On 4 November 2003, President Kumaratunga fired three key ministers in the coalition government led by her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. They included information minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar. The next day she proclaimed a state of emergency and reestablished de facto censorship. This allowed her to take control of the state news media, including two TV channels, the radio corporation and dozens of publications. She said she was acting out of a determination to prevent any partitioning of Sri Lanka after the Tamil Tigers announced their power-sharing proposals. But she thereby plunged the country into a political crisis that brought an abrupt end to the progress made in the peace process.
The second year of the cease-fire signed in February 2002 between the government and Tamil Tigers nonetheless allowed journalists to work more safely and with more independence. But the situation continued to be trying for journalists in the regions controlled by the armed Tamil movement (the north and east of the country). The LTTE controlled the news media with an iron hand. Nonetheless, the Tamil press expanded. The daily Thamil Alai was launched in the east of the country in September. But Thinamurasu, the only Tamil-language newspaper and openly anti-LTTE, was often attacked by Tamil Tiger activists who accused it of supporting another armed Tamil group, the EPDP.
In another sign of normalisation, the LTTE radio station, the Voice of Tigers, was authorised to broadcast legally on FM in the northern Jaffna peninsula, After 15 years as an underground radio station, this LTTE propaganda tool is now able to broadcast almost eight hours of programming a day to Tamil listeners in the north of the island. The government in Colombo allowed the station to acquire two new transmitters. During the war, the station specialised in reports of military clashes and obituaries of rebels killed in combat.
Before November’s political crisis, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s administration took initiatives favouring press freedom. The defence minister announced on 3 June that a committee was being formed to investigate violence against journalists in the north and east of the country. Headed by a former high court judge, the committee was tasked with writing a report on press freedom in these regions and with trying to improve the environment for journalists. The prime minister announced on 25 June that a law on news and information was being drafted and he said he would like to see the news media have better access to events in the peace process. The government and media should work together to find a balance between greater freedom of information and the danger of the news being manipulated by the opponents of the peace process, he said.
New information on journalists killed before 2003
At the end of June 2003, a judge in the northern town of Vavuniya ordered the release on bail of the last two suspects still held in the murder of Mayilvaganam Nimalarajan, the Jaffna correspondent of the BBC’s Sinhala service who was killed in his home in October 2000. Karalasingham Sinthuparan and Kandasamy Jegatheeswaran, both members of the Tamil party, the EPDP, were set free by the Jaffna police. This new setback to the investigation highlighted the shortcomings of police work on this case in 2003. After the spectacular progress made in 2002, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) failed to follow the instructions of the Jaffna judge who asked them in February to provide the results of the ballistics tests. At the end of the year none of the suspects had been brought to trial and the police had still not produced the results from the tests of the few pieces of material evidence in the case: weapons seized from the EPDP, fingerprints found on a bicycle left near the scene of the murder, and bullet casings and the remains of a grenade left behind by the killers. The authorities have still not investigated the possibility of complicity within the army or police.
Fishing minister Mahinda Wijeskera said in the presence of witnesses in July that, under the previous government, he was part of a group that planned the murders of three journalists working for the independent press, of which one was carried out. Santana editor Rohana Kumara was killed during President Kumaratunga’s previous administration in 1999. Kumaratunga had revealed in November 2001 that a group of ministers in her government had planned the murders of at least three journalists but she had insisted at the time that she had put a stop to their plans.
At least 20 journalists physically attacked
S. Sivabalan, a photographer with the newspaper Thinakural, and S. Manoharan of the newspaper Ealanadu were beaten with batons by police as they were covering an incident in the northern town of Manipay. Their accreditation, issued by the department of information, was taken from them. Their notebooks and cameras were destroyed. They filed complaints with the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance (SLTMA).
A dozen photographers and reporters were roughed up when police used water canon and tear gas to disperse a demonstration against the peace process staged in Colombo on 21 February by an opposition party, the JVP. A reporter with The Island newspaper had to be hospitalised.
Udaya Kumara Abeyratne, a photographer with the daily Divaina, was attacked by members of a Pentecostal church near Colombo on 12 October while taking pictures of statues of Buddha which had allegedly been damaged by members of the sect. A Pentecostal pastor took Abeyratne’s camera while members of his flock roughed him up. Abeyratne brought a complaint against the sect.
Frederica Jansz, a reporter with the Sunday Leader, and freelance photographer Heshani Edward were attacked on 25 October while investigating the alleged implication of telecommunications tycoon Thilanga Sumathipala in a plot against the Sunday Leader’s editor, Lasantha Wickrematunga. A few months before, Wickrematunga had received death threats from the fishing minister. Jansz and Edward were outside Sumathipala’s home when they were harangued by Sumathipala’s bodyguards and his uncle. The uncle grabbed Jansz by the arm, pushed her roughly and tried to snatch her handbag. He told the two women to stop poking their noses into Sumathipala’s affairs and took Edward’s camera film. Although police arrived, the uncle continued to utter threats against the two reporters. Thereafter, Jansz and Edward feared for their lives.
