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Newspaper editor questioned by police, pressured to reveal sources, over articles on corporate scandal

(FMM/IFEX) - The following is a 15 May 2007 FMM press release:

CID questions leading Editor and investigative journalist

The FMM is perturbed to learn that the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) of the Sri Lanka Police questioned the Editor of The Morning Leader, Sonali Samarasinghe, for over four hours today based on a complaint ostensibly under Sri Lankan Monetary Law made by the Central Bank in relation to a series of investigative articles published in the Sunday Leader and Irudina newspapers last year. The articles she was rigorously questioned on related to the operations of numismatics outfit GoldQuest, the directive of the Central Bank governors to stop the investigation into its activities in Sri Lanka, and the publication of the document issuing the directive.

GoldQuest stands accused of operating a form of highly suspect pyramid-scheme in some of the world's poorest countries. The company, which was based in Hong Kong, sold "commemorative" gold and silver coins and people were encouraged to earn commission by getting more people to sign up. In early May this year, the Jakarta Post in Indonesia reported that Quest International (QI) group Chief Executive Vijayeswaran Vijayaratnam, Director Joseph Bismark, and two other senior executives, Donna Marie Imson and Tagumpay Kintanar, were arrested Thursday by the Indonesian police.

As reported by Lanka Business Online on 7 May 2007 on its website, though several QI activists were arrested by Sri Lankan police, the Sri Lankan Central Bank dissolved its special investigation unit amidst much controversy in 2006. It is also reported that QI has invested significantly in the Sri Lankan banking sector.

The CID wanted to know the manner in which Sonali Samarasinghe conducted her investigation, the sources of her information, the officials she spoke to and the details obtained with regard to the GoldQuest investigation. The CID also questioned Ms. Samarasinghe on contacting the then-Solicitor General to verify information on the status of the GoldQuest investigation. The CID informed Ms. Samarasinghe that if she did not disclose this information, they would inform the Magistrate Court and obtain the necessary directives.

Ms. Samarasinghe declined to reveal the sources of the information.

Needless to say, the FMM is seriously concerned that the CID, through its actions, is not just encroaching upon the domain of media freedom, but is seriously eroding this domain. This is not the first occasion in which the Police have taken to questioning journalists for pursuing stories that are perceived by those in power to be "off limits" to media acting in the public interest. This is also not the first occasion in which journalists have been intimidated by the Police with requests to reveal their sources. Ms. Samarasinghe's right to publish information as she sees fit in her capacity as a professional journalist is no exception to the cardinal rule of the freedom of expression enjoyed by all citizens.

The FMM would have liked to see the CID and Police extend their fullest support to a public investigation into the dealings of GoldQuest in Sri Lanka; perversely, no such support is forthcoming.

This incident is indicative of the challenges faced by professional media in Sri Lanka today. This is clearly another incident wherein State authorities, despite a declared commitment to media freedom, in reality have a callous disregard for it, and are quashing investigative reportage and independent journalism.

The FMM requests those in charge of the decision to question Ms. Samarasinghe to make the reasons public. Recognising the inviolable right of journalists to investigate misdemeanours of public and private institutions and individuals who have embezzled public money, we find it deplorable that the Police have acted in a manner that will have a chilling effect on media in Sri Lanka. We urge the Police and CID to desist, and remind them that working collaboratively helps strengthen democracy, while antagonizing and threatening journalists has the opposite effect.

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