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FMM notes disturbing decline in media freedom since 2005, calls on international community to help reverse the trend

(FMM/IFEX) - The following is a 1 July 2008 FMM press release:

Attacks against media in Sri Lanka: Whither democracy?

1 July 2008: The Free Media Movement (FMM) notes with dismay the dramatic and irrepressible decline in media freedom in Sri Lanka since 2005 under the Rajapakse administration. We have for years repeatedly spoken out against the attacks against media and journalists by the LTTE in areas under its control. It is well known that the LTTE does not, and cannot, tolerate diversity of opinion and viciously clamps down on free expression and critical dissent. What is of greater concern today is the increasing attacks against independent journalists with complete impunity in areas under government control.

The facts are indubitable and very disturbing and point to the Government's egregious complicity in violence against free media. Fourteen journalists/media workers have been killed since 2005. Seven have been abducted. More than twenty five have been forced to leave Sri Lanka. Noted journalists and defence correspondents such as Iqbal Athas have stopped writing altogether because of sustained hate speech campaigns openly conducted by the Ministry of Defence. The Government has shut down entire media establishments for spurious reasons. Government ministers repeatedly and openly verbally and physically attack journalists with absolutely no disciplinary action taken against them. Thirteen journalists have been arrested by police. J.S. Tissainayagam, a senior columnist and the news editor of http://www.outreachsl.com, and Jaseharan, printer and manager of the website, and his partner Valarmathi, were arrested by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) and have been in detention since 7 March 2008 without being charged.

There are disturbing reports of torture and psychological abuse of journalists detained by the Police. Ironically, instead of investigating and preventing attacks against journalists, the Police have themselves attempted to abduct journalists. Several journalists live in fear of their lives and have been forced to bunker in safe houses. Tellingly, the Chairman of the state-controlled Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation (SLBC) openly called for the death of a senior journalist in June. Army Commander Major Gen. Sarath Fonseka has repeatedly named and shamed several journalists as traitors and enemies of the State. The Defence Secretary and brother of the President, Gotabaya Rajapakse, named by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) as a media predator in its Annual Report, has repeatedly and viciously threatened senior journalists and editors with complete impunity.

The recent abduction of Keith Noyahr, defence columnist and Associate Editor of "The Nation" newspaper, and the brutal abduction attempt of journalist Namal Perera on 30 June are two significant markers of a regime unable and unwilling to stop violence against journalists. Both were mercilessly beaten and were lucky to escape with their lives. There are no credible investigations into these attacks. Further, the lack of critical voices in the media has created a dangerous context for the few journalists who dare to speak out - a general public fed by the partisan rhetoric and propaganda of the State can no longer appreciate independent voices that interrogate the war. Insincere and essentially useless mechanisms to protect human rights in general, and the rights and security of journalists, set up by the Government, attempt to pull wool over the eyes of the international community on the appalling conditions facing independent journalists on the ground.

The situation is already untenable yet getting worse. The on-going war in the Northern front is an all-consuming exercise that trucks no dissent or critical investigation. Monumental allegations of corruption involving the highest levels of government including defence officials, the deplorable erosion of human rights, the rise of extra-judicial killings, disappearances and abductions and the silencing of journalists through outright terror are disturbing features of Sri Lanka's flailing democracy. Aiding and abetting intolerance, racism and violence is the modus operandi of the Sri Lankan regime and its refusal to sincerely address the incontestable decline of media freedom, freedom of expression and human rights rightfully contributed to the loss of its seat at the UN Human Rights Council this year.

Yet even this loss has not resulted in progress. The FMM flags the growing desperation of independent journalists and other voices of dissent in Sri Lanka. We are under attack and our voices are being permanently silenced. We urgently call upon the international community to help us stop this erosion of democracy and ensure the full restoration of media freedom and freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.

For more alerts and reports on media freedom in Sri Lanka, visit FMM's blog: http://freemediasrilanka.wordpress.com

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