Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sri Lanka: Thousands of workers take to street over proposed pension scheme

News First

The movement of vehicles along the Colombo Katunayake Road has been hampered due to a protest organized by a group of employees from the Free Trade Zone against the proposed pension scheme.

Police said that nearly 2,000 employees had engaged in a protest near the Katunayake police at around 8 a.m. this morning and then marched towards the 18th mile post.

While this had resulted in severe traffic congestion, the Police are taking measures to ease this situation at present, according to police sources.

Meanwhile, General Secretary of the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union Anton Marcus said that members of his union will be the most affected by the proposed bill.

When Newsfirst made inquiries in this regard Minister of Labour and Labour Relations Gamini Lokuge said that certain groups are engaging in such protests due to a lack of understanding of the bill in question.

© News First

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

‘Defeating terrorism - Lankan experience’ : Forty-two countries confirm participation

By Sandasen Marasinghe | Daily News

A total of 42 countries have confirmed their participation in the international seminar, ‘Defeating terrorism - the Sri Lankan experience’ organized to share Sri Lanka’s experiences as the first country in the 21st century to have defeated terrorism, said Army Commander Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya.

Addressing the media at a press conference held at the Army Headquarters yesterday, the Army Commander said that the Army also has sent invitations to the Defence Minister of Senagal and the Army Commander after they made a request for participation in the three-day seminar which is to commence on May 31.

Army Commander Jayasuriya further said that preparations for the seminar under the guidance of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa organized to share Sri Lanka’s experience on the road to military defeat of the LTTE which was identified as the world’s most ruthless terrorist organization.

He added that the seminar will pay special focus on global terrorism, terrorist trends, predominance of both political and military efforts, reconciliation, threats to national and international security concerns, nation building, resettlement, effective counter mechanism, prevention of resurgence of violence, re-evaluation of traditional approaches etc.

Army Commander Jagath Jayasuriya also stated that the seminar, the first of its kind to be held in Sri Lanka will be attended by delegates including several world renowned experts, professionals, academics and military officials. Although military participants of few countries such as Australia, France, Japan, Netherlands etc have regretted their non participation, delegates such as their ambassadors and researchers have confirmed their participation.

Sri Lanka Army during these sessions is to elaborate how it conducted the humanitarian operation, with all minute details, while contributing to broaden understanding and exchange of knowledge among delegates with relevance to the Sri Lankan perspective.

The speakers will elaborate on lessons learnt and reasons that led to the military success. The keynote address will be delivered by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Dr David Killcullen the author of Accidental Guerrilla, Dr Ahamed Hasheem, Dr Rohan Gunaratne, External Affairs Minister Professor G L Peiris and many other experts will deliver lectures.

© Daily News

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sri Lanka begins military-led training for university entrants

By Ranga Sirilal | Reuters

Sri Lanka on Monday began compulsory military-led training for thousands of university entrants, despite protests by opposition-backed student unions that called it the government's latest move to militarise the country.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government has ordered 22,000 university entrants to attend what it calls "leadership and positive-thinking training" for three weeks at 28 military camps islandwide. The first 12,000 began on Monday.

Sri Lanka's traditionally influential student unions have long been bellwethers of political unrest. They were key parts of the deadly 1971 and 1988-89 insurrections led by the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or People's Freedom Party.

"We commenced these theoretical and practical training courses to develop leadership ability and positive attitudes," Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake told Reuters.

The largest student union, the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF), rejected the training as a government method of coercing political support. The IUSF has long been seen as the student wing of the JVP, which is now in opposition.

"This is another step of this dictatorial government's agenda of militarising the society," IUSF leader Sanjeewa Bandara told Reuters.

He said the IUSF did not mind receiving training, but said it should be given by mutual consent and not by force.

"They are trying to terrify and suppress students by conducting the training forcibly in military camps so they can have a loyal group of students to fulfil their political agendas," Bandara said.

The IUSF has filed a Supreme Court challenge against the training. The court asked if the programme could be delayed by a week to give it time to rule, but the government refused.

Rights groups and opposition critics have said the Rajapaksa administration has spread military influence into every corner of government since defeating the Tamil Tigers' three-decade separatist insurgency two years ago.

Most of the top military commanders have been given diplomatic or other influential government posts since the war's end. Soldiers are being used in post-war rebuilding efforts and even sold vegetables after floods in January and February ruined crops and prompted hoarding by private vendors.

Dissanayake defended the programme as aimed at giving students skills they need to succeed in the private sector.

"This training course is not a weapons training or military training. We think that university students should be fortified with the weapon of knowledge," he said. "This is only one programme aimed at creating a disciplined generation."

© Reuters

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sri Lanka: Continuing the struggle

By Gena Chung | American Journalism Review

Tsunami aid misappropriation. Abuse of government power. Corporate fraud. These are the types of stories to which award-winning investigative journalist and newspaper editor Sonali Samarasinghe gravitated. When she won the Global Shining Light Award at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in 2008, it cited "her work to reveal misuse of power and corruption in Sri Lanka." But there was one story for which she was completely unprepared.

On January 8, 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor-in-chief of the Sri Lankan paper the Sunday Leader, was murdered in what witnesses described as a "commando-style assassination." Witnesses said that eight men clad in black helmets and fatigues, riding four identical black motorcycles, surrounded Wickrematunge's car.

They shattered the windows and the windshield with a steel pole, pulled Wickrematunge from the car and beat him with the pole. He was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly after the attack.

