Tuesday, April 27, 2010

'Gang boss known for hostility towards journalists appointed deputy media minister' - RSF

“In what country do you appoint an arsonist to put out fires?” Reporters Without Borders asked today after learning that Mervyn Silva, a politician notorious for insulting and physically attacking journalists, has been appointed deputy minister of media and information. Labour minister in the last government, Silva was confirmed in his new post by parliament on 23 April.

“The Sri Lankan government has against distinguished itself by assigning key posts to very controversial figures implicated in attacks on press freedom,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The ruling party’s victory in the parliamentary elections is being marred by this kind of appointment, which is casting serious doubt on its ability to carry out reconciliation and reconstruction.”

The press freedom organisation added: “We call on Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne to relieve Mervyn Silva of his ministerial post.”

Silva’s appointment comes at a time of considerable hostility towards press freedom. The defence secretary (who is the president’s brother) put a great deal of pressure on TV stations and websites not to provide live coverage of opposition leader Sarath Fonseka’s speech at the opening of the new parliament on 22 April.

In the event, no TV station broadcasted live the speech delivered by Fonseka, who was let out of prison to attend the inauguration because he won a seat in the parliamentary election. A former army commander, Fonseka has been detained after last January’s presidential election, in which he was the leading opposition candidate.

Several newspapers reported his speech on their websites, but did not publish any photos of him in their print editions. “When such pressure comes from the defence ministry, we have no choice but to not publish, or else we will be risking closure,” a Colombo-based journalist told Reporters Without Borders on condition of anonymity.

Threats forced several Sri Lankan journalists to flee the country during the campaign for the 8 April parliamentary elections. Later, a team working for the Colombo-based Daily Mirror newspaper was followed and threatened on 21 April in the central city of Kandy by a local journalist apparently acting on the orders of the police. Journalists had gone there to cover a re-poll.

A ruling party candidate threatened Wasantha Chadrapala, a correspondent for various media in the eastern district of Ampara, on 4 April because of his coverage of the election campaign. His house was attacked by unidentified assailants that evening.

© Reporters sans frontières

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sri Lanka considers ending emergency laws

Sri Lanka may scrap the state of emergency laws that gave sweeping powers to police and troops during the island's long ethnic conflict with Tamil rebels, a newly appointed minister said Sunday.

The government has faced international criticism over nationwide laws that were first imposed in 1983 to combat the Tamil Tiger separatists, who were finally defeated a year ago.

Parliament has continued to extend the state of emergency each month as the government argues that rebel remnants have tried to make a comeback.

"We are actively considering it (relaxing the state of emergency). There is no timeline yet," foreign minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris told reporters on Sunday.

"Circumstances have changed. We want to do it not because of external pressures, but because it's the right thing to do now."

The laws allow the arrest and detention of suspects for long periods without trial. They also allow police and troops to carry out searches without a warrant from a magistrate.

Opposition parties and international human rights groups have accused the government of using the laws to suppress legitimate dissent and freedom of expression.

Peiris, who was appointed on Friday after recent parliamentary elections, said he wanted to address concerns from the international community about Sri Lanka's human rights record.

Sri Lanka has often rejected calls to probe alleged war crimes in the final stages of the fighting against the Tigers.


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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sri Lanka: Jaffna Tamils decry development plan of Gov’t

By Feizal Samath - Two cyclists from the minority Tamil community are shooed away by government soldiers as they approach this northern Sri Lankan city’s only Buddhist temple while President Mahinda Rajapaksa is paying a visit.

But when a family from the majority Sinhalese family ambles toward the guards, they are treated more amiably.

These twin incidents during Rajapaksa’s rare visit to Jaffna on Apr. 1 illustrate the contrasting ways in which soldiers from an army made up largely of Sinhalese treat the majority and minority ethnic groups.

Right through the late 1970s, Tamils claimed discrimination from the majority community. In 1977 Tamil parties swept the polls in the northern capital of Jaffna on the call for a separate homeland. A few years later, Tamil militancy emerged and led to almost three decades of civil war.

Many fear the government still has a long way to go in winning the hearts and minds of the Tamil community, which dominates Jaffna.

"There is nothing we can do," explained a veteran Anglican priest, who declined to be named, when asked whether the government was bending backwards to win the support of the Tamils.

Tamils are the largest minority group in Sri Lanka, representing about 13 percent of the country’s total population of 20 million. Many of them live in Jaffna, considered the seat of Tamil nationalism and the second most important city of Sri Lanka, next to Colombo.

The end in May 2009 of a bitter conflict in which Tamil rebels sought to carve out a separate state for their minority community triggered huge business interest in Jaffna, virtually untouched by the economic liberalisation that Sri Lanka pursued in 1977.

Nearly a year after the war ended, burnt out, shell-shocked buildings can be seen lying side by side with spanking new ones for banks or financial services as Colombo firms rush to grab a share of the new business opportunities in Jaffna.

But youngsters and city elders clamor for a different kind of development. "We need to be able to own rather than be bystanders (to development)," said a city businessman, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.

The government has set up a task force headed by Basil Rajapaksa, brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Minister for Economic Development, to oversee development in the north.

Nirmala (not her real name), a high school student, said banks and financial services are not helpful to the Jaffna Tamils.

"A lot of banks setting up branches here are employing people from Colombo. We don’t have jobs. On the other hand, the banks take our deposits, but getting a loan is difficult because the banks want collateral, which we don’t have because our properties have been destroyed or have been taken over by the army for military purposes," she said.

But Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal told IPS that quite a few Jaffna youngsters were being employed in new bank branches that were being opened in Jaffna.

Nirmala was one of a group of 30 16- to 17-year-old high school students who met with IPS recently to discuss their future in an environment where livelihood and employment opportunities are scant. They were unanimous in saying that the people of Jaffna are not part of the development that the government is carving out for the north.

Most of them want to go abroad for studies and live there permanently. "There is no future here. We will always be second-class citizens," said Arul. Perceptions of widespread insensitivity of the Colombo establishment to the city residents became more pronounced when a group of businessmen and bankers flew into the city in late March to lay the foundation stone for a new 80-room hotel being built by a Colombo bank.

Few Tamils from Jaffna were invited to the event and all the speeches were delivered in English even if the majority of the 700,000 people speak only Tamil. Furthermore, local residents questioned the location of the hotel as it is close to a sacred Hindu temple, visited by millions of Tamils every year.

"How can you sell alcohol or meat in a sacred location?" asked Arudpragasam Sivathamby, a taxi driver. Outside the same temple premises, dozens of Sinhala traders are doing business, in some cases displacing the Tamil merchants, causing resentment among the minority ethnic group.

"This is causing a huge problem," said Tamil parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran.

Development is only seen in the form of banks, finance companies and consumer firms opening up in Jaffna while job-creating industries or factories are still inexistent. Some roads are being developed while an old railway line from the Sinhalese-dominated south is being repaired.

Tamils are hoping for a greater role in power sharing. However, Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan, a political scientist from the University of Colombo, said that is not a priority for the government at the moment. "The government won a commanding majority at the recent parliamentary polls, and trying to appease the Tamils is not the biggest priority at the moment," he declared.

© Inter Press Service

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