Impunity Island: Sri Lanka's haunting legacy of war on media

By Johan Mikaelsson

A lot can happen in the time between the World Press Freedom Day, May 3, to the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, November 2. Will the prospects for justice in Sri Lanka completely disappear after the creation of a new political turmoil over the last week?

Journalists who critically reported about the civil-war were swept away by a wave of murder in 2004–2010. In this report especially, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Defense Secretary 2005–2015, claimed that no Tamil journalists were killed.

However, that statement is easily disproved.

Journalists, editors and human rights activists took their seats in an auditorium at the Sri Lanka Press Institute in Colombo. About a hundred people are attending a seminar in observance of World Press Freedom Day, an occasion for media activists to meet and discuss the state of journalism – and campaign for press freedom. The annual memorial event for Lasantha Wickrematunge was bigger and more emotional. Lasantha Wickrematunge was the Sunday Leader’s editor, who was murdered on January 8, 2009. He immediately became an icon for the struggle for freedom of opinion and press freedom, while dozens of journalists fled in fear from the island.

Although the focus of the seminar is on the present challenges for the media in Sri Lanka, speakers highlight the prevailing impunity for crimes against journalists. Murders and attacks have left deep traces and all of these acts of violence are still unresolved. The families are still waiting for justice and compensation.

In Sri Lanka’s media sphere, the “media veterans” are looked upon with great respect. They have a deep and wide perspective being there in the late 1980’s when the number of killings and disappearances reached a gruesome level. In the North, Tamil Tigers were battling the Indian Peace Keeping Forces. In the South, the  Sinhala youth movement JVP (short in Sinhala for the Peoples Liberation Front) used violence in a fruitless effort to take power. The government forces struck brutally in all directions.

Media veterans have experienced the cruelties of the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s. They saw colleagues and friends being killed. Others just disappeared. Now, journalists can relax.  Or can they?

“It’s not over. These killers, whom we can identify in many cases, are still free,” one media veteran explained after the seminar.

The killers were just obeying orders, and didn’t even know why they had to kill,  but learned that it had to be done anyway. “In the battlefield, it’s about killing or being killed. There is no other way. Right!? We have also had a situation where the killers in many cases have been murdered by other killers.”

Politicians in the previous government, as well as the present one, have “real skeletons in the wardrobes”, according to the media veterans. They underline that those responsible will be the last to get caught. They argue that it is pointless to try to get some answers from Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former Defense Secretary who is generally accused of launching the wave of murders and disappearances during the final years of the civil war that ended in 2009. For their own part, it is unthinkable to approach and interview Rajapaksa.

“I don’t want to risk my life! And I am not the least interested in asking him something or listening to what he would say. He will say that it is not true – ‘fake news’.”

“Is that what he will say?”

“Yes. And he will be happy to get a platform. There will be more clouds that obscure the view. He may even record the conversation and his media manager can create a story on the web; ‘a foreign journalist came here and questioned our great politician and hero’. The risk is that everything becomes muddier for all those who miss a relative and are seeking justice.”

Thanks to precautions, the two editors survived to become veterans with a few scars. Journalists who did not have the same luck are listed in the book “Martyrs of Freedom of Expression in Sri Lanka,” released by the local media watch-dog Free Media Movement.

The editors mention cases in the past, involving foreign journalists who came to the island to assess the situation and do research, which would reveal the government’s wrongdoings. Two press freedom activists from Australia had their hotel room searched by government intelligence officers. Their computers were confiscated and before being deported, the two women were interrogated for days.

Marie Colvin

Journalists have been under surveillance. A few were threatened, several others were expelled or had the renewal of their journalist visas denied. The American journalist Marie Colvin made a daring trip into the war-zone in the midst of an army offensive to capture land held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. LTTE was the Tamil rebel group which until 2009 fought for a separate homeland in the north and east of the island. Colvin was injured and lost an eye, as army soldiers lobbed grenades. She was questioned, treated and expelled. She filed her story in The Times, the renowned British daily. In 2012 Colvin was killed  in Syria, covering war atrocities.

After January 9, 2015, a new government ruled over this island nation in the tropics. But the media veterans do not take anything for granted. The seemingly calm situation today could transform into a new era of repression tomorrow. Murder could, again, become a method of getting rid of those who question and challenge the power.

One of the island’s most well-known human rights activists, Ruki Fernando, the Advisor of INFORM, wants to broaden the discussion.

“We must not narrow it down and look at journalists and the media alone, but we have to look at freedom of speech at large. In recent years and even this year, people who expressed themselves have been attacked. They have been threatened and attacked. There are hundreds of cases in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 and there is almost total impunity for these crimes”, Ruki Fernando said with emphasis.

The Sri Lankan Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. In practice, however, it does not work. “The person exercising the right to freedom of expression will have the freedom restricted after having expressed an opinion. The most burning subjects concern the military and war crimes, Buddhist monks, gender and sex. These are considered taboo, outside of the framework,” Fernando explained, adding: “Even I who consider myself to be quite outspoken must hold back”.