Samarasinghe didn't receive news of the attack in her capacity as a newspaper editor. It was as Wickrematunge's wife.

"No, you're not leaving," Samarasinghe had told her husband a little more than an hour before he was attacked.

They had just safely made it inside their home after being followed by four men on motorcycles. Driving home together from the pharmacy, her husband received a phone call from the office informing him that he was being followed. Samarasinghe says she looked around in an attempt to spot the pursuers, to no avail. Then, as she and her husband pulled alongside their home, she saw them― four men clad in black, riding large black motorcycles in pairs.

Their house was situated on a private lane in a high security zone right next to Parliament, Samarasinghe says. She demonstrates her belief that the government had a hand in her husband's death by implying that somehow these men possessed authorization to pass through the checkpoints that she says were "everywhere." "Anyone cannot just get through," she says.

When they parked the car, Samarasinghe convinced her husband to abandon his instinctively bold impulse to confront the men. Once inside the house, Wickrematunge assessed the threat by making a few phone calls to trusted colleagues and political friends he had made over the years as both private secretary to former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and as a newspaper editor.

After consulting with his friends and colleagues, Wickrematunge concluded that these were just scare tactics. It was Thursday, and he had to write his influential political column, Suranimala, described by Samarasinghe as the last word on the Sri Lankan political scene.

"He went," Samarasinghe says. "When he said, 'it's under control,' I believed him."

As was customary when her husband was out of the country, Samarasinghe took over the Sunday Leader as editor-in-chief. But this time, he wasn't coming back. Wickrematunge's remains rested in the home that he and Samarasinghe had created together. Hundreds of people came in mourning to pay their last respects, says Samarasinghe, when just thirteen days earlier some of the very same people had gathered in celebration at their wedding reception.

Samarasinghe, the wife, was devastated. But Samarasinghe, the journalist, was undeterred. Three days after her husband's murder, Samarasinghe published the Sunday Leader. In it she printed an editorial written by her husband intended for posthumous publication, in which he anticipated his own death. It was titled, "And then they came for me."

Wickrematunge wrote: "No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last...When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me."

In the days after Wickrematunge's death, it became apparent that Samarasinghe intended on running the Sunday Leader just as her husband had when he publicly declared his motto, "unbowed and unafraid." Threats and intimidation were nothing new to her. In 2005 and in 2007, the presses of the Sunday Leader and her own paper, the mid-week national newspaper, the Morning Leader, were burned down. Also in 2007, she was held for several hours of interrogation by the Criminal Investigative Department of the police, in connection with a series of investigative reports she wrote regarding possible collusion between the country's Central Bank and a fraudulent corporate pyramid scheme.

In the days immediately following her husband's death, Samarasinghe was told that she was unsafe, that the motorcyclists were back, skulking outsider her home. Two men burst into her home despite the protestations of her elderly mother and took pictures of the family and the layout of the home. She began varying her routes to and from the office. But things weren't getting any better, and the people she knew and trusted told her that she was in grave danger, that she must leave the South Asian island nation.

"I was prevailed upon to leave by friends, by diplomats, and by Lasantha's own brother," Samarasinghe says. "You realize that the culture of impunity is too widespread and democratic mechanisms have broken down and are constantly being undermined, and you realize this is the tipping point. Do you stay? Do you compromise your ideals and your principles to survive? Because that's the only way you're going to stay alive? Or do you leave and do your best from outside."

On January 24, 2009, Samarasinghe fled to Europe with one suitcase, leaving behind all that she had known for 40 years. This included the Morning Leader, which shut down a week after she left, and the Sunday Leader, which she characterizes now as "a flaccid shell of its former self.. not anything like how Lasantha and I envisaged it would be."

"Everything stops," she says. "You've built up a career. You've built up a name. You've built up a life. And suddenly it's destroyed. There comes a time when you are no longer able to have such destruction in your life."

Samarasinghe says the plight of exiled journalists is often mollified by the notion that they are "going to a better place," akin to the spiritual salve of the terminally ill.

She disagrees.

"It's not true. It's just so not true... It's not true for me," Samarasinghe says. "We had a great life. We had a great life."

"I think Sonali is one of the most courageous, and smartest and most determined people I have ever met," says Lonnie Isabel, director of the International Reporting Program at City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. The program is a joint initiative between CUNY and the Committee to Protect Journalists, designed to "find a way to incorporate exiled journalists into the fiber of American journalists," Isabel says.

Samarasinghe is its fourth International Journalist in Residence. Isabel says that Samarasinghe was the ideal candidate: she cannot practice journalism in her country, she had to flee "and she's a remarkable leader and amazing journalist who needs to practice and needs to contribute to the world of journalism."

At CUNY, Samarasinghe is enrolled in the entrepreneurial journalism certificate program, though she already has a master's in international affairs from the Australian National University and a law degree from the University of London.

Jeremy Caplan, director of education for CUNY's Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, teaches Samarasinghe in the certificate program. He also has advised her on the Web site she is set to launch soon, www.lankaindependent.com, which she says will be an exiled journalist-run news site where "unadulterated, uncensored" voices can speak up about what's happening in Sri Lanka, "where media freedom is nonexistent and impunity is rampant."

She says that when her husband was killed, "the backbone of independent media was broken" in Sri Lanka. With her Web site, she hopes to rebuild it from afar, so that change can occur from within the country.

