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Employees of Sri Lanka's state-run television station were shut out from work yesterday (17 March) by the police and army after employees threatened to go on strike in protest of a series of attacks on them, according to the Free Media Movement (FMM), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and news reports.

On 17 March, the army and police sealed off all roads leading to the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) station in Colombo, after employees vowed to walk out after at least five staff were physically assaulted, some of them suffering serious knife wounds, by men suspected of acting on behalf of a government minister.

More than 200 employees were turned away by the police when they turned up for work. The takeover of the television station caused disruption to most programmes and in the aftermath the Information Ministry announced "compulsory vacations" for all staff, says RSF.

According to the employees, the attacks started after Labour Minister Mervyn Silva stormed the television station last December with his bodyguards and assaulted a news director for failing to broadcast a public speech made by him.

In a scuffle broadcast live on TV stations across the nation, the staff fought back, trapping Silva and his bodyguards in an office until police brokered their release.

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

SLRC's trade union representatives met President Mahinda Rajapaksa later on Monday to discuss their demands. They called for the resignation of Silva, protection for employees and compensation for the injured. According to news reports, Rajapaksa ordered his security team to protect the employees and quickly complete investigations into the attacks.

Elsewhere in Colombo, the homes 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, report FMM and RSF. Athugalpura had recently interviewed Silva.

The attacks are part of a wave of violence against journalists that has grown following the collapse of a ceasefire between the government and the Tamil rebels in January, say IFEX members. The authorities publicly criticise journalists as "unpatriotic", repeatedly detain and arrest reporters, and call for strict censorship of all conflict reporting.

"It's very clear, the government wants to control the media and journalists," FMM says.

Visit these links:
- FMM:
- RSF:
- Associated Press, via "International Herald Tribune":
- South Asia News, via Monster and Critics:
(18 March 2008)

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