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FMM concerned Foreign Affairs Ministry comments prejudicial in cases against journalists

(FMM/IFEX) - The following is an abridged version of a 1 June 2007 FMM press release:

A sinister campaign of disinformation in Sri Lanka

1 June 2007, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Free Media Movement (FMM) is outraged by the extra-ordinary statements released to the media recently by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on the arrest and detention of journalist Maunasami Parameshwaree and Dushyantha Basnayake, financial director of Standard Newspapers Private Limited (SNPL), the group that publishes "Mawbima" and "The Sunday Standard" newspapers.

In its statements, the MFA alleged that following completion of a criminal investigation of Parameshwaree, the Attorney General found that although there existed a volume of incriminating material against the journalist, the availability of material admissible in a court of law was limited. The MFA also alleged that based on information received by Sri Lankan police, Basnayake was involved in financing terrorist activities in Sri Lanka, leading to his arrest by the police's terrorist investigation division of the on 26 February 2007.

The FMM wishes to stress that, as Parameshwaree's lawyer clearly pointed out at the Chief Magistrate's court, there is no evidence to suggest that she had any connection with, much less that she had helped, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). According to the lawyer, all charges against her were based purely on suspicion. This perception was further strengthened when police statements before the court linked her to a person suspected of being an LTTE suicide bomber. Now that Parameshwaree has been released without charge, it appears the terrorist investigation unit had no real case.

In the Basnayake case, FMM views the government's allegations as part of a continuing campaign of harassment against the "Mawbima" newspaper, which led to its closure earlier this year. In a 27 February statement issued by "Mawbima" editors, it was noted that:

"Following a complaint made by a certain individual a few months ago, Criminal Investigations Division (CID) interviewed Mr. Dushyantha Basnayake. Upon completion of the interview, officers of the CID stated that there were no allegations against Mr. Basnayake and that he wasn't even required to make an official statement. A few days after the incident, President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself phoned Mr. Basnayake and expressed his regrets for the inconvenience caused to him. Under these circumstances, it is obvious that Mr. Basnayake has been arrested in order to harass the 'Mawbima' newspaper."

The FMM is concerned that the MFA statement may prejudice public opinion and impede due process in the Basnayake case, given that police investigations are still on-going. Such statements are a chilling indicator of the erosion of media and fundamental rights in Sri Lanka.

The FMM urgently calls on all democratic forces to protest the MFA statement as part of a government bid to draw attention away from its own egregious human rights record.

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