"It's so important that not only Sri Lankans but those people from outside pressurize Sri Lanka to get back to itself, and to get back to what it was, which was a legitimate democracy," Samarasinghe says.

Caplan praises Samarasinghe not only for her journalism skills and passion, but for her enterprising spirit that allows her to embrace new storytelling methods in the digital age which, he hopes, "will enable her to hopefully reach a lot of people who are interested in the subject and need to know about what she's covering."

"For someone like Sonali, she's reporting and writing about subjects that are very close to her heart that the she cares a great deal about," Caplan says, "and I think that gives her spark, an extra catalyst, extra motivation to do a very thorough job of reporting, to do a very careful job of gathering information, and to do a very passionate job of communicating the important stories that are often otherwise going untold."

Samarasinghe says that the past two-and-a-half years of her life have simply increased the intensity of the drive that she has possessed since her childhood, to fight for justice and human rights.

She singles out her father, a high-ranking police official, for teaching her about human rights and community building. Civil war broke out in 1983 between the majority Sinhalese Sri Lankan government and the separatist Tamil movement. Samarasinghe says that indiscriminate killing resulted, in any number of forms: terrorist bombings, random fires and shootings, planned massacres. According to Samarasinghe, after one particularly bloody killing spree, where Sinhalese set fire to any known Tamil home, her father, a Sinhalese, closed the district, imposed a curfew and went to each and every destroyed home in an attempt to assess the situation and offer help to the Tamil people. He took his young daughter with him.

"I suppose when you see that, you tend to realize that there's nothing more important than to bring the communities together," Samarasinghe says. "I know that giving a voice to the voiceless is kind of cliché, but in the end, that's what it became."

As a witness to war, she says, she was emboldened. And one particular incident was instrumental in steeling her resolve to demand freedom of the press.

In 1999, about a year after Samarasinghe pared down her practice of law to become a full-time reporter, Richard de Zoysa, the regional director of a nonprofit news agency, an actor and a human rights activist, was found washed up on the shores of the beach at Moratuwa, twelve miles from Colombo, Sri Lanka's largest city. His jaw was fractured, and he had been shot in the head and throat. Despite his mother's identification of the abductors, one of whom was a prominent police officer, no one was ever prosecuted for his murder. The man who helped identify him, journalist Taraki Sivaram, was beaten and shot to death in 2005. Samarasinghe says that when she joined her husband's newspaper as an investigative journalist, these were the types of injustices against the press that they were both fully committed to fighting. Samarasinghe stands determined to continue the fight on his behalf.

"I mean when you think of it, what she faced, after a month of marriage and massive repression," CUNY's Isabel says, "still to this day a cover-up of the murder of her husband, and the inability to continue her career, where she was a very prominent journalist, is a shattering kind of thing to happen to someone, such terrible loss."

The "cover-up" Isabel refers to is prominent in Samarasinghe's mind.

"It is still very much a part of what I will do to continue to fight for justice for Lasantha," Samarasinghe says, "because it is his case that has now become emblematic of the culture of impunity that prevails."

The case against Sri Lanka for abusing freedom of the press and human rights is considerable. In its 2010 report on the country, Reporters Without Borders concluded that "of the world's democratically-elected governments, Sri Lanka's is the one that respects press freedom least." It continued: "the most senior government officials, including the defense secretary, are directly implicated in serious press freedom violations."

The United Nations commissioned a report that concluded that both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil opposition might be responsible for war crimes committed near the end of the civil war in 2008. Tens of thousands of civilians died, most as a result of government shelling, according to the U.N. report.

Near the end of April, Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Gamini Peiris told reporters that releasing the report would be a detriment to postwar reconciliation, adding that the document was "preposterous."

"It's wrong to publish the report," Peiris said. "It's equally wrong and unacceptable to take any steps at all on the basis of any findings or recommendations contained in the report."

Despite the Sri Lankan government's vociferous objections, the U.N. released the report on April 25. In a statement to the press, U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon said, "The decision to release the report was made as a matter of transparency and in the broader public interest." He also wrote that he "regrets the inflammatory tone of some of the recent public statements emanating from Sri Lanka."

Sri Lanka was ranked No. 4 on the Committee to Protect Journalist's 2010 Impunity Index, which ranks countries where journalists are killed regularly and the government makes no effort to prosecute those responsible. According to the report, 10 journalists have been killed in the last decade in Sri Lanka, without a single conviction.

Wickrematunge was one of them.

Maria Salazar-Ferro, who is coordinator of both the impunity campaign and the journalist assistance program at CPJ, calls Wickrematunge's murder an "iconic case of the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka."

Salazar-Ferro has been working with Samarasinghe on seeking justice for his assassination. "She's incredibly strong. Incredibly strong," Salazar-Ferro says. "I've worked with many other journalists in her type of situation, and it's very rare to meet someone who is so persevering."

Samarasinge's resolve shows no signs of wearing down. She continues to write updates about the fight for justice in her husband's case. In one such article for CPJ, Samarasinghe mentioned that on January 13, President Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sri Lankan media that there was "no evidence to continue an investigation." Samarasinghe says that this is a continuation of the stonewalling that the government has engaged in from the very beginning.

Several news items and the coroner's report stated that Wickrematunge died of a gunshot wound to the head. However, Wickrematunge's brother, a physician, was allowed into the post-mortem exam room, where he discovered that there was neither gunshot wound nor bullet track. According to Samarasinghe, later on coroner admitted that her husband did not die of gunshot wound.

