Sri Lankan newspaper attacked for 37th time

International journalists attending the Commonwealth heads of government meeting this November in Sri Lanka should take a look at the island’s track record on media freedom first.

Uthayan newspaper, one of the few Tamil media outlets independent of government, has just been attacked for the 37th time in its history. Three gunmen broke into the office at dawn on Saturday, firing at staff, before setting the printing press on fire, ensuring major disruption to circulation. Ten days earlier, Uthayan staff in the northern town of Kilinochchi were injured in another attack. At the time the paper quite reasonably asked for police protection for its head office in Jaffna – a request that was ignored.

The north of Sri Lanka is so overwhelmingly militarized that it is unthinkable that armed men could attack like this unless the Sri Lankan security forces are deliberately turning a blind eye.  The military though have implausibly suggested the attack was “an inside job”, deliberately staged to discredit the government. If they are sincere, the authorities in Sri Lanka should have no problem with inviting an independent Commonwealth police team to Jaffna to help them investigate the attack and find the culprits.

To those who follow Sri Lanka, the latest attacks on Uthayan will sound depressingly familiar, especially in the run up to possible provincial elections. Think back to 2000 when the BBC’s stringer in Jaffna, Nimalarajan Mylvaganam was murdered in his home during curfew hours, close to three military checkpoints in the middle of the high security area. Visiting Jaffna afterwards, I asked the army if they’d even questioned the soldiers on duty that night at the checkpoints. It took the family an hour to get the injured to the hospital that night, waving lanterns as they approached each checkpoint on the route to alert the soldiers. How could armed men, firing and letting off grenades, roam about so freely? I never got a straight answer. Delegations from the BBC and media rights groups came and went, demanding action. I learnt first hand what impunity really meant. Nimalarajan’s family lived in fear – not the perpetrators. One night they quietly left for Canada, never to return. Now their entire extended family is in Canada: part of the Tamil exodus that’s slowly de-populated the north.

Just before Nimalarajan was killed there was an attempt on the life of his friend, the then Uthayan editor. The intention then was the same as today - to silence independent journalists in the run up to elections. Uthayan newspaper was already a war veteran then. Its vintage print machines required hand typesetting and printed on brown paper using a strange, hybrid ink made out of carbon, diesel and oil. The staff and its machines had been displaced by war but continued to print the news, while too often becoming the story themselves.

Over more than a decade of involvement on and off with Sri Lanka, I can reel off a disturbing list of journalists I knew personally who’ve been murdered in broad daylight or beaten senseless and left for dead in a ditch. Many more friends – Sinhala and Tamil - have been forced into exile and would love nothing more than to return home if it were safe.

Sri Lanka is routinely at the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and became notorious in 2009 when a Colombo newspaper editor wrote his own obituary blaming the government in advance of his assassination. His brave successor recently fled the country after numerous threats, including from the country’s powerful defence secretary. Four years after the end of the war, there’s no improvement in press freedom.

The Commonwealth should not be holding its biannual meeting in Sri Lanka – a country that committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2009 - but if it goes ahead, international journalists who cover the event must ensure they use the event to push the boundaries of freedom of expression. For this the Commonwealth should take the following steps:

1. Ensure visas are issued to all international journalists who apply; the Sri Lanka government should not be allowed to pick and chose friendly reporters or those with little knowledge of the island’s conflict.

2. Guarantee journalists receive visas valid for at least a month’s stay so there’s time to travel around the country.

3. Facilitate briefings by media rights groups for international reporters to meet exiled Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim journalists from Sri Lanka before they depart.

4. Guarantee freedom of movement to the north and east, with blocs of seats reserved on flights to Jaffna for visiting reporters.

5. Organise through the British Council (soon to open an office in Jaffna) a facility trip for journalists to visit Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna. Local reporters from the paper could be paired with visiting journalists to accompany them around the island. This would send a strong signal that the government is not behind the current spate of attacks on the paper.

6. Fund the Commonwealth Journalists Association to arrange private meetings between visiting journalists and some of the families of the many murdered and disappeared Sri Lankan reporters.


Frances Harrison is a former BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka and the author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka's Hidden War, published by Portobello Books (UK), House of Anansi (Canada) and Penguin ( India).


Articles by Frances Harrison:

Priests demand tougher action on war crimes
Sri Lanka's killing fields tourism
One hundred thousand Tamils missing after Sri Lanka War
Petrie Report: What if the UN had spoken out on Sri Lanka?
Parenting on the frontline: When the war correspondent became a mother