Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Taking tea with torturers

By Craig Scott | Open Democracy

For just over a decade now, an abiding image occasionally rises to my memory’s surface. I see in my mind’s eye the genteel spectacle of Chile’s former President, Augusto Pinochet, taking tea with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This was apparently a ritual for the two leaders after their respective retirements as heads of government, whenever the General would visit London. But the image specifically dates to the Thatcher-Pinochet tea tryst only days before Pinochet’s arrest in London in 1999 on an extradition warrant from Spain for his role in various brutalities in Chile, including overseeing its torture system.1

That image popped up again twice in the last year, as I observe Hillary Rodham Clinton careening about in response to events in Sri Lanka and now Egypt – bouncing from (realpolitik) wall to (humanitarian) wall to (pragmatism) wall, in a kind of foreign policy funhouse of mirrors.

On the Egypt front, Luke Johnson in the American Independent reminded us of Secretary of State Clinton’s interview with Al Arabiya TV in Egypt in March 2009.2 Clinton engaged in downplaying to the point of virtual dismissal the relevance of the annual Department of State’s country report on the human rights situation in Egypt.3 That 2008 report (published in early 2009) discusses in considerable detail the extensive and systemic use of torture by the police and security services in Egypt. That apparatus has been instrumental to sustaining Mubarak in power for the past 30 years (not to mention to the US’ outsourcing of torture-for-intelligence). In response to a journalist’s question, Clinton commented, “We issue these reports on every country. We consider Egypt to be a friend and we engage in very forthright conversations with our friends. And so we hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement.”4

It has long been the case that the DOS reports tend increasingly to be treated as pro forma events, and as such only mild irritants, by both the US and the countries criticized in the reports. The fact that states invariably no longer get in a flap after the issuance of these reports is a telling indication of the way the signals game is played by the US. It is very likely the case that American diplomats the world over use various formulas to assure their host countries that these reports are a Congressionally-imposed requirement that both the US Administration of the day and foreign regimes have to live with – but don’t worry, it’s best just to treat the report as a non-event. Nudge nudge, wink wink.

But Clinton in the March 2009 press conference in Egypt went a step further. Said she, for all the world and all Egyptians to know, “It is an annual report. It is not in any way connected [to an invitation to Mubarak to visit the US]. We look forward to President Mubarak coming as soon as his schedule would permit. I had a wonderful time with him this morning. I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”5

The image of Lady Thatcher and the General-President demurely sipping their Earl Grey dissolves into an image of the Clintons and the Mubaraks knocking back a latte or two in the Clintons’ Washington digs, for old times’ sake.

Fast forward a little more than a year, not only a year on from the Secretary of State’s Egypt press conference but a year on from the horrors of the Sri Lankan army’s onslaught against civilian-packed areas – its method of ending, in the winter/spring of 2009, the long war with the Tamil Tigers. By spring 2010, Sri Lanka is under sustained pressure from global civil society, the EU, and some states on a range of fronts, from its post-war internment and detention practices to its climate of repression to its government’s transparent maneuvers to avoid any kind of war-crimes investigations or accountability. G L Peiris, the former Dean of Law at the University of Colombo turned politician, has just been promoted in Cabinet to become, on April 23, 2010, Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka. Scarcely a month later, in May 2010, he visits Washington.

Why Peiris, why then?

Peiris’ personal relationships almost certainly entered into the calculus of the elected-but-autocratic Sri Lankan President, Mahinder Rajapaksa, when he decided to insert Peiris as the lead on Sri Lankan foreign policy. When Foreign Minister Peiris arrived in Washington last spring, we learned that he has, like Mubarak, a family connection to US foreign policy.