Most recently, police took custody of five mobile phones that showed the same location patterns as Wickrematunge's phone, according to Samarasinghe. What is even more peculiar about these phones is that they were not used before or after January 8, 2009, the day of Wickrematunge's murder. According to police, tracking of the phones reveals that they all communicated regularly with each other that day, and that one of the five numbers shows having made a call from the spot where Wickrematunge was killed. A spot, Samarasinghe points out, was also in a high security zone, just 15 yards from one of the largest Sri Lankan Air Force bases.

"I hold President Rajapaksa personally responsible for my husband's murder," Samarasinghe says, "because even if it was not he who gave the order, he, as minister of defense, overall commander of the army, has seen to it from day one that no effective investigation has taken place."

The Sri Lanka embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests for comment about the case.

Salazar-Ferro says that there is a pattern to the challenges that usually emerge for journalists in exile, beginning with language and professional training issues that prevent them from practicing journalism in the countries where they receive asylum.

"It is a very competitive industry and they are just not able to penetrate," Salazar-Ferro said.

She estimates that 90 percent of the exiled journalists CPJ is currently tracking are no longer working in the field. Instead, they are janitors, guards or convenience store clerks.

Isabel of CUNY laments the dissolution of exiled journalists' careers as they enter the United States, which is why he hopes that CUNY's program can serve as a model for other journalism schools and institutions across the country. Isabel admits that helping only one persecuted journalist a year is "an amazingly paltry reaction," but adds that, with limited funding and resources, it is doing the best it can "for the overwhelming tide of people who have to leave hostile situations." He adds, it's "one of the things that I'm most proud of."

According to Salazar-Ferro, Samarasinghe is a rarity, an exiled journalists who has stayed in the field. Salazar-Ferro attributes this both to Samarasinghe's proficiency with English and the breadth of her professional skills. But, she says, the emotional challenges can be just as debilitating to a career, and that Samarsinghe wasn't able to escape these as easily.

"It's one of the few professions where you are constantly on your toes," Salazar-Ferro says. She mentions that when she first met Samarasinghe, "I could still feel that she was deeply scarred not only by her husband's murder, but also by the years of threat and intimidation."

Salazar-Ferro continues. "I've met very few people who are as strong and determined as Sonali is. She's had to give up her country, her family, her friends... But she won't give up her career. I've never seen anybody move so fast to be able to get a grip on things the way that she has."

Samarasinghe says that she felt abandoned and betrayed by her country after her husband's murder. This became the impetus for the work she is doing now in the U.S. "It's a force that propels you because you just know you have to do it; there's no choice," Samarasinghe says. "Once it happens to you, you have no choice."

Isabel believes that Samarasinghe―and exiled journalists like her―are indispensable are an inspiration for others in the field. "I think the most remarkable thing about them all is that they are determined to continue to practice journalism, even though they have faced prison and exile and murder and all kinds of things," Isabel says. "It's so wonderful to sit next to someone like Sonali and think of what a privilege it is to be a reporter, and it inspires our students."

Samarasinghe feels a measure of gratitude and inspiration from the opportunities she has had in the United States. She says that receiving help from the U.S. at a time when she felt completely abandoned has earned the country a permanent place in her heart.

But what Salazar-Ferro says about most exiled journalists is also true of Samarasinghe.

"I would say that most of them have, if not one foot, one toe back at home, especially when it comes to journalism," Salazar-Ferro says. "They still feel very attached to reporting the news of their home, and they still feel very attached to making sure it gets reported."

Samarasinghe agrees. "Yes, my heart is still in Sri Lanka," she says, despite the assassination of her husband, the lack of an effective investigation and the continued repression of journalists. "I think that we have great hope as much as we've had great devastation, and I really hope and pray that the country will return to itself, because I know how beautiful that country can be."

The sentiment sounds much like another Sri Lankan journalist who wrote before his death: "I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland."

It seems inarguable that the author of these words, Lasantha Wickrematunge, would be proud that it is his wife, Sonali Samarasinghe, who continues to hope and fight during his prolonged wake .


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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Reckoning: Press Freedom in Sri Lanka

Photo courtesy: vikalpa.org

By Nirmanusan Balasundaram | Groundviews

“The freedom to speak and the freedom to write are essential preconditions for the transition towards democracy and good governance” – Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO.

We are living in the world, in which committed journalists writes the news not only with ink, but also with their blood. This is the very reason that their souls still exists with us even after their tragic deaths. Sri Lanka is the very recent example for such context. Thirty-four journalists and media workers have been killed with no recourse to justice since the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government came into power in April 2004 with the present President Mahinda Rajapaksa as its prime minister. [1] This list does not include the comprehensive details of the journalist and media workers who were killed in Vanni during the last phase of the war (North of Sri Lanka), which was labeled as “world’s largest rescue operation”.

Journalists were murdered not for anything, but simply as the cruel reward for their courage and dedication in bringing the hidden reality out. The threat against press freedom in Sri Lanka became a vicious circle. The present regime, who proclaimed that they are the only government in the world, who completely defeated the “terrorism”, could not arrest single perpetrators, who are behind these murders. “Due to international pressure, there are few exceptional cases that the government is trying to portraying that there is an investigation going on particular cases, such as assassinations of Dharmeratnam Sivaram and Lasantha Wickrematunge or they are attempting to put the blame on other elements” a Colombo based journalist told.

