Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New threats to privately-owned print media

Reporters Without Borders urges the Sri Lankan authorities to take all necessary measures to investigate threatening letters received six days ago by Frederica Jansz and Munza Mushtaq, two journalists who work for the Leader Publications media group. “We will slice you up if you do not stop your writing,” the letters said.

At the same time, senior newspaper employees have been questioned by the police about their sources in a new attack on editorial independence.

“The police must treat these death threats written in red ink with the utmost seriousness, especially as they were sent to two journalists whose press group has repeatedly been the target of physical violence,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We urge the police to track down and arrest those who wrote these letters.”

The press freedom organisation added: “It is also vital that the authorities order the security forces to put a stop to their unwarranted summonses and arrests of journalists, and to register the complaints submitted by journalists when they are physically attacked.”

The editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader newspaper, Jansz plans to go police headquarters in Mount Lavinia (just to the south of Colombo) on 27 October to file a complaint about the threatening letters (see photo) that she and Mushtaq received on 22 October. The threats may have been prompted by the newspaper’s coverage of a video showing Sri Lankan soldiers executing unarmed men.

Jansz told Reporters Without Borders the letters were similar to those received by Sunday Leader managing editor Lasantha Wickrematunge three weeks before he was murdered in January 2009. “We wrote to the police station describing the threats but the police have not even contacted me (…) The Sunday Leader’s publisher mentioned these persistent threats at a meeting with the president a few months ago. The president told one of his aides to follow up the matter, but since then there has been nothing.”

Jansz and Leader Publications are currently facing three complaints brought by the president’s brother, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, one accusing her of contempt of court because she printed a profile of him in the weekly after a judge ordered the press group not to publish anything about him. The defence ministry’s website has meanwhile accused the press group’s lawyers of being traitors while another site linked to the ministry referred to some of Jansz’s comments to foreign news media as “prostitution.”

In a separate case, Chandana Sirimalwatta, the editor of the newspaper Lanka Irida, was detained and questioned by the Colombo police on 17 October about his sources for an article about tension between the president and the head of the armed forces, Gen. Sarath Fonseka. The previous day, the police had gone to the newspaper’s headquarters to arrest Sirimalwatta.

On 20 October, the government information office threatened to "blacklist" online media that speculated about tension within the government.

Ruling party activists meanwhile attacked journalists who were accompanying opposition members on 4 October as they tried to approach a "palatial residence" allegedly built by a member of the president’s family with public funds. Five journalists were slightly hurt. One of them told Reporters Without Borders that police at the Matara police station refused to register his complaint.

A few days before that, three Lanka Irida reporters were arrested near this residence on "terrorism charges". They were later released on bail but their equipment was confiscated.

© Reporters Without Borders

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sri Lanka frees publisher held for 19 months

A Sri Lankan judge on Monday freed a publisher who had been held in custody for 19 months on charges of supporting terrorism, saying the accused man had been forced to confess under torture.

S. Jaseeharan and his wife, who were detained in March 2008 for articles published in their North Eastern Monthly magazine, were acquitted of all charges.

The judge said that a confession in which Jaseeharan admitted to supporting the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels had been obtained under duress and that medical records presented in court showed he had been tortured.

“The attorney general withdrew the charges as the judge noted that the confession was not made voluntarily,” a court official said.

Government troops finally defeated the Tiger rebels in May after decades of fighting, but international press groups say that Sri Lankan journalists still face major restrictions on reporting.

J.S. Tissainayagam was in August jailed to 20 years of hard labour for two articles he wrote in the North Eastern Monthly in 2007.

He was found guilty of causing “racial hatred” through his writings about Tamils affected by the war and of raising money for “terrorism.”

Several Sri Lankan reporters have been killed in recent years by unidentified groups.


Related Links:
Detained Tamil publisher is freed - BBC

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sri Lanka to probe U.S. charges of possible war crimes

Sri Lanka's president will appoint a home-grown committee to probe a U.S. State Department report of possible war crimes at the end of Sri Lanka's 25-year war against the Tamil Tigers, the government said on Monday.

Sri Lanka is facing heavy Western pressure over its human rights record, which the government blames on members of the Tamil diaspora who have settled in European countries or the United States and are angry the Tigers were beaten.

The United States issued a report on Thursday detailing possible atrocities by both government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the final battle of the 25-year war, and urged Sri Lanka to investigate the allegations.

"The president had decided to appoint a home-grown committee, to look into this report and give him recommendations," Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told a news conference. Sri Lanka had already rejected the report as unsubstantiated.

The decision to appoint a local panel is unlikely to satisfy the West, given Sri Lanka's long history of inquiries into rights abuse that have largely failed to hold anyone accountable.

A probe into the massacre of 17 aid workers in 2006 blamed on security forces was wound up prematurely.

Sri Lanka, with the backing of allies China and Russia, fought off Western criticism and calls to halt its offensive earlier this year. It has been adamant that its prosecution of the war was an internal matter not subject to outside scrutiny.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during an official visit to Colombo on Monday, signaled Moscow's continued backing.

"The government of Sri Lanka is fully capable using its own legal system to resolve any complaints which might emerge," Lavrov told reporters. "I don't believe that we should really discuss any agreement of procedures internationally."

Days after Sri Lanka declared the war over, the U.N. Human Rights council passed a resolution praising its victory with the backing of China, Russia and India, which defeated a European-backed draft critical of how it handled the war.

On Friday, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has suggested that an external inquiry similar to the one that looked at fighting in Gaza may need to be carried out to determine what happened in Sri Lanka.

The European Union is also considering whether to withdraw a trade preference that helps Sri Lanka's top export, garments, after finding it failed to adhere to a number of rights conventions required under the trade scheme.

The State Department report, requested by Congress, recounted allegations of government shelling of civilians during the early months of 2009 and killing of LTTE fighters who had surrendered.

It also accused the Tigers, who were listed as a terrorist organization by more than 30 countries, of recruiting children to fight and keeping thousands of Tamils as human shields by killing those who tried to flee.

© Reuters

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