In a May 27, 2010, interview with, Laura Rozen asks at the end of her short interview of Peiris, “And finally, you weren’t by any chance with Bill Clinton at Oxford, were you?” Peiris responds, “We were Rhodes Scholars together from 1968 to 1971. I met him recently five months ago in Hong Kong at a meeting for the Clinton Global Initiative. On that occasion he was talking about the Oxford days and so on, but he also recalled with a lot of feeling his visit to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the tsunami…”.6

Peiris met with Hillary Clinton the day after the Politico interview, and their joint press conference on May 28, 2010, is a combination of anodyne diplospeak and a show of support by Clinton for Sri Lanka, both generally and as embodied by Peiris.7

Clinton opens the press conference as follows, “I am delighted to welcome Dr. Peiris here to the State Department. I first met him 15 years ago when I was in Colombo, Sri Lanka.”8 This would have been during Bill Clinton’s Administration (1993-2001). Peiris is then generously situated by Clinton as “a capable, experienced public servant whose leadership is helping to move Sri Lanka toward renewal and reconciliation and, we hope, to greater peace, prosperity, and security for the future.”9

As Clinton’s lengthy remarks progress, there is not a single word of criticism or even diplomatically expressed concern about the policies and practices of the Sri Lankan government. On the small matter of Sri Lanka’s repressive government and the deepening authoritarianism of the formal democracy in Sri Lanka, Clinton is silent.10 Instead, she hands legitimacy on a silver platter to the Rajapaksa regime by remarking, “The United States has long been a friend of Sri Lanka. Our countries share a history of democratic institutions…”11

In terms of challenges for democracy, the only mention is of post-war bringing of democracy to the previously LTTE-ruled north of Sri Lanka, “After decades of LTTE rule in the north, the Sri Lankan Government is committed to re-establishing democracy. I was very pleased by the briefing I received from the minister about the many steps that are being taken to return to democratic order.”12

There is not a word on the militarization of governance in the north of Sri Lanka. Not a word about the Ministry of Defence assuming control of the government’s NGO Secretariat that regulates NGO activity throughout the country – with special implications for (highly restricted and monitored) NGO access to the north. Not a word on the large increases in the defence budget, despite the war having ended and no military threat having survived.

A question is then asked by a journalist about the criticisms by international NGOs like Human Rights Watch of the Sri Lankan government’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) established just before the Peiris visit, and about the associated call for an independent international investigation into war crimes at the end of the war in Sri Lanka. Clinton, in the course of a four-paragraph answer, spends the entire first three paragraphs saying, in various ways, that the US supports the LLRC process. In the final paragraph, a single sentence appears: “The minister and I talked about the continuing role of the United Nations, which intends to have an independent oversight role.”13

Not even close to an endorsement of such an “oversight” role (whatever that might mean, or not mean) let alone embracing the need for an independent international investigation of war crimes allegations. Not a word about the Office of War Crimes Issues of Clinton’s own Department of State having issued a report six months earlier, in October 2009, in which the Office of War Crimes lists over 300 incidents of possible war crimes that needed investigating.14 Not a hint that Sri Lanka scrambled to create the LLRC as a direct outcome of that report – as a way to be able to point to some domestic process to deflect pressure for a UN-launched war crimes process. Not a hint that the practice in Sri Lanka for decades has been to strike commissions as nothing but smokescreens – what Amnesty International dubbed “twenty years of make believe” in a 2009 report on these commissions.15 Instead, Secretary of State Clinton simply obliges Foreign Minister Peiris and Sri Lanka, effectively endorsing a whitewash response to her own department’s report.

Coziness practically oozes from the pours of this Peiris-Clinton press conference.

Returning to Egypt, there is perhaps not much new for US foreign policy about Hillary Clinton’s implicit but clear downplaying of her own department’s formal human rights reports and her emphasis on cozy friendships with an election-rigger and a repressor-in-chief like Mubarak. But the ‘same old, same old’ nature of the situation does not make any less troubling the consistent pattern of the United States seriously criticizing enemies for human rights abuses while avoiding – or merely mouthing – criticisms of friends.

Such contradictions may well have reached their apogee during the Administration of Jimmy Carter who purported to make human rights a foreign policy pillar for the US while simultaneously treating the Shah of Iran – whose SAVAK secret police ran one of the most brutal torture and murder systems known to history – as an urbane and charming friend of the US who was just doing his best to keep Iran out of the Communist orbit and its oil in the US orbit.16 And what was the legacy at the time of the Iranian Revolution of decades of US support for the Shah and his brutal regime, made worse by uncritical friendships of Presidents with the Shah himself? Deep and widespread popular anger at and distrust of the US, and a complete lack of credibility when the US sought to send signals that it would work with the post-Shah provisional regime that preceded Ayatollah Khomeini’s takeover of the system.

