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GOVERNMENT ABDUCTS TOP TAMIL JOURNALIST

At a time when Sri Lankan journalists have come under increased attack, the editor of the only Tamil daily functioning from the Jaffna peninsula was abducted on 26 February while attending a funeral in Colombo, report local Sri Lankan journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and other IFEX members.

Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, the editor of the Tamil dailies "Uthayan" in Jaffna and "Sudaroli" in Colombo, was attending a funeral of a close relative when three uniformed police officers and three men in plain clothes bundled him away in a white van, witnesses told IFEX members. No warrant was presented.

A Colombo police spokesman, Ranjith Gunasekera, initially told the media that Vithyatharan had been abducted by an unidentified group. He later confirmed that the Colombo Crimes Division had arrested Vithyatharan under Sri Lanka's emergency regulations, which are increasingly being used against government critics.

Media Minister Laxman Yapa told RSF that Vithyatharan was being "treated well" by the police, but family members told Human Rights Watch that he was severely beaten in custody.

According to the Defence Ministry, Vithyatharan is being held in connection with a 20 February attack on Colombo by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which is fighting a secessionist war in the north and east of the country. The attack killed three people and injured 43, say news reports.

"The nature of his arrest and the allegations that he was somehow involved in an aerial attack on Colombo point to more government repression of critical reporting. We call for his immediate release and are concerned that, like other arrested journalists, he will be held for a lengthy period. This is a tactic we have seen before in Sri Lanka," said CPJ.

Both of Vithyatharan's papers have been critical of the government's all-out military offensive to end the war with the Tamil Tigers. And staff members seem to have paid for it - they have repeatedly been the targets of violence. Six of the group's employees have been killed since 2005 and its offices in both Jaffna and Colombo have been attacked several times, report RSF and Human Rights Watch.

Senior members of the Uthayan press group have meanwhile received phone calls threatening them with the same fate if they do not leave the country.

Vithyatharan's arbitrary arrest and alleged mistreatment is just the latest in a series of attacks against journalists critical of the government, say the IFEX members. "As the war in the north appears to be winding down, the government's repression of the media has been increasing," said Human Rights Watch. "Sri Lanka's reputation as an open and vibrant democracy is increasingly at risk."

Lasantha Wickrematunge, the chief editor of the popular Sri Lankan weekly "Sunday Leader" and a contributor to "Time" magazine, was assassinated on 9 January while driving to work. Wickrematunge's last editorial eerily foreshowed his own death and attributed the responsibility for his killing squarely on the Sri Lankan government.

Tamil journalists are often targets. The case of another Tamil journalist, newspaper columnist J.S. Tissainayagam, who has been jailed on state security charges since March 2008, has been the focus of international campaigning.

Sri Lanka has long been considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. CPJ counts 10 journalists killed by premeditated murder since 1999, with no prosecutions or convictions. CPJ says the killings and attacks - and the impunity for those who carry out such crimes - have grown worse under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has been in power since 2005.

Visit these links:
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/ac9ah2
- CPJ report on Sri Lanka, "Failure to investigate": http://tinyurl.com/df7b59
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/d4fmcw
- IFJ: http://tinyurl.com/dbyh5j
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=30417
- IFEX Sri Lanka page: http://tinyurl.com/268xay
(Photo of Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, courtesy of RSF)

(4 March 2009)

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