Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) today voiced its concern about a death threat made against BBC correspondent Ponnaiah Manikavasagam, after his interview with a leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was broadcast by the BBC. A pro-government paramilitary group is believed to be responsible for the threat, made just a few days after two Sinhalese journalists were threatened by LTTE members in Vavuniya, the northern town where Manikavasagam is based.
In a letter to President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, Reporters Without Borders called on the authorities to guarantee the safety of Mr Manikavasagam and all other journalists working in the north and east of the country, and quickly establish who has been responsible for the threats. It also stressed that it would be monitoring the development in this case and asked to be kept informed of progress in the police investigations.
The organisation is concerned that tension between the government and Tamil rebels could result in a return to violence against journalists. BBC Tamil Service correspondent Mayilvaganam Nimalarajan was murdered in October 2000 after receiving death threats from a paramilitary group. His killers have still not been brought to trial.
Mr Manikavasagam, correspondent for the Tamil-language daily Veerakesari and correspondent 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. When he picked up the receiver, he heard a voice say: "You will be killed soon." After refusing to identify himself, the caller added: "When we shoot you, you will know who we are."
Using a caller ID system, Manikavasagam said he was able to establish that the call came from the office in the northwestern town of Mannar of the EPRLF (V), a paramilitary group that has supported the government in its war with the LTTE. Manikavasagam immediately filed a complaint with the Vavuniya police. Questioned by police, an EPRLF (V) representative denied any involvement in the threat.
Concerned for his safety Manikavasagam has left Vavuniya and gone into hiding. This is not the first time he has been the target of harassment. A former president of the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance and the Vanni Journalists’ Association, he was detained by police at the end of the 1990s and kept in custody for three months.
This death threat is particularly worrying as it is the first in the 14 months of the Cease fire. On 13 May, a member of TELO, a Tamil paramilitary group part of the Tamil National Alliance, close to the LTTE, was shot dead in Vavuniya. The TELO has accused the EPDP, another Tamil paramilitary group which has assisted the Government in fighting the LTTE, of the shooting. This new shooting makes the threat against the journalist all the more distressing as it marks a return to violence from Tamil paramilitary groups in Vavuniya.