The parallels with 30 years of US support for a torture-endorsing, election-manipulating Hosni Mubarak are palpable. As events in Egypt were reaching hyper-crisis point, Simon Tisdell ends a January 29 Guardian article, entitled ‘White House wobbles on Egyptian tightrope’, with the following analysis: “[I]n the final analysis, the US needs a friendly government in Cairo more than it needs a democratic one. Whether the issue is Israel-Palestine, Hamas and Gaza, Lebanon, Iran, security for Gulf oil supplies, Sudan, or the spread of Islamist fundamentalist ideas, Washington wants Egypt, the Arab world's most populous and influential country, in its corner. That's the political and geostrategic bottom line. In this sense, Egypt's demonstrators are not just fighting the regime. They are fighting Washington, too.”17 Tisdell’s is a perceptive analysis of what Washington perceives to be the geostrategic imperatives of the situation, even as, at a normative level, it is not entirely clear if Tisdell is also implicitly saying that acting on such imperatives is inevitable – and thus that the situation in which the US finds itself is more tragic than to be condemned.

Well it may be that there are geopolitical reasons for the kind of double standards that the US applies to cases like the Shah’s Iran, Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka, or Mubarak’s Egypt, but the key is that any tragedy is in a significant part of the US’ own making. In the end, coziness with repressive regimes leads to well-founded perceptions of hypocrisy and, when all is said and done, tokenistic integration of fundamental human rights into official US behavior in the world.

It thus comes as no surprise when Haaretz newspaper’s correspondent from Cairo reports on January 31 that “the foreign country that sustained the most criticism was the United States, for its support of Mubarak and the mixed messages of the Obama administration” and that, “[o]n a large sign near Tahrir Square that was put up to promote an American company's development project, a scrawled message in large letters called on the United States to keep playing games with dictators while Egyptians achieve democracy through will alone.”18

The Guardian’s Editorial in the Sunday, January 30, edition of The Observer goes to the heart of the matter when it concludes: “Courage and vision are required in Washington as well as Cairo. The US, Britain and other western governments that have wrongly valued stability above freedom should take inspiration from the brave people of Egypt. They have shown the way. In five days of rage, they overcame their fears, broke with the old ways and made a glorious, chaotic yet purposeful lunge for a future full of hope for all. They made a reality of democracy.”19

The situation of “valu[ing] stability over freedom” is only worsened when personal relationships deepen the coziness. It is not just that a layer of complexity is added, but that a different ethical dimension enters into play. Secretary of State Clinton’s family ties – including her inclusion of the Mubaraks as “friends of my family” and including whatever special access her husband’s nostalgia for his Rhodes years may provide Sri Lanka’s Peiris – become part of her political accountability. As such, Clinton – and by extension President Obama – need to find a way to create critical distance between her friends and the foreign policy of the United States.


1 BBC News, “UK Thatcher stands by Pinochet”, BBC Online Network, March 26, 1999, at (last accessed January 31, 2011).

2 Luke Johnson, “Sec. Clinton interview in March 2009 marginalizes human rights, says Mubaraks are ‘friends of the family’”, January 28, 2011,, at (last accessed January 31, 2011). The full transcript of the interview is at: Randa Aboul Azem (Al Arabiya Television), “Interview: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State - Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt”, March 2, 2009, at (last accessed January 31, 2011) [Al Arabiya interview].

3 U S Department of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), “2008 Annual Human Rights Report: Egypt”, February 25, 2009, at (last accessed January 31, 2011). See also the most recent report at U S Department of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), “2009 Annual Human Rights Report: Egypt”, March 11, 2010, at (last accessed January 31, 2011).

4 Al Arabiya Interview (note 2).

5 Ibid.

6 Laura Rozen, “Interview with Sri Lanka’s FM”, May 27, 2010, at (last accessed January 31, 2011).

7 Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Remarks With Sri Lankan Minister of External Affairs G L Peiris After their Meeting”, May 28, 2010, at (last accessed January 31, 2011) [Clinton, Remarks with Peiris].