Apart from three killings, which were reported in linking the LTTE, all most all other murders being depicted as killed by “unidentified men”. Talking to another journalist on the sixth year memorial of late Dharmeratnam Sivaram, he pointed out that “we know who the killers are or who are behind the killings like this, not only for Sivaram’s killing, but for other as well, but we also aware, what will happen for us, if we tell or talk about it openly. In Sri Lanka case, unidentified men became synonyms for “government is responsible”.

Just before the regime started the full scale offensive war, they deeply carried out a law intensified and shadow/proxy war. During this period one of their main targets were the Tamil journalists who became the unfortunate victim of a tactic used to hide the mass human rights violations, which were widely escalated in the northeast part of the island nation and to stop truth being reported out. They constantly shot the messengers of truth. The report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel on accountability in Sri Lanka precisely highlights as follow, “The Government sought to intimidate and silence the media and other critics of the war through a variety of threats and actions, including the use of white vans to abduct and to make people disappear. “ [2]In other contexts of conflicts , situation is such that the international media being allowed to do the coverage such as in Middle-East and North-Africa, despite of indirect threat and intimidation, but in Sri Lanka, no any single independent journalists were allowed. Though the second year remembrance of the brutally ended war approaches, restrictions on the independent journalists to visit to the Northern region, distinctly to the Mullaitivu district yet continues.

If the situation would have been concerned appropriately by the international community on time, today, the regime would have not been able to threat against rule of law, good governance and democracy in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is in a bizarre era, which not only failed to bring the perpetrators to justice, but also describes journalists as “terrorist”. At the same time, they are closely working with former senior LTTE members, whom were earlier interpreted as “ruthless terrorist” by the same regime.

In addition, no one holds a clear picture as to what happened for the journalists, who couragesly remained in the war zone during the last stage of the war and sacrificed their lives to tell the truth to the world. Since April 2009, there are no extensive details reported about those journalists. So far, details of the missing or murdered journalist are being collected; however, these details are not the full list of missing or murdered journalists, which are follows,

V.Susiparan – Journalist / killed on 25-04-2009
K.Suvendiran – Photo journalist- missing since 25-04-2009
T.Thavapaalan – News Editor – missing since 19-05-2009
Christhper Payas – Cartoonist (date of death or missing could not found)
H.Vijayakumar – Journalist (date of death or missing could not found)
B.Sivakumaran – Journalist (date of death or missing could not found)

Abovementioned details are just a tiny piece of the entire list. Another set of the journalists left Mullivaikal just before last phase of the bloody war began. Rest of the war zone journalists’ fate is unknown until now.

In parallel, threats and intimidation against media continued outside of the war zone as well. Managing director of the ‘Namathu Eelanaadu’ Tamil language news paper was shot dead in a high security zone area and the office was forced to cease all of the activities. Prageeth Eknaligoda, a journalist, cartoonist and political analyst disappeared in Colombo two days before the presidential election. (24 January 2010.) Few journalists were assaulted brutally, including Keith Noyar, deputy editor of the Nation and Poddala Jayantha, the secretary of Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association and a campaigner for press freedom.

At-least three journalists were abducted and released after a warning, including former Sooriyan FM news editor N.Guruparan and writer and journalist T.Thirukumaran. V. Jasikaran, owner of the E-Kwality printing press, writer and correspondent for the news website Outreach Sri Lanka, was arrested with his wife by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID). Jasikaran was subject to torture while in custody. Just one day followed by the arrest of Jasikaran , a senior ‘Tamil’ journalist, J.S.Tissanayakam was arrested and convicted for 20 years hard labour by the Colombo High Court, who was the first winner of The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. After twenty-two months, due to international pressure, he was released. In this line on the media suppression, the TID later on interrogated a Tamil media person B.Vasanthan. All of them have been now forced to leave the country and live in exile.

Staff members of both ‘The Sunday Leader’ and ‘Uthayan’, news papers were attacked several times. After the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Sunday Leader journalists continued with their writing. In at-least one occasion they received death threat as follow “We will slice you up if you do not stop your writing”. Three of the Uthayan staffs were killed on the occasion of the International Press Freedom Day 2005.

BBC World Service suspended its FM programming to the Sri Lankan national broadcaster SLBC in 2009 February due to “deliberate interference” of its broadcasts by the Sri Lankan network.[3] The office of a radio channel known as, Vetri FM was burnt down. MTV network’s ‘Sirasa’ TV and MTV were attacked in the name of “patriotism”. The Thinakural, a Tamil language news paper’s offices in Jaffna and Colombo were raided more than two times by the Sri Lanka Armed Forces. Media in Jaffna still under severe monitoring and continue to receive indirect threat by the government sponsored paramilitaries and military intelligence officers. A few numbers of websites, including Tamilnet and Lankanewsweb were blocked by the government.

According to ‘Reporters Without Borders’s Washington director, since January 1st 2009, at least eight foreign reporters or contributors to international media organizations have been forced to leave the country after receiving threats from government authorities or their supporters. The brother of the president, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, threatened reprisals against the BBC and al Jazeera, after both news outlets filed reports on the country.

