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Critics of the state under surveillance and attack

Sri Lankan journalists fear retribution for supporting opposition; critics of the state continue to be under assault.
Sri Lankan journalists fear retribution for supporting opposition; critics of the state continue to be under assault.

via Human Rights Watch

As Sri Lanka gears up for parliamentary elections on 8 April, a political reporter abducted two months ago remains missing and journalists who supported jailed opposition leader Sarath Fonseka during January Presidential elections are being hunted down for arrest, report Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Meanwhile, a controversial list of at least 30 journalists and human rights defenders to be kept under surveillance has emerged, underscoring threats to any critics of the regime, report the Free Media Movement (FMM), Index on Censorship and other IFEX members. Members of FMM are on the list.

At the top of the list, allegedly composed by state intelligence, are Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) executive director J.C. Weliamuna and Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) executive director Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu. In September 2008, grenades were hurled at Weliamuna's house. And in August 2009 Saravanamuttu received a death threat in the mail. CPA is a leading human rights Sri Lankan think-tank and partner of ARTICLE 19 and FMM.

But some people mentioned on the list doubt it was produced by the government and see it as fraudulent, saying it lacks the language of conspiracies and terrorism typical of the state, say news reports. The list does point to the fact that journalists, activists and NGOs face serious threats in Sri Lanka. "I have no doubt that a lot of people in this country are under state surveillance," said one journalist. "If you write something against the government, you are a marked person."

Since the January presidential election, the government has tried to silence journalists and non-governmental organisations. Both TISL and CPA actively reported on electoral violations and government misuse of state resources benefiting incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sri Lankan parliament voted on 9 March to extend emergency regulations, routinely used to target activists, until after the April elections.

The President's re-election in January has "not slowed his habit of publicly denouncing his critics without evidence; fully aware that his words put his targets at risk from gangs of armed supporters," says Index on Censorship. On 22 March, a mob attacked the offices of the MTV/MBC broadcast channels in the capital, Colombo, report RSF and IFJ.

Last month, opposition leader Fonseka, a former army chief, was arrested and charged with sedition, sparking widespread protests. Several journalists who support Fonseka were recently summoned for interrogation by the police and one was arrested last week.

There has been an especially ruthless crackdown on independent media and opposition critics this year. "It is a psychology of fear through abductions, killings and other form of pressure that is brought in," says FMM. "It's not so much about what is written, but what you should not write." Prageeth Eknaligoda, a political reporter for Lanka eNews, sympathetic to Fonseka, disappeared on January 24 and is still missing, despite calls for a serious investigation. Dozens of journalists have fled the country in recent years due to a culture of impunity that has become worse in 2010.

In a meeting with a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) delegation in the capital, Colombo, on 10 March, Sri Lankan Attorney General Mohan Peiris said the government would ensure the safety of any Sri Lankan journalist in exile who returned to the country. However, CPJ said: "Many journalists with whom we met in Colombo are very open about their fears of retribution from the government after the presidential elections, and they worry about what will come after the parliamentary elections in April."

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