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 An overview of the situation (including extensive citations to a variety of NGO and intergovernmental reports) can be found in James Yap and Craig Scott, “The Breakdown of the Rule of Law in Sri Lanka: An Overview” (September 22, 2010). Available at SSRN:

11 Clinton, Remarks with Peiris (note 7).

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Office of War Crimes Issues, US Department of State, Report To Congress on Incidents During the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka, October 22, 2009, at (last accessed January 31, 2011). See also the Office of War Crimes’ follow-up report in August 2010 in which it expresses serious misgivings about the LLRC: Office of War Crimes Issues, US Department of State, Report To Congress on Measures Taken by the Government of Sri Lanka and International Bodies To Investigate Incidents During the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka, and Evaluating the Effectiveness of Such Efforts, August 11, 2010, at (last accessed January 31, 2011).

15 Amnesty International, Twenty Years of Make Believe: Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry, 2009, at (last accessed January 31, 2011).

16 See the insightful analysis of Carter’s approach (partly inherited from the Nixon/Ford years but mostly his own) in Robert Wright, Our Man in Tehran: Ken Taylor, the CIA, and the Iran Hostage Crisis (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2010) 28-33, 100-102, esp at 32-33.

17 Simon Tisdell, “White House wobbles on Egyptian tightrope”, January 29, 2010, The Guardian Online, at (last accessed January 31, 2011).

18 Anshel Pfeffer, “Post anarchy and uncertainty, Egyptians begin to see glimmers of hope: For angry Egyptians, Mubarak's choice of spy chief for vice president is just more of the same”, January 31, 2011, Haaretz, at (last accessed January 31, 2011).

19 Editorial, “Mubarak's dictatorship must end now: It is in the interest of autocratic Arab nations to note the mood in Egypt and effect change,” January 30, 2011, The Observer, at (last accessed January 31, 2011).

Craig Scott is Professor of Law, Osgoode Hall Law School, Toronto, and Director, Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security, York University, Toronto. He also serves as an Advisor to the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.

© Open Democracy

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A brief encounter with President Rajapaksa

By Sutirtho Patranobis | Hindustan Times

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in a chatty mood on Monday evening when a few of us got an unscheduled opportunity to interact with him. The logo for his favourite town Hambantota's bid for the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG) had just been unveiled at Temple Tree, his official home, and Rajapaksa was surrounded by ministers, bureaucrats and family.

Earlier in the day, another media office had been mercilessly burnt down.

So, January was turning out to be a cruel month for free speech in Sri Lanka - editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed in January 2009 and a year later Prageeth Eknaligoda disappeared.

The government was being blamed again for the attack, we told Rajapaksa.

No way, he said, adding: "Why should the government do such a thing? I have ordered a full enquiry."

But the truth has never come out and nobody has ever been arrested for attacking journalists.

"Nobody gives evidence. We can make arrests. But then human rights (issue) is there."

The conversation veered to his recent, private visit to the US, and reports that it was linked to his being unwell.

Rajapaksa gave a hearty laugh.

"Even this morning at 6 am I was in the gym, someone called to ask me whether I was unwell. It was a private visit and I went to meet a relative (brother Dudley lives in Houston). Presidents before me used to go on many private visits. Nobody said anything. If I announce my visits, then there will be protests. What happened in London? All these (reports that he was not well) are LTTE propaganda."

On the death of two Indian fishermen, Rajapaksa said as far as he knew the Sri Lanka navy (SLN) was not involved.

He said India had shared the post-mortem report of the first fisherman who died, giving details of bullet injuries, adding that SLN will make a detailed enquiry.

Rajapaksa said he had nothing to do with the three-member UN panel set up to advice secretary general Ban Ki-moon on human rights.

"They want to question officials (in Sri Lanka). Which (sovereign) country will allow that?"

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which he set up in May to investigate the final years of the civil war, however, could be given an extension if required, he said.

© Hindustan Times

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Press freedom burns in Colombo

Photo courtesy: Lankatruth

By Kumudini Woolf | Inter Press Service

At 2 a.m. on Monday morning, the headquarters of one of Sri Lanka's leading bilingual news sources, Lanka E-News (LEN), was burned down in the predawn darkness.