Harassment and arson attacks are continuing on the staff members of the Lankaenews and the office premises. After the Sri Lanka’n court ordered to suspend Lankaenews in Sri Lanka, the ‘Committee to Protect Journalists’ has called on the United Nations and diplomatic to intervene and investigate the apparent targeting of the website. They further said, “this suspension is the Sri Lankan authorities’ latest effort to silence an independent news outlet.”[4] Due to mounted pressures, on 12 March, the court released the Lankaenews journalist and lifted the suspension as well.

Beside of these, murders held one decade ago like the case of Mylvaganam Nimalrajan, who worked for several media, including BBC’s Tamil and Sinhala language service are still pending for justice. Though only a limited memorial events and mourning’s continue, such events too are held under restricted freedom. It is unfortunate and tragic, that aforementioned most of the threats, intimidation, harassment, arson attacks, abductions and murders took in government controlled areas. Even, some of them were in the areas which were designated as ‘high security zone area’ by the government. Nearly fifty journalists are currently living in exile.

A senior ‘Sinahala’ journalist wrote to me as a suggestion for a conducive atmosphere to the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka; Most of the Sinhala and English media carry the hegemonic views of the Sinhala dominants. There is no check and balances on democratic values as ‘Temple tree’ control the media. Therefore, in certain situation, most Sinhala and English private media are also functioning like the state media running propaganda. “My fundamental position is there can be no freedom of expression unless there are organized trade unions within media corporations and the public ownership of state media”.

At-least now, the Rajapakse regime should realize that the democratic nations are deeply observing the situation in Sri Lanka. According to the 2010 press freedom index of the ‘Reporters Without Borders’, Sri Lanka was ranked 158 out of 178.[5] Also, the report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel on accountability in Sri Lanka mentioned that “restrictions on the media, which are contrary to democratic governance and limit basic citizen rights” is other obstacles to accountability on Sri Lanka. [6]

The Rajapakse regiment should bring an end to the high level impunity, which is being freely enjoyed by their “proxies” without any further delay. No one can give me back my colleagues’ lives and smiles, but in any case, responsible actors should ensure the safety of the remaining journalists and press freedom. This would lead at-least to satisfy the journalists, who sacrificed their lives for the better future of the people and view the process of Sri Lanka entering into the real democratization process and their souls may rest in peace.

If the president seriously considers transforming Sri Lanka as a miracle of Asia, he should start democratization process, before it is too late. Freedom of expression is a major pillar of democracy. Therefore, the president should take concrete measures to protect the press freedom in the island nation. If not, Sri Lanka will create an image itself as a tragedy of Asia. Now, the choice, decision and responsibility are in the hands of the President of Sri Lanka.. The question is what he is going to do?

Recorded (April 2004-March 2009) list of killings of journalists and media workers can be accessed online here.


[1] http://www.jdslanka.org/2009/08/sri-lanka-thirty-four-journalists-media.html

[2] http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Sri_Lanka/POE_Report_Full.pdf (pg.II)

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2009/02_february/09/sri_lanka.shtml

[4] http://www.cpj.org/2011/04/sri-lankan-authorities-ban-lanka-enews.php

[5] http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2010,1034.html

[6] http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Sri_Lanka/POE_Report_Full.pdf Pg.IV

© Groundviews

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Accountability and justice in Sri Lanka: a new chapter at last?

A cartoon by Carlos Latuff

By Lutz Oette | Open Democracy

Implementing the recommendations of the recently published Panel of Experts’ report on Sri Lanka, where credible allegations of international crimes are met with complete impunity, constitutes a major challenge for the United Nations.

The Report of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka relating to the final stages of the war in 2008/2009 was finally published on 25 April 2011. It is the first time that the country has received the attention at UN level that its record of conflict and violations merits.

Unsurprisingly, the Report reads as a major indictment of both parties to the conflict that ended with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in May 2009: “…the Panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed [by both parties], some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace.” The Panel went further and identified patterns of discrimination, impunity, repressive legislation and the steady erosion of the rule of law as major factors that have facilitated violations over the years. It roundly dismissed the measures taken by the Government of Sri Lanka following the war that focused almost exclusively on the LTTE’s role.

The UN: Time to abandon its bystander role

The Report would have missed an important dimension had it not pointed out the UN’s failure to provide protection of civilians during the war. If anything, the expert’s analysis of the international role is too narrow. Sri Lanka is one of the countries where most international actors have been bystanders for years. This was not for want of knowledge. Yet, despite tens of thousands of deaths and countless well-documented violations, the UN Security Council or others did not take effective measures to address root causes. The UN Security Council only acted in May 2009 on the conflict in Sri Lanka, without, however, adopting any resolution.

The role played by regional actors in Asia, support for its ‘fight against terrorism’ and a lack of appetite to get involved must have convinced Sri Lanka that it could use ‘all means necessary’ to finish the war against the LTTE without facing adverse consequences. As the Panel found, this included widespread shelling of civilians and numerous other violations, such as extrajudicial killings and torture. (The LTTE was held responsible for a series of violations, including killing civilians and forced recruitment of children)

Coming 15 years after the Rwanda genocide and four years after it endorsed the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ populations from international crimes, the UN’s ineffective responses in Sri Lanka raised anew the question whether the UN and other international actors are able to move beyond rhetoric when dealing with such crimes. This failure was compounded, adding insult to injury, by the UN Human Rights Council’s 2009 special session. Acting as the main UN human rights body, it effectively endorsed the sanitised version of the war put forward by the Government of Sri Lanka, which simply blamed the LTTE and offered basic humanitarian assistance and reconstruction for the future.

