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The printing press of three opposition newspapers in a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka was burned down last week, report the Free Media Movement (FMM) and international press freedom groups.

Fifteen masked men ordered the staff to kneel and hand over their cell phones before starting the blaze early on 21 November, as one of the three papers went to press, says FMM.

The printing press of Leader Publications, which publishes the English-language "Morning Leader" and "Sunday Leader", and the Sinhala-language weekly "Irudina", was completely destroyed by the fire. According to the International Press Institute (IPI), the damage is estimated at US$2 million and will put the press out of commission for several months. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says the papers are trying to find a private printing press so they can continue to publish.

The printing house is located in a government security zone, which illustrates that "press freedom enemies have accomplices within the security forces," says Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF).

The Leader papers are known for their critical views towards the Sri Lankan authorities. According to CPJ, the editor of the "Sunday Leader", Lasantha Wickrematunga, told journalists he believed the government was behind the attack.

The printing press was previously set on fire in October 2005 in the run-up to the presidential election, but employees prevented it from getting seriously damaged. Editors of their newspapers have suffered harassment and threats since, says FMM.

FMM holds the government responsible for failing to protect the printing house. "The culture of impunity prevailing in this country has prevented any meaningful inquiry into acts of violence against media and journalists that have taken place under this government," says FMM.

Meanwhile, FMM and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) believe more media workers have been abducted in military-controlled Jaffna, in Sri Lanka's far north. Anthonypillai Sherin Sithranjan, a newspaper deliveryman for the Tamil daily "Yal Thinakkural", was reported missing on 5 November. Vadivel Nimalarajah, a proofreader for the Tamil daily "Uthayan", has been missing since 17 November.

IFJ says employees of "Uthayan" have been continually targeted - of an original staff of 20, only four still work for the paper. Media workers in the isolated region are often caught in the crossfire between government forces, the paramilitaries and the Tamil Tigers.

IPI voted unanimously on 17 November to place Sri Lanka back on its Watch List, a list of countries where press freedom has rapidly deteriorated.

Visit these links:
- FMM:
- CPJ:
- IFJ:
- IFJ on Jaffna:
- IPI:
- IPI Watch List:
- RSF:
- RSF on Nimalarajah:
- International Press Freedom Mission report on June 2007 mission:
- 21 November issue of "Morning Leader" online:
(27 November 2007)

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