Preliminary investigations confirmed that petrol was used to start the fire, which completely consumed the offices of the online publication, including a library of LEN archives and thousands of valuable books.

Sandaruwan Senadeera, LEN's senior editor who is currently in self-imposed exile following a series of death threats, said in a statement Monday that damage caused by the arson was so severe as to disable use of the premises altogether.

Considering that LEN was one of the few remaining spaces to feature dissenting opinions about the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, the destruction of its headquarters is a major blow to free speech in the country.

Watchdog groups say this latest assault on the press in Sri Lanka is just one in a string of egregious crimes that have been carried out with impunity under the indifferent eyes of the Rajapaksa regime.

In April 2010, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Sri Lanka the fourth worst country in the world for press freedom on its Impunity Index, which spotlights places where "journalists are slain and their killers go free".

Over 10 journalists have been killed in as many years, and CPJ alone has helped over 19 journalists to flee the country since 2009. Among these statistics, a few stories in particular have sparked sustained outrage and maintained headlines even while the international community's gaze wandered away from the war-torn island.

On Jan. 19, CPJ published a blog post detailing the brutalities of 2009, one of the worst years in history for Lankan journalists.

CPJ's Asia programme coordinator Bob Dietz wrote, "On January 6, the independent Sirasa TV's studios were bombed in an early-morning raid carried out with 'military precision', according to staffers on hand at the time. Two days later, on January 8, Lasantha Wickrematunga was killed by eight motorcycle-riding men wielding wooden and metal poles."

"And on January 29 Upali Tennekoon, editor of the Sinhala- language, pro-government weekly Rivira and his wife, Dhammika were driving to his office when motorcyclists intercepted their car and smashed its window in an attack similar to that which killed Wickramatunga."

Dietz told IPS, "We are in the middle of such a crisis for the press in Sri Lanka that it is now time for the United Nations to step in. The world's gaze is turned to Egypt and this latest attack on the press is lost in the commotion because it is nothing new, it's just more of the same pattern that we have been seeing in Sri Lanka for years now."

"But I think strong pressure on the U.N., asserting that Sri Lanka cannot just be forgotten, is required," Dietz added. "Because there really is an almost perfect record of impunity in these attacks, and no one has been brought to justice in any of them."

However, thus far the U.N. has shown a lack of interest in addressing such violations.

Addressing a press briefing at U.N. headquarters on Monday, the spokesperson for the secretary-general, Martin Nesirky, said, "Freedom of the media is vital and journalists should be able to carry out their work without fear of attack or harassment."

However, he failed to answer journalists' specific questions about the burning of Lanka E-News or the various attacks on media personnel and offices that preceded it.

On Jan. 24, Sandhya Eknelyoda handed over a petition to the U.N. office in Colombo requesting the U.N. to mediate in the search for her husband Prageeth Eknelygoda, a political cartoonist and columnist for LEN who disappeared over a year ago and is yet to return to his family.

When asked about the status of her petition, and the possibility of U.N. assistance in the matter, Nesirky responded, "We are not aware of her petition being handed in."

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) issued a press release on Jan. 25 supporting Eknelygoda's petition to the Resident Humanitarian Coordinator Neil Buhne, and reiterating the need for immediate U.N. intervention.

The Sri Lankan government's response to the battered media has run the gamut from denial to negligence to outright apathy, critics say.

"I think what's necessary is to stop expecting the government to act responsibly and to start really bringing international pressure and an international presence into the country," Dietz told IPS.

CPJ issued an alert on Monday in response to the burning of Lanka E-News headquarters, calling on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to "address the string of uninvestigated and unprosecuted attacks on journalists and media houses under the government of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa."

The statement stressed that "the litany of arson attacks, assaults, disappearances, and outright killing of journalists that have gone unaddressed make it necessary for the international community to act. The responsibility falls to the United Nations to lead an effective international response to a government that has failed to protect journalists, and is itself a viable suspect in many of these acts."


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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Sri Lanka journalists protest arson attack on website

Photo courtesy:

AFP | Yahoo News

Dozens of Sri Lankan journalists took to the capital's streets Tuesday to condemn an arson attack on an independent website that was blamed by its editor on the government.

