Reporters Without Borders today voiced deep concern about the safety of top investigative journalist Iqbal Athas and his colleagues on the Sunday Times whom sectors of the army are trying to gag or kill after he made startling revelations about Sri Lanka’s purchase of Mig-27 fighter jets from Ukraine.
The worldwide press freedom organisation urged European and US embassies to do their utmost to protect Athas, after receiving an email from the journalist in which he said he feared for his life and had gone into hiding for fear of attack.
"President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, will be held personally responsible by the journalist community for anything that happens to Iqbal Athas and his colleagues on the press group that publishes the Sunday Times and Lankadeepa," the organisation said.
"This senior defence specialist has been the victim of several previous attacks and death threats and now finds himself again the target of some members of the government and the army. The head of state should order the speedy restoration of Iqbal Athas’s security and an investigation should be launched to identify those behind latest threats against him and some of his colleagues," it said.
"The fact that the journalist has already stopped writing his defence column is already a setback for press freedom in Sri Lanka" it concluded.
Government supporters held a protest outside Athas’s Colombo home on 27 August in the name of a hitherto unknown organisation calling itself "People’s organisation to safeguard true journalist". Around 50 people brandished banners condemning him.
A report on the News 1st channel showed that most of the demonstrators did not even know the journalist’s name, pronouncing it "Athaus" and "Arthal". Sri Lankan journalist organisations slammed this parody of a demonstration, clearly organised by the authorities and putting Athas in serious danger.
In the evening of 27 August, a man who introduced himself as an officer in the Air Force turned up at the offices of the press group publishing the Sunday Times and Lankadeepa. Several witnesses told Reporters Without Borders that he made a death threat against journalist W. G. Gunaratne who translates Iqbal Athas’s articles into Sinhala for the newspaper Lankadeepa. Clearly frightened, Gunaratne declined to confirm the threats and even told several dailies to publish a denial in their tomorrow’s editions. "He didn’t even dare look us in the eye," one journalist on the paper said.
Overnight on 18 August, police removed without warning the permanent security around Athas’s home, which had been in place since 1998. Three days before, on 15 August, the Defence Ministry withdrew special forces police who had protected him since 1998 while going about his work.
Athas revealed in reports published on 12 and 19 August that the Ukrainian government had launched an investigation following the sale of Mig-27 fighter jets to Sri Lanka in extremely disturbing circumstances. The beneficiary of the Sri Lankan payments was an unknown company based in London without a proper business address. The revelations confirmed an earlier investigation carried out by Athas and published in December 2006 on the highly controversial purchase of second-hand planes by Sri Lanka at an exorbitant price.
As well as being editorial consultant of the Sunday Times, Iqbal Athas contributes to Jane’s Defence Weekly and CNN. He was awarded the 1994 prize of the Committee to protect Journalists.