Yamuni Rashmika, a photographer with the newspaper Lanka, and Atula Vithanage, a reporter for radio Hiru FM, were injured during an attack by members of the ultra nationalist party, Sihala Urumayam, on a multi-ethnic art festival on 29 October in Colombo. Rashmika was hurt by thrown stones and was taken to hospital.
Daily Mirror photographer Kithsiri De Mel was attacked while covering the funeral of a Buddhist monk near Colombo on 24 December. His assailants objected to his photographing clashes between police and a crowd that was angry about the presence of people distributing leaflets criticising the monk. His camera was smashed and he sustained head and back injuries.
At least 9 journalists threatened
On the night of 7 January 2003, a grenade was thrown at the home of Senathirajah Jeyanandamoorthy, a correspondent for the news website Tamilnet.com and the Tamil daily Virakesari in the eastern town of Batticaloa. The assailants also set fire to the house, located within a Sri Lankan army high security zone about 30 km from Batticaloa. Jeyanandamoorthy and his family escaped unhurt. With the help of neighbours and a police patrol in the area, they succeeded in putting the fire out. According to the Association of Journalists of the East, of which Jeyanandamoorthy is the vice-president, he had received death threats, especially from extremist Islamist organisations, before the attack. The home of a neighbour was set on fire by mistake in June 2002. Jeyanandamoorthy has written articles about the activities of Islamist extremist in the region. His articles about the Tamil Tiger rebels have also been criticised by Sinhalese nationalists.
Asoka Fernando, a photographer with the weekly The Sunday Leader, was threatened by a priest while covering a visit to Gangarama temple in Colombo on 24 April by a former casino owner with a troubled past. On learning that Fernando worked for The Sunday Leader, the priest, Galaboda Gnanissara, threatened to smash his camera and throw him out if he did not leave at once. The priest, who is very influential in some political circles, said he bore a grudge against all of The Sunday Leader’s staff because of its articles criticising him.
Two journalists working for pro-government Sinhalese-language news media said they were threatened by members of the Tamil Tigers on 1 May while were covering Labour Day demonstrations in Vavuniya.
Ponnaiah Manikavasagam, a correspondent in the northern city of Vavuniya for the Tamil-language daily Veerakesari and stringer for the Tamil service of the BBC World Service, received a telephone threat on the evening of 7 May, a few minutes after the BBC broadcast his interview with Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s ideologist. He heard a voice say: "You will be killed soon." After refusing to identify himself, the caller added: "When you are dead, you will know who we are." Using a caller ID system, Manikavasagam said he was able to establish that the call came from the northwestern town of Mannar, from the office of the EPRLF (V), a paramilitary group that has supported the government in its war with the LTTE. Manikavasagam immediately filed a complaint against the EPRLF (V) with the Vavuniya police. Questioned by police, an EPRLF (V) representative denied any involvement in the threat. Concerned for his safety Manikavasagam left Vavuniya and went into hiding for several weeks. This was not the first time he had been the target of harassment. A former president of the Alliance of Tamil Media and the Vanni Journalists’ Association, he had been detained by police at the end of the 1990s and kept in custody for three months.
Poddala Jayantha, a journalist with the government newspaper Silumina, received death threats in June and July that appeared to be linked to his reporting on corruption in the state banking sector. He said several million rupees were circulating illegally and were used to pay civil servants.
The Sunday Leader reported on 27 July that fishing minister Mahinda Wijeskera had threatened to kill its editor, Lasantha Wickrematunga, in front of witnesses. Water management minister Lakshman Seneviratne told Reporters Without Borders he was present and heard Wijeskera utter the threat. The newspaper quoted Wijeskera as saying he wanted to shut the editor up in a room and shoot or stab him to death. He claimed to have the prime minister’s tacit support. Wickrematunga, whose newspaper known is for its outspoken style and its investigations into corruption, has been the target of intimidation and libel suits many times since 1995.
The editor of the Tamil-language daily Uthayan was the target of a death threat on 17 August by the deputy governor of Jaffna prison, who went to the offices of the newspaper with five of his employees and insulted staff members present. He threatened to come back and kill the editor. One of the prison guards manhandled one of the newspaper’s photographers who took pictures of the incident. A few days before, Uthayan had reported that a Jaffna resident went to the local office of the human rights commission and alleged that he had been attacked and sexually abused in prison. The editor filed a complaint against the deputy prison governor about the threat.
Military intelligence personnel detained and threatened Tamil journalist Velupillai Thavachelvam at the Muhamalai checkpoint in Jaffna for an hour on 19 November. He said they told him: "People like you had too much freedom under the Ranil government... but now the president is in charge and we can do what we like with you." He was threatened with reprisals if he did not stop writing articles "criticising" the actions of the army in the Jaffna peninsula.
