’s long history of suppressing media freedom. Among the victims is Prageeth Ekneligoda, a columnist and cartoonist who disappeared on the eve of the presidential election on January 26, 2010.
Prageeth’s wife Sandaya in a piece to The Independent UK wrote, “In Sri Lanka there is almost no independent media. What are journalists there allowed to write about? Peaceful elections, new initiatives to keep the streets clean, how well the government is doing and CHOGM.  When CHOGM comes to Sri Lanka there will only be positive stories for the visitors to read. Positive stories, smiling billboards and hidden secrets.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will raise human rights and media freedomissues with host Rajapakse. However Sri Lanka’s Media and Information Minister Kehiliya Rambukwella angrily dismissed the suggestion.
“The invitation to Prime Minister David Cameron was not based on that (raising human rights concerns).We are a sovereign nation. You think someone can just make a demand from Sri Lanka? We are not a colony. We are an independent state,” Rambukwella told the BBC.
However Cameron has said he would insist on taking up the issues with Rajapakse.
CHOGM that Colombo hoped would help its leaders consolidate their badly-eroding legitimacy at home has turned out to be PR nightmare both within Sri Lanka and overseas.

Remembering Prageeth, Other Journalists on International Disappearances Day

Prageeth Ekneligoda
(Courtesy lanka-advocacy.com)


Journalists makeup many of the world’s missing persons – those of whose fate there is no clear or definitive knowledge. Today, August 30, is international day of the disappeared. According to the records of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 14 journalists have disappeared in the course of their work in the past five years. The overwhelming majority of them are from Mexico – nine.

CPJ says that in the past 12 months 24 journalists were abducted, although not all of them have been categorised as ‘missing’ because at least two of them escaped. Comprehensive write-ups about disappeared journalists can be read in Attacks on the Press 2012.
In its posting on August 30, CPJ’s blog Jason Stern highlights the cases of Bashar Fahmi, a journalist of Jordanian-Palestinian origin, and freelancer Austin Tice of the US. Both went missing in Syria just over a year ago. Fahmi had disappeared in Aleppo with cameraman Cüneyt Ãœnal. Ãœnal was released in November, but of Fahmi there is still no news, although it is believed he is still alive.
Tice too is believed to be alive. On August 14, his family released a statement to commemorate 365 days since they had heard from him. It read, “The most tolerable aspect of this day is that it means we are one day closer to the return of Austin, of all other captives, and relief of the suffering of the Syrian people.”
As the statement of the Tice family indicates, the fate of the disappeared remains uncertain. This results in periods of waiting for parents, spouses and children, refusing to bring closure to trauma and grief.
While I sincerely hope that Tice, Fahmi and those many other journalists who are now counted among disappeared will have the good fortune to rejoin their loved ones, I would like to highlight the case of Sri Lankan cartoonist and columnist Prageeth Ekneligoda who disappeared on January 24, 2010, and who is yet to come home. His case is all the more traumatic because of the cynicism of the Sri Lankan authorities, who have assured his family time and again that he is alive. Their assurances have raised hope, but only to be dashed when they later admitted they were actually bluffing.
One person who gave such an assurance – under oath before the Committee against Torture (CAT) in Geneva – is Mohan Peiris who is now Sri Lanka’s chief justice; the other, Anuraradhika Fernando, member of parliament of the ruling party.
The Cartoon Movement that has been following Ekneligoda’s disappearance and the valiant attempts by his wife Sandaya and her two children for justice, has documented the twists and turns the case has taken here.
Accounts in Reporters without Borders (RSF) can be read here

Text of Remarks by J.S. Tissinayagam During 2010 Peter Mackler Award Ceremony

Ladies and gentlemen it gives me great pleasure to speak a few words this evening on the occasion of the annual Peter Mackler Award.

I have not had the good fortune of a personal acquaintance with veteran journalist Peter Mackler, whose long and dedicated service to his profession, this award commemorates. However, I am greatly indebted to his wife Catherine Antoine, and their two children – Camille and Lauren – for their friendship and support both to my wife and I during a very stressful period in the past.

