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Editor freed, but fears grow for missing journalist

(IFJ/IFEX) - The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) welcomes the release of Chandana Sirimalwatte, editor of the Sinhala newspaper Lanka, on February 16 after 18 days in detention without charge.

According to IFJ sources, Sirimalwatte's unconditional release was ordered by a magistrate's court after the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the Sri Lankan police failed to present charges against him.

Sirimalwatte was taken into custody on January 29, two days after incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa was declared re-elected to a second term in office.

Lanka is aligned with a political party that had strongly backed the rival candidate.

After the editor's detention, the premises of Lanka were sealed by police without warrant or explanation. The office was unsealed by order of a magistrate's court on February 2. Sirimalwatte continued to be detained despite protests by Sri Lanka's journalists and international expressions of concern.

"The IFJ is pleased that Sri Lanka's judiciary has upheld the rule of law and ordered the release of a journalist whose arrest smacked of political vendetta," IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said.

On February 15, Sirimalwatte filed a petition in Sri Lanka's Supreme Court under the fundamental rights clauses of the Constitution, challenging his detention without charge. As publisher of Lanka, he also filed a petition questioning the sealing of the newspaper's office on January 29.

"Unlike earlier cases when fundamental rights petitions questioning the arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists have been withdrawn in exchange for their freedom, we hope that these petitions will be heard and authoritatively decided by the Supreme Court," White said.

"We hope that the judiciary will in the process establish a strong norm against the detention, harassment and mistreatment of journalists pursuing their professional calling."

The IFJ meanwhile continues to be concerned for the welfare of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a senior journalist and political commentator who has been missing since January 24.

"The IFJ urges the Sri Lankan authorities to disclose all information they have about Prageeth Eknaligoda and immediately step up efforts to find him," White said.

The IFJ further calls on power-holders in Sri Lanka to clarify the circumstances in which the Information and Mass Media ministerial portfolio was taken over by the President a few days back. There are reports that the President has advised the Inspector-General of Police that all legal proceedings against journalists should have his prior concurrence before being initiated.

"With all respect to the office of the President, the IFJ strongly advises that regulation of the media is best left to professional and apolitical bodies that are committed to the basic norms and values of ethical journalism," White said.

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