(New York) - The Sri Lankan government should immediately end its post-election harassment of media outlets and ensure protection of journalists from attack, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since the presidential election on January 26, 2010, Sri Lankan authorities have detained and questioned several journalists, blocked news websites, and expelled a foreign journalist. At least one journalist has been assaulted and several have been threatened. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-elected to a second term in the hotly contested election.
"Now that the president has been re-elected, there appears to be a settling of scores with critics of the government," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Just days after the election, some officials seem to be on a campaign to abuse their power."
On January 28, the Criminal Investigation Department arrested Chandana Sirimalwatte, editor of the Iridia Lanka newspaper. According to news reports, he was questioned for two hours and detained for further questioning because of an article published on election day about a senior government official.
Sri Lankan authorities have blocked access to at least five news websites by internet users in Sri Lanka since the day before the election. On January 28 a group of armed men surrounded the offices of one of the blocked websites, Lanka e news. When journalists arrived at work on January 29, they found that the offices had been sealed off. A regular contributor to the website, Prageeth Eknalogoda, has been missing since leaving his office two days before the election.
On January 28, Ravi Abeywickrama, an employee at the state-controlled TV broadcaster Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, was assaulted. Abeywickrama had signed a joint statement along with 60 other state media employees condemning the misuse of state media to promote Rajapaksa's election campaign. At least seven other employees who also signed the letter have been suspended or dismissed.
The Sri Lankan elections commissioner, Dayananda Dissanayake, has criticized the misuse of state media during the election. In his statement announcing the election results, he said he had issued specific guidelines for the state media that were "duly ignored." He also said that the state media had "completely disregarded" a person he had appointed to make certain they followed his guidelines.
The authorities also withdrew the visa granted to Karin Wenger, a reporter with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), telling her to leave the country within 48 hours. The SBC said a government minister had publicly criticized her for asking about irregularities in the election.
Sri Lanka has a long history of media harassment and attacks on journalists. For example, on January 8, 2009, unidentified men killed Lasantha Wickremetunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper who was acclaimed for his investigative reporting. The investigation into his murder has failed to produce any results. On August 31, 2009, a court sentenced another journalist, J.S. Tissainayagam, to 20 years of hard labor for his criticism of the government's military campaign. US President Barack Obama, among others, had strongly criticized the handling of the case. After spending 22 months in prison, before and after his sentencing, he was released on bail on January 11, 2010, but continues to face restrictions on his movements.
Dozens of journalists are living in exile because of the dangerous and sometimes deadly atmosphere for media workers in Sri Lanka.
Parliamentary elections must be held in Sri Lanka by April 22, 2010.
"We fear that this is just the beginning of a campaign to get rid of critical voices before the parliamentary elections," Adams said. "Sri Lanka's friends should tell the government that any crackdown on civil society will harm future relations."