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Journalist Upali Tennakoon victim of murder attempt, several others forced to flee country; news website closes for fear of reprisal

(RSF/IFEX) - The editor of the privately-owned weekly "Rivira", Upali Tennakoon, and his wife were attacked and wounded by four men on motorcycles as they drove to work on the morning of 23 January 2009 near Colombo. At the same time it was learned that at least five journalists have fled the country or gone into hiding and a news website had ceased operations because of threats.

"We firmly condemn this latest attack on a newspaper editor, which highlights the severity of the crisis that journalists are currently experiencing in Sri Lanka," Reporters Without Borders said. "The government must conduct an investigation in order to identify those responsible and their motives."

The press freedom organisation added: "It is deplorable that no concrete measures were taken to protect the news media after newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga's murder on 8 January 2009. As a result of the climate of fear, the most independent journalists are fleeing the island, and the most outspoken media, such as the news website Lankadissent ( ), are closing."

Tennakoon's wife Dhammika described the attack after they were taken to Colombo national hospital. "They smashed the windscreen and began to attack us," she said. "I clung hard to them when they began to hit us with sticks and to stab us." The assailants carried out the attack after intercepting Tennakoon's car at Imbulgoda, on the outskirts of the capital.

The hospital director said Tennakoon was treated for lacerations to the hands and forehead and that neither he nor his wife, who also sustained injuries, were in a critical condition.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa immediately ordered an investigation, officials said. Media minister Anura Yapa said: "We totally condemn this type of attack, and we will do everything possible to find the culprits."

After Lasantha Wickrematunga, the editor of the "Sunday Leader", was gunned down as he drove to work on 8 January, five former US ambassadors to Sri Lanka wrote an open letter to President Rajapaksa urging him to protect press freedom.

At least four journalists have recently fled the country after receiving threats. Those known to have left are Upul Joseph Fernando, a political reporter with "Lankadeepa", Rathnapala Gamage, another "Lankadeepa" journalist, Iqbal Athas of the "Sunday Times", and Reuters photographer Anuruddha Lokuhappuarachchi.

Cheavan Daniel of MTV went into hiding after the media minister accused him of implicating the army in an attack on the station when he gave an interview to CNN. At the same time, the president's brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, described Daniel and the Tamil newspapers "Uthayan" and "Sudar Oli" as "terrorists." Rajapaksa also questioned the honesty of MTV's management and suggested the station had itself staged the attack on its studios.

Lankadissent, a news website with a reputation for being outspoken, chose to suspend its operations on 10 January for fear of reprisals. It employed journalists who were left unemployed when pressure from the authorities forced the newspaper "Lakbima" to close.

For further information on the Wickrematunga case, see:

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