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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.

In Sri Lanka, “Media Dogs” Should Not Report Protests

The Sri Lanka Army opened fire at villagers protesting contaminated groundwater, killing at least three persons and injuring 15 others, including two journalists covering the incident. One journalist reported his camera was smashed, while the other said that she could not seek medical attention despite her injuries due to a lockdown of the area.
The demonstrations began on August 1, when authorities refused to heed repeated representations by residents of Weliweriya, a village northeast of Colombo, against a glove manufacturing factory discharging effluents. Residents said the effluents contaminated groundwater, thereby polluting water wells. The demonstrators, said to number between 4000 and 6000, were first asked to disperse by the police and army. When the crowd grew restive and began pelting stones, the army opened fine with live ammunition. The dead includes a 17-year-old boy.
The Paris-based international media freedom monitor Reporters without Borders (RSF) commenting on the incident placed it in the context of deteriorating standards of media freedom in Sri Lanka.
“We are very disturbed by the repeated use of violence against journalists in Sri Lanka,” RSF said. “At best, the police take no action when journalists report that they have been the targets of violence. At worst, the army itself, equipped with lethal weapons, organizes and executes these attacks, as it did in Weliweriya.”
Sri Lankais placed in the162nd position of 179 countries in RSF’s Press Freedom Index.
Meanwhile, there appears to have been a plan to block media coverage of the attack beforehand. Associated Press (August 1) reported, “Kanchana Dissanayake, editor of Sinhala-language ‘Ada’ (Today) newspaper, said that his photographer was admitted to a hospital after being beaten by soldiers. He claimed the soldiers said that ‘media dogs’ should not cover the protest and smashed his camera. Another female reporter said on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals that soldiers first targeted journalists because they wanted the media away before turning on the protesters. Many reporters were hiding for many hours into the night, she said.”
The female reporter referred to in the AP story, Deepika Adikari of the daily Lankadeepa, in an account to Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times (August 4) said, “‘One of the soldiers said it was the media that aggravates everything. Saying this we were taken to a side… I suffered an injury to my forehead. As a soldier attempted to grab my camera I dropped it on the ground so that a villager could take it and escape,’ she said.”
The Sri Lanka Journalists’ Trade Union in a statement on August 3 said, “She (Adikari) was assaulted by a soldier with a pole when she was on a roof trying to escape the onslaught. Despite her injuries, Adhikari was unable to receive any medical attention until around 9.30 p.m. She had to stay from 6 p.m. till around 9.30 p.m. to escape from the military attack.”
The SLJTU statement went on to say, “The journalists who were attacked last evening claim that they were subjected to such harassment even when they have identified themselves as media personnel covering the event. The military personnel have at the time referred to the media personnel as ‘dogs in the media.'”
Following the incident, the US embassy in Sri Lanka issued a one-line statement: “The U.S. Embassy is concerned about the violence in yesterday’s protest in Weliweriya, and urges the Government of Sri Lanka to respect the rights of people to protest peacefully, and urges restraint from all sides.”
Sri Lanka‘s Daily Mirror said on August 2, the Sri Lanka Army announced an internal inquiry would be launch on the incident: “Army Commander Daya Ratnayake has appointed a Board of Inquiry headed by Adjutant General of the Sri Lanka Army Major General Jagath Dias to inquire into the allegations levelled against the army during the  Weliweriya incident.”
Sri Lanka‘s military enjoys high levels impunity that has shielded it in the past. The military is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the war against Tamil rebels that ended in 2009. But fearing that the military would escape blame in a domestic inquiry, human rights observers have asked for an international investigation into the incidents. Similarly, the military was largely exonerated in the brutal crushing of a rebellion in southern Sri Lank that killed more 60,000 Sinhala youth between 1987 and 1990. Therefore it is unlikely the army inquiry will conducted justly.
Meanwhile, in a swift if clumsy move to escape censure, the Director of Government Information (the body tasked with providing State policy on the media) Ariyaratne Athugala said, “all media institutions should take the responsibility for the assault on journalists during yesterday’s incident in Weliweriya and said the government could not be held responsible for it,” reported the Daily Mirror on August 3.