Intimidation of Tamil Journalists continues unabated in Sri Lanka

Exactly six months ago a scathing report from the Office of the High Commissioner of the United Nations Human Rights Council expressed its anguish about the situation in Sri Lanka and called for immediate action to curb the harassment by the state.

“The High Commissioner urges the authorities to immediately end all forms of surveillance, including intimidating visits by State agents and harassment against human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, social actors and victims of human rights violations and their families, and to refrain from imposing further restrictive legal measures on legitimate civil society activity,”

However, instead of mitigating the harassment- taking cue from the comment of the UNHRC Commissioner Michelle Bachalet, and save itself from further humiliation and alienation- the Sri Lankan government continues its own agenda in utter disregard to what the international community, European Parliament, UNHRC et al has been saying.

Journalists has been under continuous intimidation in Sri Lanka. Many journalists have fled the country, gone missing, abducted or simply vanished for brining to light the grave human rights violations, exposing corruption, standing up for the rights of the minorities and objective reporting in general.


In a continuing act of witch-hunting, Tamil journalists who speak for the rights of the people have been hounded and harassed continuously on flimsy reasons. Recently two journalists from Batticaloa in Eastern Sri Lanka were summoned by the Counter Terrorism Investigating department (CTID) on what lawyers call unsustainable charges.

Batticaloa District Tamil Journalists Association Selvakumar Nilanthan was questioned for his alleged connection to the now defunct LTTE which the government claimed was ‘done and dusted’ in May 2009. He was summoned to the CTID and questioned if he had any connections with the former head of the LTTE’s Political wing Thayamohan or was he involved in running the websites ‘Batti Natham and Meenagam’.

Apart from a gruelling questioning for over three hours Nilanthan was asked about his passwords, social media details and bank accounts and his statements recorded.

“Were you a member of the LTTE? Were any of your relatives’ members of the LTTE? Have you helped the LTTE? Did you have connections with them?” were some questions posed to him and his reply recorded.

Nilanthan was also questioned if he was running an NGO and if so the sources of its funding and details about his journalistic activities.

New York based Committee to Protect Journalists had urged to stop harassing Journalist Nilanthan.

“The interrogation of Sri Lankan journalist Selvakumar Nilanthan—including demands for access to his social media and bank accounts–adds to the pattern of harassment of Tamil members of the press and needs to stop immediately,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Authorities must cease trying to intimidate Nilanthan and allow him and all other Tamil journalists to report freely.”

Tribute, TID and Threat

Earlier this month Sasikaran Punniyamoorthy another journalist from Batticaloa was summoned by the CTID in connection with a said to be memorial meeting for the Indian fishermen who were allegedly killed by the Sri Lankan Navy in January this year.

However, no investigations have so far taken place either by India or Sri Lanka about the mid sea deaths, when two Indian fishing boats caught fire ‘under mysterious circumstances’ and the charred bodies of four Indian fishermen was retrieved from a sunken boat.

“I just covered that meeting as a journalist. But I am being investigated as if I organised it” Sasi, told the local media.

Saying that he has not acted against the country, Sasi further said “I was inquired about what the government says that people under the guise of journalists are acting against the country”.

Following the interrogation of the journalist, police have met people in the neighbouring villages in an apparent attempt to frame him for having a key role in the historic P2P protest in February, where thousands of Tamils and Muslims walked 700km in a five day long peaceful march from the eastern town of Potuvil to Polikandy in northern Jaffna peninsula demanding justice and equality.

At least five including two women have been asked whether they were aware that Sasi was the organiser. Police have been told that he was only attending the event in his professional capacity.

Civil society activists fear that the ulterior motive of police may be to arrest the journalist.

The Batticaloa district Tamil Journalists association has strongly condemned such summons and journalists being frequently called for inquiries and harassed.

Another Tamil Journalist Murugupillai Kokulathasan is in jail for 225 days now without charges after being summoned by the CTID and subsequently arrested. He was arrested for allegedly posting photos of the LTTE under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which is often used to silence journalists.

Media watchdog RSF in a statement issued at the time of his arrest said that all he did was to post a note about events commemorating those killed during the civil war- events that members of the Tamil community organise every November.

“Absurd charges”

“Murugupillai Kokulathasan’s arrest and continuing detention on a Kafkaesque terrorism charge clearly constitutes a press freedom violation,” Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk then said. “We urge the attorney general of Sri Lanka, to order his immediate and unconditional release. The security forces must stop harassing all journalists who refer to the Tamil issue, whether directly or indirectly” a statement by RSF last November said.

In March this year two Tamil journalists Mugunthan Divanya and Wimal Raj of the ‘Tube Tamil’ YouTube channel were arrested in Jaffna and taken to Colombo and remain incommunicado since March 29.

Ten people who lit candles in the Batticaloa beach - to pay tribute to those who died during the civil war- in May this year still remain in custody.

Apart from investigative reporting on sensitive issues such as the plight of the Tamil minority or Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, even reporting on day to day happenings in the North and East of the country is increasingly becoming dangerous for journalists.

Those who dare to report are exposed to two dangers. One is ‘Judicial’ with the probability that police will come with warrants for their arrest or the other is face death threats, which the police will refuse to register if they prefer to file a complaint.

Either way, terror is back!



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.