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Sri Lanka 29 January 2008

Irresponsible comments and actions by ministers endanger journalists

Reporters Without Borders appealed today to President Mahinda Rajapakse to rein in various government ministers whose inflammatory comments and incitements to violence have serious threatened the safety of dozens of Sri Lankan journalists.

"Mr. President, it is not yet too late to restrain those of your close associates and political allies who sow trouble and fear among journalists," the press freedom organisation said. "The violent behaviour of the men employed by some of your ministers is bringing the government into disrepute, a situation that will be hard to redress if nothing is done."

The defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the president’s brother, said in an interview in the Sunday Lankadeepa on 27 January: "Journalists should not be allowed to write about military matters. Strong action ought to be taken against those who do. We should return to the laws that criminalize defamation in order to punish those who try to murder us." He also criticised the Wijeya and Maharajah private press groups.

Thugs working for labour minister Mervyn Silva, who is well known for his racist comments about Tamils and his diatribes against journalists, were probably responsible for the stabbing of Lal Hemantha Mawalage, a journalist employed by state broadcaster Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), on 25 January.

Two men on a motorcycle, who were armed with knives, ambushed and attacked Mawalage as he was returning home on the outskirts of Colombo. He and his son managed to hide in a forest until the police came. He was hospitalised with stab wounds to the hands and body.

Mawalage told several journalists he had received death threats in the weeks that followed the violence at SLRC headquarters on 27 December, when Silva ordered his men to beat up the channel’s news director T. M. G. Chandrasekara. Terrified at the possibility of further reprisals, Chandrasekara recently asked to be relieved of his post.

After that incident, Reporters Without Borders contacted presidential aides to express concern about the threats to SLRC journalists.

On 7 January, social welfare minister Douglas Devananda, who is also the head of the pro-governmental EPDP militia, accused journalists working for Minnal, a Tamil programme on Shakthi TV, of orchestrating an interview with a Tamil opposition parliamentarian at the behest of the Tamil Tigers rebels. In the interview, conducted a few days before he was murdered in Colombo, the parliamentarian told the station he was being threatened by the EPDP.

Devananda called on the police to investigate the programme’s journalists, especially Sri Ranga Jeyaratnam. Following his comments, demonstrations were held in various parts of the country to defend Minnal, which is one of the few remaining Tamil programmes to cover politics in an independent manner.

Devananda’s thugs are also suspected of being responsible for the threatening phone call made on 6 January to the Jaffna-based daily Uthayan. The call came from Kayts, an island controlled by the EPDP. Uthayan editors told Reporters Without Borders they feared for the safety of their employees.

Another journalist, Suhaib Kasim, a former senior member of the staff of the Tamil-language daily Thinakaran, was stabbed by unidentified assailants at his Colombo home yesterday. The motive of the attack is not known.

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