The Report provides an opportunity for the UN system to play a leading role in seeking accountability for international crimes committed during the war, offering a means to partly make good its earlier failures. The experts recommend as much when requesting the UN Secretary-General to “immediately proceed to establish an independent international mechanism …,” which also has the power to “conduct investigations independently into the alleged violations.” The Secretary- General responded saying that “[i]n regard to the recommendation that he establish an international investigation mechanism, the Secretary-General is advised that this will require host country consent or a decision from Member States through an appropriate intergovernmental forum.”

However, the Panel’s recommendations suggest that the UN Secretary-General has the power to establish commissions of inquiry (under its UN Charter mandate). He has already established such commissions to investigate violations in Guinea (2009) and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan (2010). While both Governments consented to these inquiries, there is no reason why an inquiry cannot go ahead without such agreement and be conducted outside the country if need be.

The UN Secretary-General’s position may come to haunt the UN as it raises questions about its ability to respond to violations and promote accountability. The Government of Sri Lanka has not shown any willingness to take measures, as highlighted in the Panel’s Report. The UN Human Rights Council may not be willing to revisit the matter although this would be an opportunity to erase the stain on its reputation caused by the 2009 session. The UN Security Council, for its part, is also unlikely to act. The position of some of its members on Sri Lanka, its reluctance to endorse commissions of inquiry (other than against weak or isolated states) and its focus on events elsewhere would suggest little appetite to act on the Panel’s recommendations any time soon.

The looming inaction following the Report threatens to turn into a stalemate, which would reinforce views about the selectiveness of international responses to international crimes. The consequences and messages inherent in such outcome for the country are painful to fathom. The victims of violations would be denied justice, yet again. The UN’s wait-and-see response may be seen as indirect vindication of the Government’s position. Meanwhile, human rights defenders, journalists and others may not be able to raise domestic awareness given the lack of political space. This is a recipe for cycles of violations to continue, ignoring the causes identified in the expert’s Report.

Competing notions of accountability and justice

Failure to act would constitute a missed opportunity to respond to skeptics who point out the growing gulf between what they may portray as aspirational talk about accountability and contrasting realities on the ground. This would be a pity. The Report is an excellent example of work by a group of experts who have cared to listen, taking a context-sensitive approach to do justice to a complex post-conflict situation.

The Report provides an opportunity to tackle two worrying developments in the field of post-conflict justice. States find it increasingly difficult to ignore or even refuse outright to acknowledge international standards, which require them to investigate violations and provide reparation for violations. Instead, states are all too eager to embrace a notion of reconciliation that excludes accountability. These developments are basically modelled on South Africa’s responses to Apartheid, which are frequently taken out of their context and stripped of their victim-centred, truth-seeking approach. In this perverted top-down version of “transitional justice” by those still in power, reconciliation effectively means blaming former enemies or performing officially endorsed rituals. Reparation becomes a repackaging exercise of measures that authorities would have had to take in any case, such as development and reconstruction.

The Report did not mince its words to dismiss the Government of Sri Lanka’s approach to a ‘state-sponsored’ transition, which by its very nature appears a contradiction in terms. The Panel criticised Sri Lanka’s ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’, stating that “the suggestion that there is a choice between ‘restorative’ and ‘retributive’ justice is based upon a false dichotomy” and that it “… is simply not accurate [to equate criminal justice with retributive justice].”

In addition, “[t]he Sri Lankan Government should use reparations as a demonstration of genuine acknowledgement of violations and as redress for victims, not as a cover-up for accountability.” And, finally, “[u]nless the Government of Sri Lanka takes significant steps to open greater political spaces, allow for free debate and permit independent efforts to document the truth of what happened during the final stages of the war, not even the best-conceived transitional justice approach will be able to make an effective contribution to accountability and respect for the rights of victims.”

The Panel’s recommendations provide a good starting point if not blueprint for what should be done to free Sri Lanka from its cycle of violence – it is very clear that a peace at the expense of accountability, coupled with what the Report identifies as “triumphalism…on-going exclusionary politics… [and] the continuation of wartime measures” is the very opposite of what is needed.

One of the first casualties of the war was the truth. Journalist were not allowed to enter the war zone and Sri Lankan journalists were targeted for speaking out – the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga in January 2009 who had predicted his own assassination a few days earlier, was the most poignant illustration of the nature of this assault. Truth about violations is not an abstract notion in Sri Lanka. Rather, it is a suppressed memory of harm done and pain and suffering caused.

Acknowledgment and truth, including a frank discussion of the root causes of conflict and violations, are imperative not only for the victims of the final stages of the conflict: it is also vital for many other victims of violations committed over the last decades and for Sri Lankan society as a whole, if there is any hope of overcoming deeply entrenched collective trauma. Indeed, the history of shared suffering may, if acknowledged and acted upon, be a unifying force that generates the impetus for doing things differently.

© Open Democracy

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Foreigners barred from travelling North

By Janith Aranze | The Sunday Leader

As we approached the Omanthai checkpoint I knew that this was the last check we would be put through. The last stage of a mammoth eight hour journey from Colombo which began at 9 pm the previous night.

The early morning sun was relentless; however the thought of finally arriving in Jaffna was enough to make it bearable. As the bus stopped at the checkpoint and the army officer boarded to check ID cards, perhaps naively, it had never occurred to me that holding a British passport would signal the end of my journey. After all, the war was over, Sri Lanka had been ‘liberated,’ when going on trips to Kandy, Trincomalee and Sigiriya my British passport had never caused a problem, so why should it now?