Harassment and obstruction
At the end of February 2003, the government presented a draft law on the prevention of organised crime of which the fifth article threatened news coverage of criminal cases. Endorsed by the supreme court in March, the bill envisaged prison sentences for people who intimidate or question the reputation of witnesses or investigators in an organised crime case. As the local press freedom organisation, FMM, said, "reputation" is a vague concept that could easily be applied to press reports. The law had still not been passed by parliament at the end of the year.
Wimal Weerawansa, the propaganda secretary of the opposition JVP party, threatened the country’s news media in an address to a party rally on 10 March in Colombo. He said that one day, not only the prime minister’s official residence would be surrounded, but also the offices of the news organisations that were not impartial in their work. The Free Media Movement accused Weerawansa of trying to intimidate all the independent media.
Defence minister Tilak Marapana brought a libel suit against the Colombo bureau chief of Agence France-Presse (AFP) on 7 May claiming 500 millions rupees (more than 4 million euros) in damages from the agency and its bureau chief over a dispatch claiming he practised sorcery. Marapana allegedly held a ritual ceremony to exorcise evil spirits and, on the advice of sorcerers, he also reportedly dived into a sack of sesame seeds to protect himself and his ministerial post from a threatening planetary configuration.
LTTE leader Anton Balasingham on 25 June opposed media coverage of peace talks between the government and his movement. A press conference was supposed to be held at each stage of the negotiations, but the Tamil Guardian newspaper quoted him as saying he would not permit any "internationalisation" of the conflict or intervention by "extraterritorial forces."
Some 50 armed LTTE activists torched 5,000 copies of the Tamil-language weekly Thinamurasu on 7 August by after forcing a distribution truck to stop at Sunkankeni, near the eastern town of Batticaloa. The newspaper’s managing editor filed a complaint with the Norwegian observers in charge of monitoring compliance with the truce between the LTTE and the government. Thinamurasu (which means The Daily Drumbeat) is one of the biggest-circulation newspapers in Tamil and it often reports human rights violations, including executions and abductions, by the LTTE in the east and north of the country. Managing editor T. Baskaran told Reporters Without Borders that Thinamurasu was the only Tamil-language newspaper to report human rights violations. "We must pay the price of our independence because the LTTE expects all the Tamil news media to say nothing about its violence. Those who don’t obey are harassed."
Thinamurasu tends to support the EPDP (a Tamil political party radically opposed to the LTTE) and it has been the target of threats and attacks for years. In June, the LTTE leader in the northwestern district of Mannar threatened Thinamurasu’s local correspondents with "the worst consequences" if their newspaper continued to be distributed in the region. The newspaper’s distributor in the east of the island pulled out of his distribution contract in March 2002 after receiving LTTE threats. In November 1999, Thinamurasu’s then managing editor Nadarajah "Ramesh" Atputharajah, who was also an EPDP parliamentarian, was murdered in Jaffna. It was never established who killed him or why.
On 4 November, President Chandrika Kumaratunga fired information minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar from the administration headed by her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. She went on to appoint members of her party and her inner circle to take over the running of the two state TV stations, the state radio corporation and dozens of state-owned newspapers. Presidential spokesman Harim Peiris replaced Dhammika Dissanayake, Wickremesinghe’s former communications consultant, at the head of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC).
The president had on several occasions complained of bias in the state-run media since Wickremesinghe took office. She said coverage of her activities had been cut back to a minimum on the prime minister’s orders since her party’s defeat in the 2001 elections. To take control of the state media, the president on 4 November sent troops to take up position outside the buildings that house the radio corporation, the TV stations and the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon press group (better known as Lake House). A presidential adviser on 5 November also went to the offices of the English-language government newspaper, the Daily News, and the Sinhalese-language government daily, Dinamina, to check on the content of the next day’s editions. "He had all the headlines changed so that there were just articles favouring the president," a Daily News journalist said on condition of anonymity. The newspaper’s lead story the next day was about a supreme court ruling in the president’s favour. A journalist with the news agency Reuters commented ironically on the editorial change: "Now we love her."
On 6 November, the president announced that she had taken control of all the government press. But she undertook to respect free expression and called on the state media to report the news without bias or partisanship. Questioned a few days later, she said she had to put an end to the lies on the state-run newspapers which, she claimed, had published "630 lies" during the first four months of her rival’s administration. The press freedom organisation FMM condemned the tendency of the political parties to view the state media as a propaganda machine in the service of a single party. The prime minister continued to enjoy the support of two commercial TV channels, of which one is owned by his brother and the other by an industrial group that backs his party.
The prime minister in mid-December froze government publicity in the state-owned media controlled by the president. At the same time, the government claimed that the directors of these media had been named illegally.
Three soldiers opened fire on a young newspaper vendor selling the LTTE’s official daily Eelanatham (Voice of the Eelam) on a street in the northern city of Jaffna. The vendor was not hit, but a bus driver was wounded by a stray bullet. The soldiers claimed it was an accident but a judge placed them in custody.