Reporters Without Borders noted on 20 March the withdrawal of security forces from the premises of state-run Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), allowing journalists to resume work.
The police and army seized control of the corporation on 17 March and locked out staff that had been planning strike action in protest against a series of politically-motivated assaults against the corporation’s employees.
The worldwide press freedom organisation however deplored the appointment of retired general, Sunil Silva, a close associate of the presidential family, as deputy general director of the SLRC, a post especially created for him.
“This appointment of a military figure as a media head, unprecedented for decades, will obstruct presidential plans for the state-run press” it added.
Despite President Mahinda Rajapakse’s meeting with corporation representatives no steps have been taken to protect employees or to punish those responsible for five physical assaults on staff attributed to henchmen of Labour Minister, Mervyn Silva.
The minister was involved in a further incident on 19 March, when he threatened a crew from Sirasa TV, which was covering the construction of a bridge in Kelaniya, near Colombo.
“This time I am just lifting a finger, but next time I will lift my hand, if you come back,” the minister shouted at the journalists. The head of Sirasa TV has reported the incident to the Inspector General of Police, Victor Perrera.
Mervyn Silva has a history of open hostility towards journalists and led a brutal raid against SLRC staff on 27 December 2007.
18.03.2008 - Army seizes control of public SLRC television
Reporters Without Borders today called for an explanation from President Mahinda Rajapakse after the army took control yesterday of public Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) television.
The army and police sealed off all roads leading to the station in the morning, preventing more than 200 staff from getting to work, a BBC correspondent reported, after employees threatened to strike in protest against a series of assaults by men “suspected of acting on behalf of a minister”.
“The head of state should immediately order the army to withdraw from the station. This is in no way a good solution for ending escalating violence against SLRC staff since December 2007”, the worldwide press freedom organisation said.
“We urge the president to sanction the minister, Mervyn Silva, who is behind the violence which provoked this crisis.”
The takeover of the television station caused disruption to most programmes and in the aftermath the information ministry announced “compulsory vacations” for all staff.
The corporation’s union representatives said that the authorities had decided to take control of the SLRC, in response to the strike threat. One union representative, Kanchana Marasinghe, said that many journalists feared for their lives and wanted the brutality brought to an end.
At least five staff have been physically assaulted in the past few weeks, some of them suffering serious knife wounds. All of them had protested at the actions of the labour minister, Mervyn Silva, who led a raid on the studios and assaulted the SLRC’s news director on 27 December 2007.
The controversial minister’s henchmen are suspected of being behind all the attacks on staff, in the latest of which, assistant director of supplies, Arunasiri Hettige, was beaten with iron bars in Colombo on 14 March.
Representatives of the corporation met the head of state on 17 March to discuss steps needed to protect staff. They called for the resignation of Mervyn Silva and for payment of compensation to the injured journalists. During the meeting, the head of state called on the minister to end the violence.
Elsewhere, the homes in Colombo of two well-known journalists, Sunethra Athugalpura of the newspaper Lakbima and Sashi Kumara of Sirasa TV, were burgled and ransacked in mysterious circumstances, on 16 March. Sunethra Athugalpura had recently interviewed Mervyn Silva.