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GOVERNMENT NOT PROTECTING JOURNALISTS

Sri Lanka's journalists reporting on the ongoing war between the government and Tamil rebels have become the latest target of attacks - and the government shows little interest in protecting them, say the Free Media Movement (FMM) and other IFEX members.

A Sri Lankan television journalist was stabbed to death on 28 May in the conflict-ridden north. According to news reports, police say a mob attacked P. Devakumar on his motorbike in Navanthurai village in the Jaffna peninsula. A friend of Devakumar's was also killed in the attack, says FMM. The police told reporters it was too early to comment on possible suspects.

Devakumar was among only a few journalists working in Jaffna, which has been under military control for more than a decade and has been a battle zone between Tamil Tiger rebels and the government. Many journalists living and working in Jaffna have given up their jobs, fearing for their lives, says FMM.

Last month, Keith Noyahr, a senior journalist and deputy editor of the English weekly "The Nation", was abducted and severely beaten. FMM believes he was attacked because of his independent coverage of the ongoing conflict in the north.

Senior Ministry of Defence officials then summoned two senior journalists who had helped organise a protest demanding an inquiry into Noyahr's case, telling them that it is unacceptable for journalists - especially those working for state media - to criticise the armed forces. The government also said that it would be unable to prevent "actions" taken against the journalists should they continue to criticise government policy, says FMM.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Press Institute, an umbrella organisation of media groups including FMM, was unexpectedly visited by armed military personnel last week who inquired about key staff members. The institute said it was concerned that "the timing of the 'visit' comes in the immediate aftermath of the abduction, assault and consequent hospitalisation" of Noyahr.

Until the culprits are found and reprimanded, FMM is "holding the government responsible for Noyahr's abduction and assault, noting that it has done little or nothing to stop the violation of media freedom and attacks against journalists in Sri Lanka."

In a separate case, FMM says unidentified men stormed the residence of Sirimevan Kasthuriarachchi, a senior defence reporter for "Sinhala Divaina" newspaper, on 29 May and warned him against reporting on matters related to defence and the Sri Lankan Army.

And back in March, government forces arrested J.S. Tissainayagam, a prominent columnist with "The Sunday Times" who also edits a Tamil news website, along with several of his website colleagues. He remains in custody. In February, he had written a column headlined, "Child soldiers: What the government report did not report."

IFEX members say Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Nine reporters and media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka since fighting escalated in 2006, says FMM. Three others have been abducted by unidentified men and their whereabouts are still not known. In not one case of attack or threat have the police taken action to bring the offenders to account, says FMM.

Led by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 40 groups have joined forces in an international campaign to "stop the war on journalists" in the conflict-ridden country.

Visit these links:
- FMM alerts: http://freemediasrilanka.wordpress.com
- IFEX Sri Lanka page: http://tinyurl.com/268xay
- IFJ campaign: http://tinyurl.com/6xupkj
(3 June 2008)

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