Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn
International Monetary Fund
Paris, 5 May 2009
Dear Managing Director Strauss-Kahn,
Reporters Without Borders would like to draw your attention to the lamentable state of press freedom in Sri Lanka at a time when the International Monetary Fund is considering a major loan for President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. In return for granting this loan, we urge you to obtain specific undertakings from the government to respect press freedom and the rule of law.
Sri Lankan officials insist that there are no delays in the loan application process and that the money will be used for development. At the same time, a government minister has said the armed forces will be used for these reconstruction programmes. We think the IMF should ask itself whether it is appropriate to accord Sri Lanka such a large loan as long as this government does not give firm undertakings to respect freedom of information.
You must be aware that the Sri Lankan government’s crushing victory over the LTTE Tamil armed separatists, at a cost of thousands of civilian casualties, has been accompanied by a ruthless campaign against the press and critical voices. Of all the countries with a democratically elected government, Sri Lanka is the one that shows least respect for media freedom, as its ranking in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index shows.
As you know, Sri Lanka is spending as much as 1.6 billion dollars on defence in its 2009 budget, a 6.5 percent increase on the 2007 allocation, while neglecting social needs. Some army units are implicated in war crimes. Others are suspected of responsibility for many cases of violence against journalists and human rights activists.
The war that has left thousands dead in the north of the country has been waged in the absence of any independent witnesses. Sri Lankan and foreign journalists have been kept away from the battlefield, for their safety according to the army, but above all so as not to “hamper” the military offensive. The authorities also restrict press access to the Jaffna peninsula and detention camps holding Tamils who have fled the north.
The IMF has a duty to ensure that money lent to Sri Lanka is not used by the government or military to continue the crackdown on dissent.
While Sri Lanka still has quality news media, their freedom to cover such important subjects as corruption within the military, civilian and military casualties in the north or reconstruction in the east is now greatly restricted. Many journalists, including defence specialists, have fled the country and some media that are government critics have decided to stop publishing.
The World Bank has on several occasions stressed the key importance of press freedom for lasting social and economic development. Former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn said: “Studies show that the higher the level of press freedom in a country the greater the control over corruption.”
How can the IMF trust the current government when certain Tamil ministers who will have an important role to play in reconstruction are known to have been involved in human rights violations? The EPDP, a political party and paramilitary group led by social services minister Douglas Devananda, has for example been involved in many murders, including of journalists.
How can you be sure that this aid will not be embezzled when Sri Lankan journalists with a track record of investigative reporting have been murdered, threatened or forced to flee the country? You could, for example, insist that the government obtain concrete results in the investigation into the January 2009 murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, who was known for investigating corruption.
How can you be sure that this loan will be used to help the war’s civilian victims if the media and even the humanitarian organisations have great difficulty in working freely in the refugee camps and Tamil areas? You could condition the loan on the ability of journalists to move about freely in Tamil areas.
How can you count on the Sri Lankan government to guarantee good governance and the rule of law when government critics, including journalists, are gagged? You should ask President Rajapaksa’s government to obtain concrete results in the investigations into the many murders of journalists and physical attacks on news media that have taken place in recent months. If the perpetrators and instigators are not arrested, the climate of fear and self-censorship will continue to reign in the country’s media.
The international community, including the IMF, is already pondering post-war scenarios but how are the north and east of the island to be rebuilt and how is hope to be restored to the Tamils if the government does not undertake to respect their most basic rights, including the right to free expression?
There will be no process of reconciliation and reconstruction without press freedom. If the Tamils are deprived of the media that represent them freely, even if these media are sometimes guilty of excesses, future generations will take up arms again. It is vital that, as a conciliatory gesture, the Tamil journalists currently held, including J. S. Tissainayagam, are released.
At the same time, as long as the Sinhalese and English-language media are forced to censor themselves and are prevented from proposing ways for achieving a lasting peace, the hatred between the communities will continue to deepen.
Sri Lanka faces an enormous task. The regions with a Tamil majority have been ravaged by war and the civilian population is suffering. But there is no realistic hope of rebuilding the country unless the democratic system is consolidated.
These questions continue to be unanswered. Granting a loan to Sri Lanka as things stand, without any guarantees, would probably just reinforce a government which, while democratically elected, is guilty of many human rights violations.
We are aware that it is the IMF’s job to help Sri Lanka to recover from long decades of war, but we hope that your beliefs and convictions will lead you to make this aid conditional on the reinforcement of freedoms. We formally urge you to attach more conditions to this loan.