Sri Lanka: Defense ministry brands media as “internal enemy” in war against Tamil Tigers

Also see: "Sri Lanka's War Turns on Civilians"

7 June 2008

Reporters Without Borders condemns a defence ministry campaign against independent news media, especially journalists who cover military affairs. The ministry’s website is carrying virulent attacks on journalists critical of the government, accusing them of being in cahoots with the “terrorist enemy,” the Tamil Tiger rebels.

“While the civil war continues to claim innocent victims in both communities, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is lambasting journalists who do not toe the line of his propaganda,” the press freedom organisation said. “He is directly threatening the safety of journalists by accusing them of agreeing with the enemy. The government has turned Manicheism into a state doctrine in which those not with the army are deemed to be with the Tamil Tigers.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “We call on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to restore trust and serenity to the government’s relations with the press.”

Two long articles - headlined “Stop media treachery against armed forces members!” and "Deriding the war heroes for a living - the ugly face of defence analysts in Sri Lanka” - were recently posed on the ministry’s website, attacking news media that dare to contradict official press releases about the fighting in the north of the country.

By blaming journalists for the military’s failure to “eradicate the LTTE terrorists,” the articles directly expose them to the possibility of reprisals. “Media freedom in this country has been encroached upon by few sociopaths that can be found in almost all anti-Sri Lankan outfits,” the website says.

Many local news media, including Sirasa TV, the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Times, and the Free Media Movement (FMM), a local NGO that defends press freedom are explicitly accused of sowing discord within the armed forces in their articles and statements. “Whoever lures disgruntled members of the armed forces to act against the good order and the military discipline of the service is committing treachery against the nation,” the site says.

The defence ministry also accuses the press of putting out false information although the army itself has often tried to minimise its losses, for example, after one of the most violent clashes in recent years in the Jaffna peninsula last April.

Pressure on the independent media is mounting amid repeated incursions by the security forces into LTTE-controlled areas and deadly bombings in the Colombo region that are blamed on the Tamil Tigers.

Keith Noyahr, assistant editor and defence correspondent of the English-language weekly The Nation, was kidnapped and beaten on 22 May in an attack apparently linked to his reporting on the government’s counter-insurgency campaign. TV reporter Paranirupasingam Devakumar and a friend were murdered six days later in an area of the Jaffna peninsula that is under military control. No suspect has been arrested.

Iqbal Athas, a reporter who specialises in military affairs, stopped writing articles for the Sunday Times several weeks ago after being the target of a campaign of intimidation. According to the Free Media Movement, Sirimevan Kasthuriarachchi, a journalist who does defence reporting for the newspaper Divaina, was threatened with reprisals by thugs who forced their way into his home on 29 May.

Frederica Jansz, the publisher of the monthly Montage and a contributor to The Nation, was followed by suspicious-looking vehicles in Colombo a week ago and the body of a bird was found outside her home in what might have been another threatening message.

Press freedom activists have also been the target of intimidation. On 27 May, soldiers went to the Colombo headquarters of the Sri Lanka Press Institute, an organisation that is respected for its defence of media freedom, and asked for the names of its employees.

The defence minister was added to the Reporters Without Borders list of “Predators of Press Freedom” on 3 May.

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