Muffled media

Published : Jan 30, 2009 00:00 IST

Staff members of Sunday Leader hold a portrait of their editor Lasantha Wickramatunga, who was killed by unidentified gunmen on January 8.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

Staff members of Sunday Leader hold a portrait of their editor Lasantha Wickramatunga, who was killed by unidentified gunmen on January 8.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

THE New Year began on an ominous note for the already jolted journalistic community in Sri Lanka. The killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of Sunday Leader and a fierce critic of the government, in broad daylight on January 8 following the daredevil attack on the studios of Maharaja Television, one of the largest television networks in the country, on January 6 by unidentified persons have shocked the media world.

Wickramatungas in-depth investigations into corruption and nepotism in the Sri Lankan government frequently made him the target of intimidation and lawsuits. Maharaja Television was labelled unpatriotic for its coverage of the governments recent military campaigns.

The news of Wickramatungas killing overshadowed the capture of Kilinochchi by the Sri Lankan forces on January 2. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was quick to condemn the murder as a heinous crime by elements out to diminish the significance of the military victories against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and discredit the government.

Rajapaksas unequivocal statement did little to dispel the sense of unease among journalists. The reasons are not difficult to fathom. The year 2008 was one of the worst years for the media in the island nation. In its press freedom index for 2008, the media group Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters without borders) ranked Sri Lanka 165 in a list of 173 countries.

Rajapaksa could be right in his assertion that vested interests are out to tarnish the image of the government at a juncture when it is engaged in one of the most successful military campaigns against the Tigers in the three-decade history of the ethnic conflict. But the moot question is, can a government evade its responsibility by merely pointing fingers at unidentified elements?

The question assumes significance in the context of the growing intolerance of the government towards anyone who differs with its view on the war against terror and its failure to take investigations of the past incidents of violence against journalists to logical conclusions. A number of media and other organisations have repeatedly pointed to the culture of impunity.

The fact that these attacks were carried out in broad daylight against vocal critics of the government without any arrests or law enforcement action adds to the climate of impunity in Sri Lanka, said Roger Normand, Asia-Pacific Director at the International Committee of Journalists (ICJ). The take of ICJ and several other organisations within and outside Sri Lanka is that the government must take effective steps to bring the perpetrators of the crime to justice.

The recent attacks are not isolated incidents. Prominent journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and publisher N. Jasiharan and his wife, V. Valamathy, were arrested in March 2008 and charged with terrorism six months later. These cases have raised serious concerns about due process.

According to Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Leader of the Opposition and former Prime Minister, there were at least 42 prominent instances of violence, intimidation and detention of journalists in the island nation in 2008, and in none of the cases was the government successful in unravelling the truth.

B. Muralidhar Reddy in Colombo
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