Reporters, photographers and employees of privately-run media joined a demonstration in central Colombo a day after the arson attack on the office of the website.

"Lanka E-News, the latest victim of media suppression," said a placard carried by one protester. "Condemn arson attack," said another.

Unidentified attackers set ablaze the LEN office, destroying its computers and library, but the website -- which is based abroad -- was up and running Tuesday.

Its editor, Sandaruwan Senadeera, who fled to Britain after receiving death threats, said he believed a powerful section of the government was behind the attack.

"There is a concerted effort by the government to silence websites which are not supporting them," Senadeera told AFP by telephone from London. "The situation for the media in Sri Lanka is going from bad to worse."

He added: "A powerful section of the government has carried out this attack."

The website had three days earlier published an intelligence report which questioned the evidence the country's defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who is also the president's brother, had given in court recently.

LEN's Sri Lanka-based news editor, Bennet Rupasinghe, said he did not expect an investigation announced by President Mahinda Rajapakse to be fair.

"I can't point a finger and say it is the work of so and so, but we have been very critical and have exposed some corrupt ministers recently," Rupasinghe told AFP during Tuesday's demonstration.

"What I can say is that this attack is not the work of the opposition or of any ordinary person."

Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella has said the attack was the work of people trying to discredit the government.

Another contributor to LEN, Prageeth Eknaligoda, disappeared two days before the January 2010 presidential election in what is assumed to be an abduction case.

A total of 17 journalists and media employees have been killed in Sri Lanka in the past decade, prompting to rights groups to say many local reporters exercise self-censorship to avoid confrontations with the authorities.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said attacks against journalists and news organisations have continued in Sri Lanka despite the end of the country's civil war in May 2009.

"The litany of arson attacks, assaults, disappearances, and outright killing of journalists that have gone unaddressed under President Rajapakse make it necessary for the international community to act," CPJ's Bob Dietz said.

"The responsibility falls to the UN to lead an effective international response to a government that has failed to protect journalists, and is itself a viable suspect in many of these acts."

The LEN attack appeared similar to the July burning of private television station, Siyatha, in Colombo.


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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Government accused as Sri Lankan news office is torched

By Andrew Buncombe | The Independent

The building housing a news website that had been repeatedly critical of the Sri Lankan authorities has been destroyed in what activists say is just the latest assault on media freedom in the country.

Reports suggest a group of unidentified men broke into a bungalow in Colombo that served as the offices of and set it alight in the early hours of yesterday. Staff who rushed to the scene discovered a blackened interior and the website's computers and a reference library, built up over the last 20 years, destroyed.

Staff said the attack followed a number of threats and the website's publication of an article that questioned the veracity of testimony that the country's defence secretary, who is also the president's brother, had given in a recent court hearing.

The website's editor, Sandaruwan Senadheera, who last year fled into exile in the UK following the disappearance of a colleague, has accused the authorities of carrying out the assault.

Speaking last night from the UK, Mr Senadheera said: "This is not just one thing. It's one thing in a chain that has been happening to the independent press. Two years ago a prominenteditor was killed and a TV channel was attacked; six months ago another private channel was set alight. The government is responsible. Three days earlier we had revealed an intelligence report about the defence secretary and we think that is why this has happened."

The Sri Lankan government has adamantly denied the accusation and ordered an investigation into the fire.

The media minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, told the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror newspaper the attack had been carried out by people seeking to destroy the image of the government. "Those responsible for the attack on LankaeNews have committed this heinous crime just so as to direct the blame on the government and to create problems for us. Their intention is to create unpleasantness for us."

But campaigners say the arson is just the latest in a series of assaults on media organisations that have been critical of the government, headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Human rights activists say at least 14 journalists and media professionals have been killed in the last five years and more than 35 have reportedly gone into exile. Among the most prominent attacks on the press was the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, in January 2009. His family and colleagues accused the government of responsibility for the killing, though this was denied. No one has yet been brought to trial over the shooting.

The website that suffered yesterday's arson attack has itself been at the centre of assaults on media freedom. Last year, Prageeth Eknaligoda, a columnist and cartoonist for, disappeared in what is widely believed to have been a case of abduction. Last month, his wife wrote to UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon and asked for his help, saying the Sri Lankan government did not appear interested in investigating the matter. "Our children are the ones who suffer most at the disappearance of their father," she said.

