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Journalists harassed, deterred from reporting by officials; trend of assaults on provincial reporters "deeply disturbing", says FMM

(FMM/IFEX) - The following is an FMM press release:

Attacks against Provincial Media point to larger malaise in Sri Lanka

14th December 2007, Colombo, Sri Lanka: - It has been reported to the FMM that three provincial correspondents were prevented from reporting an incident related to the abuse of power by government officials. This incident took place at the Divisional Secretariat of Dimbulagala in the Polonnaruwa district on 12 December 2007.

Journalists Nimal Jayarathana of the "Lakbima" daily, J.K Jayakody of the "Divaina" daily and Wijerathna Podibabdara of Sirasa Television were harassed and sent away by certain officials as they attempted to cover the handing over to officials at the Divisional Secretariat of a petition by villagers.

The FMM is disappointed that provincial correspondents are being harassed across the country by police officers, government officials and politicians, thereby violating the right to information of citizens and journalist's right to report. This is the latest of a series of such incidents reported recently, all of which the FMM unequivocally condemns as acts that significantly undermine media freedom in Sri Lanka.

All three journalists have filed complaints at the Polonnaruwa Police Station and have provided the names of the officers who harassed them. The FMM urges the police to investigate this incident and to take legal action against the perpetrators.

The FMM recalls with regret that, on 14 July 2007 journalist Wijerathna Podibanda of Sirasa Television was threatened and assaulted by officials of the Mahaweli Authority in the same area. The police have not made any headway in the inquiry and the officials who assaulted him are still at large.

In the same district, the president of Tamankaduwa's local government authority verbally assaulted journalist Karunarathna Gamge of the "Divaina" newspaper on 27 November. Gamage, the president of the Polonnaruwa District Journalists' Association, was taking photographs related to a story on garbage. Although he filed a complaint to the police, no action has been taken.

The FMM deplores the prevailing culture of impunity that prevents any meaningful and urgent investigation into assaults against and killings of journalists that have taken place during recent years. It is indicative of the larger erosion of media rights and freedoms in Sri Lanka. Although rendered invisible and relatively insignificant by the larger threats to media freedom, these physical and verbal assaults on provincial media are deeply disturbing and point to a pervasive intolerance of critical and diverse opinion in the media.

The FMM urges the government and all other parties to respect freedom of expression, the cornerstone of a meaningful democracy, and by a process of open, effective and urgent investigations, to bring all culprits responsible for threats against journalists to justice. It is only by such actions that the government can convince us, and the international community, of their avowed commitment to media freedom in Sri Lanka.

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