Ominously the female officer told me to get down from the bus and wait while she went to discuss with her peers what do with my passport, which was beginning to be looked at with some disdain by other army personnel at the checkpoint. Again naively, I presumed they would simply ask me the reasons and objectives for my journey and grant me permission to continue on. However I was mistaken, after a lot of phone calls and gesticulating from army personnel at the checkpoint, I was informed that foreign passport holders cannot go beyond the Omanthai checkpoint without Ministry of Defence clearance.

A number of questions were buzzing around my head but the over-riding ones were why shouldn’t a foreigner be allowed to go to Jaffna? What’s the need for MOD clearance? I clearly wasn’t a threat so what’s the problem? These were all questions I had plenty of time to ponder whilst on the eight hour long bus ride back from Vavuniya to Colombo.

Since the civil war ended in 2009, the government has made it as difficult as possible for tourists and foreign media to go up North and visit the conflict areas. Those hoping to go up to Jaffna and other parts of the North will find that if they are in possession of a foreign passport, it will be a decidedly arduous process for them to advance any further than Vavuniya. Since the war is said to be finished now, what does the government have to hide from the rest of the world?
Speaking to a journalist who has gone through the process and gained access to areas such as Mannar and Kilinochchi, he said that it is indeed a painstaking task. “It did take a long time, a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls and at the end a lot of unnecessary meetings,” Ben Doherty of the Sydney Morning Herald, told The Sunday Leader. Doherty explained that the whole process took him several weeks to finalise, and when he eventually got to Mannar and Kilinochchi, he was monitored very closely. “I had to write a letter pre-warning them of what I wanted to do, who I was and where I was from. The whole thing took about six weeks to process. When I eventually travelled up there, I was always accompanied by a high ranking officer. I was looking at de-mining, but I wasn’t stopped from talking to anyone,” he explained. “If you’re looking to go up there, you’re going to have to bring them a pretty specific pitch and one that isn’t going to ring any alarm bells for them. Then it’s a case of finding the right person in the Ministry to speak to, and keep on the case. Like any bureaucracy, it’s all process, you’ve got to keep on it and keep pushing.”

The Sunday Leader also spoke to a Spanish tourist who had also tried to go up North by car and he said it was near ‘impossible.’ “We went by car, hoping to go up to Jaffna, but they said we couldn’t enter as we had foreign passports, I’ve heard it’s different by plane, so we might try that avenue,” the tourist said, speaking to The Sunday Leader on grounds of anonymity. However when The Sunday Leader contacted the Sri Lanka Air Force, they too stated that passengers wishing to travel by plane, who hold a foreign passport need MOD clearance first. “You need MOD clearance first, you have to go to their offices, fill in a form and wait for them to process it,” Sudeera Kulatunge of the SLAF told The Sunday Leader. When asked why foreigners need to do this he replied, “These are the rules in this country, foreigners must do this.”

When The Sunday Leader tried to speak to Defence Spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella on the matter, he abruptly claimed that “anyone can go to Jaffna” before hanging up the phone. Rambukwella clearly has not read his own rules, but when speaking to Military Spokesman, Major General Medawala, he said, “Go and look on the website, there it stipulates what the procedure is for foreign passport holders.” When asked what the reason is for foreign passport holders to be put through this process, he simply replied, “Everything is stipulated on the website.” Indeed on the MOD website it outlines what those who wish to travel by plane must do. “Civilians who wish to use SLAF aircraft are to write/fax a detailed description of the journey with the identity card numbers of the passengers who wish to travel, to the Secretary of Defence prior to seven days of the intended date of travel,” the website says. However it fails to address the issue of those travelling by car and more importantly the reasons why foreigners are put through this process.

It seems even the Ministry of Defence cannot give a reason as to why foreigners are put through such an arbitrary process to go up North. Perhaps one day Sri Lanka will be a country where people can travel freely from city to city, without having to go through army checkpoints or gain MOD clearance. For now though, this day seems like a long way off.

© The Sunday Leader

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sri Lanka: Relatives remember war victims


Christian and Hindu Tamil people have held a day of remembrance for those killed during the civil war and to mark the end of three decades of ethnic strife in Sri Lanka.

Relatives of those who died are went missing attended special Masses and prayer services in churches including St Mary’s Cathedral in Jaffna, St Anthony’s Church in Vavuniya and St Theresa’s Church in Kilinochchi. These three towns were hit hard by the country’s 26-year civil war which according to the UN killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people.

The war officially ended on May 19 with the defeat by the Sri Lankan army of the Tamil Tigers who were fighting for a separate homeland in the north and east of the country.

“The end of war brings relief. But it is unbearable that we have lost a generation,” said Selvam Adaikalanathan, a Catholic parliamentarian from Vanni district.

Also to mark the end of the war, Bishop Thomas Savundaranayagam of Jaffna ordained five priests at the cathedral on May 18.

The bishop at that Mass remembered priests, nuns and other civilians killed during the war and also the number of families whose members were killed or maimed.

“The most disturbing thing is people see no graves here to observe religious rites,” said an elderly priest at the church of our Lady of Refuge in Jaffna, a former Tamil Tiger stronghold.

Although the end to the fighting is welcome, Tamil people in the area still suffer great trauma, he added.

© UCA News

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