By Umar Cheema | The News
If the black Prado is a sign of fear for Pakistani journalists for its frequent use in state-sponsored abduction, the word ‘white van’ is nightmarish for Sri Lankan journalists as they are used by intelligence agencies for abducting journalists and human right activists.
Iqbal Athas, a Sri Lankan editor with 30-year professional experience, narrated in a conference here how the journalists in his country that he termed ‘endangered species’, are hounded, harassed and sometimes eliminated in a culture of impunity. Held at University of California (San Diego), the conference titled ‘Different Worlds, Similar Threats’ was jointly organised by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), Article 19 and Institute of Americas bringing journalists together from different parts of the world.
Although journalists from Russia, Latin America, Balkan and other regions also gave out presentations of the facts, Iqbal’s case has had a close resemblance of what happens in today’s Pakistan. His being a defence writer also adds his personal ordeals that he went through over the time ranging from attacks inside his house to the forced exile.
Like Pakistan, the critics of human rights abuses are branded traitors there, messaging services are scrutinised, journalists are abducted and killed and the entire exercise is carried out with full impunity.
As for white vans syndrome, Iqbal said ‘unknown but unarmed men’ who come in white vans kidnapped more than five journalists since 2006 and a number of other human rights activists. “So much so, the ‘white van syndrome’, because of the strong of white coaches the abductors used, became a fearful word. It forced some journalists to leave Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka’s Military Intelligence is accused of these abductions, he said, and this practice has been going on since 2009.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka have excellent defence relations. Other than Pakistan that gets the major component, China trains Sri Lankan army in addition to providing ammunition and other defence needs of the force recently concluded a fight against the separatist Tamils.
Sri Lanka, declared the most dangerous country for journalists in recent years, has seen over 17 journalists killed and 27 injured since 2005. Iqbal has also suffered a lot and it started from 1998 when armed men stormed into his house, broke into the bedroom placing pitol on his right and left temples as he was watching TV with his seven-year old daughter. As he was marched out of the bedroom, his daughter started crying alerting the people in surrounding thus forcing the attackers to flee.
It turned out later that the assailants belonged to the air force chief as Iqbal had reported the malpractices and corruption in procurements. Iqbal returned to normalcy after some time but had to see a psychologist for next five-years for treating his daughter who could not recover that shocking sight. This was not the end of his trouble as he was forced into exile in 2009 other than the raiding incident at his residence and state-run media campaign dubbing him as a traitor.
His editor colleague Lasantha Wickrematunga was killed in January 2009 and another editor JS Tissainaygam was jailed and convicted on terrorism charges only to be released under international pressure.
Iqbal said recently a United Nations Human Rights Council’s resolution demanded investigation into the Sri Lanka’s alleged abuses of international humanitarian law during the war with Tamil tigers. Those journalists who supported this were dubbed traitors. Government sponsored demonstrators carried out protests near the residences of the ‘traitor’ journalists, shouting abusive slogans, carrying placards calling ‘terrorist acolyte’. Later these ‘protestors’ admitted they work for a local council and that they were ‘persuaded’ to carry placards and demonstrate for the reason they didn’t know.
So much so that the government’s minister for public relations Dr Mervyn Silva made a front-headline through a warning that he would break the limbs of journalists for making statements against the country. The latest assault on freedom of expression has come through an order by Ministry of Defence directing the mobile telephone operators to seek clearance for sending out SMS news on matters relating to ‘national security’.
© The News