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Army seizes control of public SLRC television: staff put on "compulsory vacation"

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has called for an explanation from President Mahinda Rajapakse after the army took control of public Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) television on 17 March 2008.

The army and police sealed off all roads leading to the station in the morning, preventing more than 200 staff from getting to work, a BBC correspondent reported, after employees threatened to strike in protest against a series of assaults by men "suspected of acting on behalf of a minister".

"The head of state should immediately order the army to withdraw from the station. This is in no way a good solution for ending escalating violence against SLRC staff since December 2007", the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

"We urge the president to sanction the minister, Mervyn Silva, who is behind the violence which provoked this crisis."

The takeover of the television station caused disruption to most programmes and in the aftermath the information ministry announced "compulsory vacations" for all staff.

The corporation's union representatives said that the authorities had decided to take control of the SLRC, in response to the strike threat. One union representative, Kanchana Marasinghe, said that many journalists feared for their lives and wanted the brutality brought to an end.

At least five staff have been physically assaulted in the past few weeks, some of them suffering serious knife wounds. All of them had protested at the actions of the labor minister, Mervyn Silva, who led a raid on the studios and assaulted the SLRC's news director on 27 December 2007.

The controversial minister's henchmen are suspected of being behind all the attacks on staff, in the latest of which, assistant director of supplies, Arunasiri Hettige, was beaten with iron clubs in Colombo on 14 March.

Representatives of the corporation met the head of state on 17 March to discuss steps needed to protect staff. They called for the resignation of Mervyn Silva and for payment of compensation to the injured journalists. During the meeting, the head of state called on the minister to end the violence.

Elsewhere, the homes in Colombo of two well-known journalists, Sunethra Athugalpura of the newspaper "Lakbima" and Sashi Kumara of Sirasa TV, were burgled and ransacked in mysterious circumstances, on 16 March. Sunethra Athugalpura had recently interviewed Mervyn Silva.

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