At this time last year, I was in prison having served precisely 54 days of a 20-year jail term with hard labour, imposed by the Sri Lankan courts after what the International Committee of Jurists, ICJ, said was “a flawed judicial process.”

This year, the Peter Mackler Award recognises a young man for his courage and commitment to ethical journalism – Ilya Barabanov. What is sad however, is that the Novoye Vremya the Moscow weekly of which he is the deputy editor, has been the victim of persistent harassment and intimidation by Russian authorities. What is ironic though is that the threat to the freedom of expression that Ilya and his colleagues confront in Russia is hardly different from what afflicts journalists in Sri Lanka. Though the two countries are vastly different in most respects, they are united by this common evil.

Of the many Sri Lankan journalists killed for their work and their deaths still unaccounted for, Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga’s murder is perhaps foremost. Less known but equally chilling was the brutal gunning down 10 years ago of Mylvaganam Nimalarajan. His murderers are still at large, and Reporters Sans Frontiers issued a statement this week pointing to the impunity protecting his killers.

Equally cruel and mystifying is the disappearance of another Sri Lankan journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda. He was last seen on the evening of January 24 this year. Repeated calls by his wife and human rights groups for a fair investigation into his abduction, let alone information as to his whereabouts, have passed unheeded by the police and government authorities.


It is no different in Russia. The brutal slaying of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya of the Novaya Gazeta in October 2006 stands out because of the international publicity it has received. But in the heinousness of the crime compounded by the indifference of the authorities to investigate it, it is no different from numerous other cases. Disregard to principles of accountability and the rule of law have seen attacks on many Russian journalists go unpunished.

To scores of journalists confronting the perils of persecution and censorship, an award like the Peter Mackler, offers solace and encouragement. Such awards open a window of hope illustrating that although authoritarian governments might shun the work and persecute journalists, there is a world outside that appreciates and rewards it. Furthermore, it shines a spotlight on the issues they report on.

These awards are also important because they are given by the community of journalists to other journalists for courageous investigative writing. Such writing is often done in harrowing circumstances, to keep fellow citizens informed about powerful people behaving in unethical and criminal ways.

As much as persecuted journalists value the support and recognition of their fellows in countries such as the US and other democracies – the problem is – will this relationship be able to continue? Some of the emerging trends in US journalism seem to cast a shadow of doubt on this.

There is a school of thought today that says investigative journalism, the journalism that acts as a bulwark against excessive and untrammelled power, is in decline in the US itself.

A reason cited for this decline is the prohibitive cost for long-term tracking of stories with well-trained, experienced staff. Faced with maintaining a costly newsroom in times of contracting advertising budgets, the media has fallen back on the digital – internet, blogs and so on. But unfortunately, revenues generated by the websites of individual media organisations are generally said to be insufficient to fund pools of professionally-trained journalists required for sustained, high-quality investigative journalism.

Excessive costs have also resulted in media institutions cutting back on international reporting by closing or merging their overseas bureaus. This has led to an erosion of interest in international affairs except those that preoccupy American minds: Iraq, Afghanistan and neighbours in the region.

Another constraint on rigorous investigative journalism is privacy suits. In recent years the American judiciary has upheld claims by aggrieved individuals against the media not for defamation or inaccurate reporting, but for violating privacy. Fear of expensive law suites on privacy issues has dissuaded editors from pursuing investigative reporting even if the matter might be in the public interest.

With American journalism facing such constraints there is reasonable fear that investigative reporting by journalists from other countries will figure less prominently in the eyes of the US community of journalists.

Ladies and gentlemen, the reason Ilya and I are here today is because the community of journalists outside our respective countries believed in our work and that governments of our countries had no right to stop us from writing. But if indifference to investigative journalism sets in, in countries where it is most prized, journalists like us battling autocratic regimes for human rights, equity and justice will find it much harder to survive. Please do not let that happen.

Thank you…