Meenakshi Ganguly, a regional spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, said: "The LankaeNews has come under repeated attack, with the editor forced to flee the country. The president has ordered an investigation after this recent attack, but it is hard to believe that there will be any serious effort to identify the perpetrators. Sri Lanka has no space, it appears, for dissidence."

Press freedom activists appealed to writers taking part in the recentannual Galle literary festival to boycott the event, saying it was inappropriate for them to celebrate writing while local journalists and dissidents were not able to speak out. The award-winning South African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut announced he would not take part.

Many observers believed a clamp-down on media and dissidents would ease following the defeat of Tamil rebels in the spring of 2009, in an operation that ended a decades-long civil war that had cost thousands of lives. It was also hoped the situation might ease following President Rajapaksa's re-election last year.

However, Mr Senadheera, who oversees the operation of from the UK, said this had not happened. "It's totally going downhill," he said. "After his re-election, it's gone from bad to worse."

© The Independent

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

United Nations must intervene to protect Sri Lanka's media

Photo courtesy: Sunday Leader Online

Committee to Protect Journalists

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must press the United Nations to address the string of uninvestigated and unprosecuted attacks on journalists and media houses under the government of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ responded after an early Monday morning arson attack on the offices of the independent Sri Lankan website Lanka eNews in the Malabe suburb of the capital, Colombo. Staff members told CPJ that everything in the offices had been destroyed, although no one was injured in the 2 a.m. raid. The outspoken website posted pictures of the destruction.

"The litany of arson attacks, assaults, disappearances, and outright killing of journalists that have gone unaddressed under President Mahinda Rajapaksa make it necessary for the international community to act," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator. "The responsibility falls to the United Nations to lead an effective international response to a government that has failed to protect journalists, and is itself a viable suspect in many of these acts."

So far, the U.N. has failed to respond to the wife of Prageeth Eknelygoda, a columnist and cartoonist for Lanka eNews who disappeared on January 24, 2010. His family and colleagues say they suspect he has been kidnapped. Sandhya Eknelygoda wrote to Ban earlier this month, saying that the government--which she suspected was complicit in her husband's disappearance--has showed no interest in investigating the case. Lanka eNews founder Sandaruwan Senadheera went into exile in March 2010 after repeated death threats.

Lanka eNews has long been critical of the government and had sided with a former presidential candidate, Sareth Fonseka, who is now in jail. In recent days, the site had reported critically on Rajapkasa and his brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, secretary of defense, including reports of the president's quiet visit to the U.S., which the website said was for medical purposes. In another report, the website questioned whether the defense secretary had perjured himself while giving evidence in a case against Fonseka.

As CPJ noted in a blog entry on January 19:

Sri Lanka is notorious for impunity in anti-press attacks. It is the fourth worst country in the world in terms of unsolved journalist murders, according to CPJ's Impunity Index.

The string of brutalities under protest in Colombo date back to January 2009. That year, on January 6, the independent Sirasa TV's studios were bombed in an early-morning raid carried out with "military precision," according to staffers on hand at the time. Two days later, on January 8, Lasantha Wickramatunga was killed by eight motorcycle-riding men wielding wooden and metal poles. And on January 23, Upali Tennakoon, editor of the Sinhala-language, pro-government weekly Rivira and his wife, Dhammika were driving to his office when motorcyclists intercepted their car and smashed its window in an attack similar to that which killed Wickramatunga. The Tennakoons escaped (although Upali was heavily scarred), and they now live in exile in the United States. CPJ documented those attacks in our February 2009 special report "Failure to Investigate."

None of the cases have been solved, and no one has been brought to justice.

Attacks on media have continued since the spasm of January 2009 violence, even though the government ended its war with Tamil separatists in May 2009. In July 2010, two employees were injured in an arson attack on the offices of the Voice of Asia Network in the heart of Colombo that destroyed the group's studios. Men armed with assault rifles and gasoline bombs carried out the attack in the middle of the afternoon. Siyatha TV mainly aired entertainment programming, but the network's owners had been linked to Fonseka.


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