Sri Lanka: Harassment of Journalists Continues

by Laura VanVliet    /  December 2, 2011  / No comments

Sri Lankan Newspaper Editor Frederica Jansz Photo: Colombo Telegraph

On October 27, Frederica Jansz, editor of The Sunday Leader, an independent English-language newspaper in Sri Lanka, received a four-page, handwritten death threat regarding an article she published in 2009.

In the 2009 article, General Sarath Fonseka, who was running for president at the time, alleged that Defense Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, ordered the execution of surrendered Tamil Tiger rebels.

Fonseka renounced his claims in 2010, but Jansz refused to retract her words, opting instead to publish a more thorough account of the interview with Fonseka and the chain of events that followed.

As a result Fonseka was sentenced to three years in prison during the “White Flag” trial on November 18, and has since lost his position as army commander. The threatening note Jansz received referred to Fonseka as a leader who “suffered during the war” and called Jansz a “traitor” and a “bloody whore.” It also said that “whichever way the [White Flag case's] judgement, [Jansz] will not be spared.” Jansz has since left the country.

Many journalists in Sri Lanka contend that since the end of the 25 year civil war in 2009, their situation has actually worsened. Print and online publications like The Sunday Leader are threatened or censored regularly, and by 2010 at least half a dozen writers fled the country. Parents have discouraged their children from careers in journalism and editors have struggled to motivate their staff after hearing fellow journalists’ horror stories of arrest, death threats, assault, arson, abduction, and murder.

Amnesty International estimates that in the last 5 years 14 media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka.

On January 8, 2009, The Sunday Leader‘s previous chairman Lasantha Wickrematunge—hailed as a Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute for his undaunted reporting—was shot and killed on his way to work. On the same day, the newspaper Lankadissent closed because its staff chose not to endanger themselves.

Leadership of the newspaper was then succeeded by Wickrematunge’s brother, Lal Wickrematunge. This summer he received a threatening phone call from the Sri Lankan president regarding an article alleging financial corruption in the government. This article was also written by Frederica Jansz.

However, The Sunday Leader is not the only publication to experience such blatant harassment.

Shortly after Wickrematunge’s death, Lanka-e-News political analyst and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda disappeared. He has been missing for over 500 days.

A year after Eknaligoda’s disappearance, on the night of January 30, 2010, Lanka-e-News headquarters was destroyed in a fire. The following morning their website published: “It is well to note that under the President Rajapakse regime the free media had suffered most and sustained losses to persons and property on an unprecedented scale in the media history of Sri Lanka.” Lanka-e-News is not the first media station to be burned. The government, however, claims the arson was an act intended to incite blame against them.

As of publication, the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, and the arson of Lanka-E-News remain unsolved.

Watch an interview with Frederica Jansz from Reporters Without Borders, regarding repeated death threats and the mission of journalism in Sri Lanka:

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