Fernando was of the opinion that the improvements made in the country the last few years must be seen in the light of an exceptionally bad situation until January 2015.

Erroneous comparisons and Impunity

“Reporters Without Borders’ [RSF] press freedom index can be interpreted as everything being good and well now. But we should compare to international standards, not to how it was under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime, or what it is like in North Korea or Yemen. The current government claims to tolerate questioning, but deep in their hearts they have an intolerance to questioning,” Fernando said.

Despite a couple of opened police investigations, involving the abduction and torture of Keith Noyahr and the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, solutions are far away. The army, according to Fernando’s sources, do not cooperate with the investigators. Of the 44 journalists and media workers killed 2004–2010, only five were Sinhalese. The opened investigations concern only Sinhalese journalists.

“Most striking is the case of Tamil journalists who were killed, and arson attacks against Tamil media institutions, like Uthayan, where there is no progress at all”, Fernando emphasized . “In many cases there was quite convincing evidence. Here, at least, hearings and arrests of suspects should be initiated, for example, for the abduction of Tamil news editor Vithyatharan. He has identified and publicly named two police officers. The former head of the Ministry of Defense [Gotabaya Rajapaksa] has also clearly stated that this editor was arrested. Despite this recognition, he has not been questioned about the arrest and abduction. There is reluctance to claim responsibility for murder, disappearances and attacks against Tamil journalists and media institutions.”

Questions to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is suspected of having ordered as well as covered up human rights violations, need to be specific.

“General questions, that he would be behind the whole culture with ‘white vans’ is easy for him to wipe away,” Fernando said, describing the state’s use of white vans to kidnap people to be held for ransom – or simply make disappear.

“There are investigations, but he is not held responsible. Rumours from political circles claim that nobody wants to touch him.”

One explanation is that ‘Rajapaksa-fraction’ is still the single most popular force within the Sri Lankan political world. The so-called Joint Opposition under Mahinda Rajapaksas newly formed political force SLPP have started campaigning to recapture power through the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2020.

For journalists focusing on the conflict and the violations of human rights in its traces, questions about liability and accountability remain unanswered. Suspected perpetrators should be given a chance to respond to the charges and the public deserve answers. Few have raised the matter with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, previously labelled ‘Predator of Press Freedom’ by RSF. After 2015, he and Mahinda Rajapaksa were removed from RSF’s list. They could still be considered ‘Predators emeritus’. However, they have not retired and are preparing for a comeback.

Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

A few days ahead of World Press Freedom Day, around 200 people gathered in Batticaloa on the eastern coast to commemorate the Tamil journalist Dharmeratnam Sivaram. He was born in 1959, in Batticaloa, when the first severe attacks on Tamils were occurring under the hands of Sinhala nationalists, government politicians and its police and military. Killers ended the 45-year-olds’ life April 28, 2005.

“Siva”, as his friends called him, wrote under the pen name ‘Taraki’ in the English and Tamil language press. His columns in Daily Mirror and Sunday Times were read internationally and he was a near legend as the elusive editor of Tamilnet, which from the mid-1990’s became an important English language news source in the conflict-affected parts, which were usually inaccessible for the mainstream media.

On 28 April 2018, press freedom activists stopped the traffic in Batticaloa. Shouting slogans and displaying banners, they reminded travelers that 44 journalists and media workers were killed or disappeared during the final phase of the armed conflict. Threats and violence are still methods used to intimidate journalists.

“We journalists who live in conflict areas, always have to weigh our words carefully. Everyone knows that murders and attacks directed against journalists were committed with impunity, by paramilitary groups or by the army,” a journalist in Batticaloa said. “We can’t do much more than we already did to highlight this.”

The murder victims’ families and close friends have wounds that will never fully heal. Some are suffering from depressions. The question is whether a single journalist murder will ever be solved. “In any event, we will continue to raise the question.”

Tamil journalists from the Eastern Press Club as well as from the Jaffna Press Club stated that cases could be solved. Ratnam Thayaparan, spokesperson for the Jaffna Press Club:

“We have approached the President and asked the government to take the crimes that were committed against Tamil journalists seriously, but so far without result. No investigations into the murders of Tamils journalists have been opened since this new government took office in 2015”. Several journalists claimed that the identity of Sivaram’s murderers were known.

Sinhalese journalists came in a van from Colombo. “Unity in resisting impunity is very important. In at least three of the cases involving Tamil journalist, investigations should be opened. So far, only two cases, both involving Sinhalese journalists, have been opened”, one journalist stated, thereby reiterating Tamil demands.☐

Part II: Impunity Island - Sri Lanka's "predator emeritus" on rebound


Swedish freelance journalist Johan Mikaelsson has been covering Sri Lanka since his first visit to the island, in 1997. His non-fiction book, 'När de dödar journalister' was released in 2015. An English edition of the book, 'When They Killed Journalists – A personal story about Sri Lanka' with additional chapters will be released in 2019.


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.