Sri Lanka: Senior journalists’ removal creates ripples

The recent dismissal of the Editor of Sri Lanka’s youngest English-language daily, ‘Ceylon Today’, has caused ripples within media circles in the country. Last week, the management of the newspaper arbitrarily removed two senior journalists attached to the paper, forcing four other scribes to hand over their resignation in protest.

‘Ceylon Today’, started less than a year ago, is owned by opposition party parliamentarian Tiran Alles, who is seen as the main financial backer of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka’s failed presidential bid. Alles is also seen as pivotal in securing the release of Fonseka.  According to sources who are in the know, the firing of chief editor was part of the ‘deal’ that was struck to get the former four-star General out of prison.

RSF Concerned

Expressing their concern over the matter, Paris based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Friday (22) said in a statement that it “is concerned about the reasons that led the management of the newspaper to force its editor in chief Lalith Alahakoon to resign on 13 June.” The veteran journalist, who received no letter of dismissal, arrived at his office on 16 June to find that access to his computer had been blocked.

“If it is merely an internal restructuring issue, as experienced by many media organizations, there would be no reason to intervene’ said RSF statement. ‘But we fear that it is rather a restriction on news and information and politically-motivated censorship.”

The four journalists who resigned in protest said in a letter sent to Tiran Alles that they have engaged in ‘unbiased reportage and non-partisan commentary under the leadership of’ ousted chief editor Alahakoon. ‘We completely and wholly back his editorial positions during the period” they said.

“Ten months down the line, the dynamics have shifted, and the biggest threats to us, and the biggest threats to our integrity and independence come not from without the organisation, but from within,” they add, in the letter that was widely published on the internet.

Journalists groups condemn

Meanwhile, the slow reaction of the Free Media Movement (FMM) to the events has stirred up controversy. The FMM, which is considered to be the all-encompassing media rights body in Sri Lanka, initially demonstrated a notable lack of interest in getting involved in the matter. But later a brief statement was issued to media expressing their ‘worries’ over the events. Adding more fuel to the controversy, journalist Hana Ibrahim, the trustee of the FMM, has been named as the replacement of the ousted chief editor by the management of the newspaper. Informed sources said that the FMM is yet to officially visit Alahakoon to have a meeting.

Concurrently, the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) has vehemently condemned the decision to oust senior journalists stating that it sees is as a ‘clash between the publisher and the independence of the editorial of the newspaper.’  The strongly worded statement issued on Wednesday (20) criticized the policy of using ‘the newspaper’s editorial to attack political opponents of the owner’ which ‘goes against journalistic ethics and the independence of the editorial.’

© JDS

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Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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