(RSF/IFEX) - "In what country do you appoint an arsonist to put out fires?" Reporters Without Borders asked after learning that Mervyn Silva, a politician notorious for insulting and physically attacking journalists, has been appointed deputy minister of media and information. Labour minister in the last government, Silva was confirmed in his new post by parliament on 23 April 2010.
"The Sri Lankan government has again distinguished itself by assigning key posts to very controversial figures implicated in attacks on press freedom," Reporters Without Borders said. "The ruling party's victory in the parliamentary elections is being marred by this kind of appointment, which is casting serious doubt on its ability to carry out reconciliation and reconstruction."
The press freedom organisation added: "We call on Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne to relieve Mervyn Silva of his ministerial post."
Silva's appointment comes at a time of considerable hostility towards press freedom. The defence secretary (who is the president's brother) put a great deal of pressure on TV stations and websites not to provide live coverage of opposition leader Sarath Fonseka's speech at the opening of the new parliament on 22 April.
In the event, no TV station broadcast live the speech delivered by Fonseka, who was let out of prison to attend the inauguration because he won a seat in the parliamentary election. A former army commander, Fonseka has been detained after January's presidential election, in which he was the leading opposition candidate.
Several newspapers reported his speech on their websites, but did not publish any photos of him in their print editions. "When such pressure comes from the defence ministry, we have no choice but to not publish, or else we will be risking closure," a Colombo-based journalist told Reporters Without Borders on condition of anonymity.
Threats forced several Sri Lankan journalists to flee the country during the campaign for the 8 April parliamentary elections. Later, a team working for the Colombo-based "Daily Mirror" newspaper was followed and threatened on 21 April in the central city of Kandy by a local journalist apparently acting on the orders of the police. Journalists had gone there to cover a re-poll.
A ruling party candidate threatened Wasantha Chadrapala, a correspondent for various media in the eastern district of Ampara, on 4 April because of his coverage of the election campaign. His house was attacked by unidentified assailants that evening.
There is still no news of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a reporter and cartoonist who has been missing since 24 January.
Opposition journalist Ruwan Weerakoon is meanwhile still being held although he is in very poor health.
Finally, the government has ordered all journalists, newspaper editors and media owners to submit a declaration of possessions by 30 March.
A staunch supporter of President Mahinda Rajapksa, Mervyn Silva is above all known for organising various physical attacks on news media while labour minister, and for his verbal attacks on independent journalists. In December 2007, he led an assault on the headquarters of the state TV station SLRC and was forcibly expelled from the building. At least five of the station's employees were physically attacked in the weeks that followed – some of them sustaining serious stab wounds – presumably to punish them for humiliating Silva.
Silva and his men assaulted several journalists, including a BBC correspondent, during a peaceful meeting near Colombo in 2007.
In March 2008, Silva supporters threatened a Sirasa TV crew that went to do a report about a bridge being in Kelaniya, near Colombo. "This time I lift a finger but the next time I will lift a hand if you come back," Silva told the journalists. The following month, Silva's thugs threatened photographers from the "Daily Mirror" and "Daily Lankadeepa" newspapers who were covering an inauguration.