freedom of expression Transparency

When will threats against journalists be resolved?

Keerthika Mahalingam

The recent attack on two local journalists in Mullaitivu was controversial not only regionally but also locally. Based on this incident, many people started questioning the freedom of the media in Sri Lanka.

Illegal sand smuggling and illegal timber smuggling in the Mullaitivu area has been going on for a long time. Shanmugam Thavaseelan and Ganapathipillai Kumanan, two freelance journalists who went to cover the incident, were attacked.

“We received information that some people were illegally cutting down teak trees and constructing a house with the help of some high-ranked officers of the Murippu Police and the Department of Wildlife Conservation”, stated the two journalists.

The two journalists who were attacked returned home after being hospitalized for three days. They were not only assaulted by the smugglers but also had their recording equipment confiscated.

Politicians, social activists and journalists not only in the provincial and local media, but also on social media, expressed their views and opinions in regard to this incident from various perspectives without any bias. There was also a protest in the Eastern Province on October 16 to protest against the attack. As a consequence, the Mullaitivu Police arrested a group of assailants for assaulting those two journalists.

“One of the attackers was arrested on 12th October, another on 13th October and two others on the 20th. When looking into Mullaitivu residents, the intervention of the police and the army can be seen in the family problems people have. But the failure to arrest the responsible perpetrators in such incidents not only raises suspicions but also creates mistrust about the police”, stated one of the assaulted journalists, Thavaseelan.

The first inquiry, held during a court case on 16th October, was conducted by Mullaitivu district’s court judge, Attorney-general, S. Lenin Kumar. Lawyers appeared shortly afterwards to represent the assaulted journalists. “We stand that the forest resources and ecosystem must be protected together with the rights of the journalists who speak out for the environment”, Attorney-at-Law Sinnarasa Dananjayan stated.

The trial was set to resume on October 20th. Later, at the 3rd and 4th court trials, respectively on October 3rd and 17th, President’s Advocate and Member of Parliament M.A. Sumanthiran came forward to represent the media. Following the release of the five suspects on bail, the next court trial was adjourned to 2nd November, 2021.

Views of the victims

“I have been working as a freelance journalist for five years now and I have faced various difficulties. Apart from the recent attack, I was attacked and threatened by a Kukkulai police officer when I went to report on the establishment of a Ganapathy Kovil temple in the Neeraviyadi area in Mullaitivu last year. However, no action has been taken yet. I would like to make a special mention of it”, said Kumaran, the other journalist who was attacked, commented on the troubles he faced while on duty.

“I have been working as a freelance journalist for six years, and I have faced various challenges, threats, protests and assaults. When I went to cover the excavations and deforestation in the Kokavil area in October, some people were preparing to attack me. A protester had a conflict with a naval officer during a protest which was organized by the relatives of the people who went missing from Mullaitivu town to Vttuval bridge in 2017, and the case was still unresolved.”, stated Thavaseelan.

“Leading journalists not only in the Northern and Eastern Provinces but also in other regions of the country and in the leading media institutions in the Colombo District should be commended for raising their voices for justice in all Sinhala, Tamil and English languages without any discrimination. But even if the true story behind the attack is made public through the Tamil and English media, the correct solution to this problem can only be found if the truth about the incident is made available to the public through the island’s main Sinhala media”, stated Kumaran and Thavaseelan.

Interventions of Activists

Despite the legal implications of the attack, there have been suggestions from various people that violence, threats and pressure against journalists must be curbed and a solution must be found. The Free Media Movement (FMM) has issued a statement condemning the incident and called on the police to arrest the suspects as soon as possible and bring the perpetrators to justice. They have also inquired to pay further attention to those who continue to threaten and attack the ecosystem of Sri Lanka and the journalists as well. The FMM says that it is essential that the law be enforced in regard to the attack on the journalist Indunil Wijenayake who went to report on an illegal sand smuggling operation in the Monaragala area on October 3rd. 

MP Sridharan sent a letter to the President regarding this incident. Following this incident, journalists in the Kilinochchi area sent a letter to the President through local politicians in Kilinochchi, pointing out the need to ensure the safety of journalists. Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella called for an impartial inquiry into the incident. However, it is unfortunate that no action has yet been taken to curb such acts of violence and intimidation against journalists in the future.

“Freelance journalists have been facing various problems for decades in obtaining and publishing information. More than 40 journalists have been killed in the northern and eastern provinces alone, and many more have been subjected to various forms of intimidation and threats. The rest have been abducted. Therefore, the issue of protection of freelance journalists is an issue that has remained unresolved for decades, not just today”, said senior journalist Krishni Ibham. Furthermore, independent journalists are facing various problems, especially when obtaining identity cards (Press Cards) issued by the Government Information Department, and obtaining bank loans as well.

There is no institution responsible for the protection of freelancers. There is no safety equipment, correct payment methods, pension plans, insurance coverage, healthcare provisions or an updated set of rules and regulations issued by their workplaces. Despite all these, it is the primary responsibility of the Ministry of Mass Media and Information and the Ministry of Justice to ensure the safety of life and the equality of the law for journalists who choose this job for their own self-satisfaction despite being aware of all these facts.

Will promises made by the President be fulfilled in the same way?

Following the inauguration of the new President, the Heads of Media Institutions were summoned last year to confirm that no action would be taken during his tenure to freedom, censor or regulate the media in Sri Lanka. But it is clear that there is no satisfactory answer to the question of what action has been taken over the past year to put into practice the promises made by the President.

Sri Lanka is ranked 127th out of 180 countries in terms of media freedom implemented by the “Reporters Without Borders” website last April. Accordingly, it can be understood that media freedom should be further stabilized in Sri Lanka. Media freedom in Sri Lanka has improved somewhat compared to the wartime, but today it is clear that media institutions and journalists are pursuing a policy of isolating themselves. In such a context, it is the responsibility of those who are responsible for creating the background for journalists to express their views freely and independently, free from suspicion and fear. The theme of Media Freedom Day 2020 was “Journalism Without Fear or Favour”. If the relevant parties take the lead in building such a media scope, the protection of many other Mullaitivu journalists such as Kumaran and Thavaseelan, who are on duty in the midst of various challenges and threats, can be easily ensured.

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The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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