Wednesday, November 04, 2009

'Defend independent media in Sri Lanka': Overseas Press Club of America writes to SL President

The Overseas Press Club of America has sent an open letter to Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa, highlighting the recent attacks on press freedom in Sri Lanka. While pointing out the fact that Sri Lanka has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, the letter urges swift action to free imprisoned journalist J.S.Tissainayagam and to protect independent media in the country.

The full text of the letter follows:

October 29, 2009

H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa
Presidential Secretariat
Colombo 1
Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
Fax: (011.94.11) 243.0590

Your Excellency:

Imagine waking up one day and finding that you cannot speak. No matter what you do, the words do not come; no sound passes your lips. Nor can you write. Your fingers are locked. You are utterly silent, and all your precious thoughts are imprisoned in your mind. You are no longer able to lead, or teach, or stir your people to action or still their fears. Imagine your people waking one day to find the same thing has happened to them. There is no exchange of information, no new thinking.

Stop imagining. This is happening to Sri Lanka because of the abuses of press freedom that you are allowing to occur. Every time a journalist’s voice is stilled, every time a journalist is imprisoned, your voice, as well as the voices of your people, are stilled; you and your people are imprisoned. There is no getting away from this. It is true. Every time a journalist is killed, a part of Sri Lanka also dies.

Beyond the toll taken by twenty five years of civil war, more and more bits of your country are being chipped away, and you are letting it happen by allowing journalists to be attacked, kidnapped, tortured, murdered and assassinated. When not killed, threatened or harassed, they are imprisoned on charges so ludicrous that it is hard to imagine any serious government standing behind them.

The most recent outrage is the conviction on August 31 of J.S. Tissainayagam under Sri Lanka’s anti-terror laws. Mr. Tissainayagam, an ethnic Tamil editor and columnist, has been sentenced to twenty years in prison. He was arrested in March, 2008, and later charged under anti-terror law on the basis of two editorials he wrote in 2006. The notion that he was an imminent threat to national security becomes ludicrous in light of the fact that it took two years after the editorials appeared to arrest him, and another year to convict him. This action opens Sri Lanka to ridicule and condemnation.

By allowing this and other miscarriages of justice against journalists, your government is sanctioning the actions and making itself responsible and accountable for them. The blood of journalists is on your hands; the lives of journalists are in your hands. We urge you to release Mr. Tissainayagam and his colleagues, and thus show the world that Sri Lanka and its president value the voices of its people.
Mr. President, journalists who report the facts as they know them, who are fair and honest, who are given free access, and who are allowed to speak the truth as they know it, are not threats to governments. They are not terrorists. They are an asset to a country and its people, and they serve to strengthen, protect and preserve the society in which they live and work.

Your country has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists:

• At least nine journalists have been murdered in the last ten years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

• At least eleven journalists have fled Sri Lanka In the past year for fear of their lives

• The general secretary of the Working Journalists’ Association, Poddala Jayantha, was kidnapped and tortured earlier this year. He has spoken out against government restrictions on the media and he has been vilified by the state-run media – the single voice you have not stifled.

• There are severe restrictions on independent media, and their sources are in grave danger. For example, journalists cannot go into former Tamil Tiger zones or to refugee camps without the threat of prosecution. In one instance, in Vanni, three doctors were arrested after they supplied local and international media with casualty figures during the final stages of the civil war.

• International journalists are also targeted. Earlier this year, when the government refused to renew his visa, the Associated Press bureau chief was effectively ordered out of Sri Lanka, an action the Committee to Protect Journalists found to be “part of a disturbing pattern of harassment and censorship of all journalists in Sri Lanka, which has continued despite the end of the civil war."

• Sri Lanka ordered Britain's Channel 4 News Asia correspondent, Nick Paton-Walsh, cameraman, Matt Jasper, and producer, Bessie Du to leave the country on May 10, 2009, according to Channel 4 and international news reports.

• In July, sources reported that domestic access to the independent Web site Lanka News Web was shut down.

• Also in July, the official Web site of the Defense Ministry carried an article headlined, “Traitors in Black Coats Flocked together”, naming five lawyers who represented the Sunday Leader newspaper at a July 9 hearing as having “a history of appearing for and defending” LTTE guerrillas.

• Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader, was killed on January 8 by motorcycle-riding assassins. The death was among three violent anti-press episodes in January, which the Committee to Protect Journalists documented in a report titled “Failure to Investigate.”

• In February, Punniyamurthy Sathyamurthy, Canadian Tamil Radio and Tamil Vision International, was killed.

This litany could continue, but we will stop here for now.

Mr. President, the world awaits your decision regarding J.S. Tissainayagam. While we wait, the ranks of support for him swell. The Global Media Forum and the U.S. branch of Reporters Without Borders have selected Mr. Tissainayagam as the first winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. The Committee to Protect Journalists will honor Mr. Tissainayagam with a 2009 International Press Freedom Award. These honors will bring more attention to his case and more attention to the plight of journalists in Sri Lanka.

The Overseas Press Club of America, an independent organization that has defended press freedom around the world for seventy years, urge your swift action to free J.S. Tissainayagam and his colleagues, and to act to protect and defend independent media in Sri Lanka.

Thank you for your attention to this crucial matter. We hope you will reply.

Respectfully yours,

Toni Reinhold
Larry Martz

Freedom of the Press Committee - OPC

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