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FMM calls on president to ensure a free media environment

(FMM/IFEX) - The following is a 1 February 2010 letter from FMM and seven other media organisations to the Sri Lankan president:

His Excellency the President
Temple Trees
Colombo 3

Your Excellency,

The Media Situation in the Aftermath of the Presidential Elections

As someone who has repeatedly expressed a commitment to upholding the values of a free media as an essential component of a democratic society, we wish to bring to your attention the grave situation that has arisen with regard to media freedom in the country. We have already pointed out incidents that took place during the Presidential Election campaign, where the media faced suppression and was prevented from expressing diverse and opposing views. We observe that the situation has deteriorated further after the conclusion of the Presidential Elections. The following incidents provide evidence of this trend.

1. The whereabouts of well-known political commentator Prageeth Eknaligoda remain unknown since his disappearance at midnight on the 24th of January 2010. A regular contributor to the Lankaenews website and father of two children, Eknaligoda suffers from a diabetic condition and has undergone open heart bypass surgery for which he requires daily medication. His wife has lodged a complaint with the Police and has been informed that investigations are ongoing. At a media conference on the 25th of January, the Minister of Information, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene, stated that the Government has information regarding his disappearance. Media organizations have called for any information relating to his disappearance to be made public and for his early release, but have not received a favourable response so far.

2. The Lankaenews website was blocked on the eve of the Presidential Elections. After complaining to the Elections Commissioner about it, and following his order to Sri Lanka Telecom not to prevent access to the website, the editor and staff of Lankaenews received threatening phone calls. The continued presence of unknown persons in the vicinity of the Lankaenews office has also been noted and the Welikade Police have been duly informed.

3. On the 28th of January, Programme Producer Ravi Abeywickreme, of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), was assaulted by the Transport Co-ordinator, in the presence of the Chairman and the Director General. Other programme producers, Kanchana Marasinghe, Herbert Kumara Alagiyawanna, Gamini Pushpakumara and Daya Mahinda Gunatilake, were verbally abused. Subsequently, Herbert Kumara Alaguyawanna has been dismissed and the others have been interdicted. They have been informed of this decision by their SLRC Employees Union. They are officers and members of the SLRC Producers' Association and the Free Media Movement.

4. On the 30th of January, Chandana Sirimalwatte, the chief editor of Lanka, a weekly newspaper, was summoned to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to make a statement. Following questioning he was detained by the CID. The newspaper's office was then sealed off, but subsequently reopened following a court order.

5. Among the reports of post-election violence in various parts of the country is the attack on the residence of a provincial reporter from Kurunegala, Gunaratne Liyanarchchi, by an unidentified group on the night of January 28th.

6. On the 1st of February, an unruly crowd attacked a group of media workers from Lake House. Reports indicate that two people have been hospitalized.

7. We would like to remind Your Excellency of the behaviour of the state media during the lead up to the Presidential Election. The Election Commissioner has also expressed his displeasure over the manner in which the state media behaved. Even after the election concluded, the state media have continued to harass certain media institutions and organizations by publicizing false statements and by the use of vengeful language. The state media has also broadcast reports saying that in the event of the Opposition candidate winning the election, he would assassinate Your Excellency and others, and that he would use journalists and resources of the state media to create a state of confusion in the country.

Your Excellency, all these incidents taken as a whole are creating a sense of terror within the media industry in the country, due to the intimidation and suppression taking place in different parts of the country by unruly groups targeting members of the Opposition. We believe that if this escalating situation is not brought under control immediately there will be unforeseen repercussions.

If your election victory is to be celebrated in a democratic manner, it should not be only limited to your voters and should not include the suppression of selected media institutions and journalists. We believe that if this situation continues it would not bring you repute, but disrepute instead.

We therefore expect Your Excellency to intervene in this matter and ensure that public confidence in democracy is restored and that this unhealthy trend is curbed. We strongly believe that the intervention of Your Excellency is imperative to locating the whereabouts of missing journalist Pradeep Ekneliyagoda and to bring justice to other journalists who are being treated unfairly, as well as to create a free media environment

Thanking You,

Free Media Movement
Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association
Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum
Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance
Editors Guild of Sri Lanka
South Asian Free Media Association
Federation of Media Employees' Trade Unions
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