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Journalist harassed, assaulted by local officials while covering bus tragedy

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

Journalist assaulted by a politician

Journalist U.S.A. Bandara was threatened and assaulted by a ruling party politician while covering the aftermath of an attack on a civilian bus, which took place around 7:00 a.m. (local time) on 16 January 2008 in Okkampitiya, Monaragala.

At least 27 passengers were killed and more than 50 persons were injured as the result of the attack. Bandara, a provincial correspondent for the popular Sinhala language television channel SIRASA, was covering the tragedy when politician Sarath Welihena and village officer Lalith Rajapaksha verbally abused him and said that he should stop covering the event.

Welihena then struck the journalist, and Rajapaksha shouted at him, claiming his authority as the government agent for the area and announcing that no one could film in the area without his permission. Both tried to incite grief-stricken locals against the journalists, saying that the media outlet for which they work is an "anti government" channel.

FMM condemns the behavior of both officials as a violation of the right of journalists to gather information. Politicians have a duty to safeguard the fundamental rights of people, not to assault them. As a public servant, a village officer is duty-bound to provide information journalists. It is clear that both officials wanted to prevent media from investigating the tragic incident.

People of the area had reported to police that they had seen unrecognised armed persons in the vicinity a few days before the attack.

Bandara filed a complaint at the Buttala police station on 18 January. Two other SIRASA staffers who were there to cover the situation also filed a complaint on 19 January. FMM calls upon the government and police to apprehend the suspects involved in this incident and to produce them in a court of law without further delay.

FMM is compelled to note that this is yet another attack on media to add to the sordid record, further illuminating the inability of the Sri Lankan police and other relevant authorities to check the killings, abductions, assaults, intimidation and threats against journalists.

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