Fear grips journalists after new Sri Lanka president targets opposition media

Media watchdogs in Sri Lanka have raised the alarm about a looming clampdown on media freedom following abrupt police probes against pro opposition media institutions soon after a Sinhala nationalist president was voted to office.

Investigations against media outlets in the country's north and south by the criminal investigation department (CID) commenced with a police visit to the Tamil newspaper office 'Thinappuyal' in norhtern town Vavniya on 22nd November. The police demanded information on the reporters when they questioned the newspaper's director Sakthivel Prakash, reported Tamil Guaradian.

The Vavuniya incident was followed by a police raid on the office of newshub.lk website in Colombo and an eight-hour interrogation of theleader.lk YouTube channel newsreader Sanjaya Dhanushka on 26 November. All three incidents were reported less than ten days after Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in as president. The same day President Rajapaksa appointed ministers to his government with the media portfolio going to Bandula Gunawardena.

Two days later, the editor of voicetube.lk Thushara Sewwandi Vitharana was summoned to the CID headquarters and interrogated for over six hours. Following the interrogation, she told journalist that the questioning was about a video broadcast at a time she was away from the island.

All three news outlets in Colombo had backed Sajith Premadasa, who lost to Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the presidential race held on 16 November.

Several media organizations based in Colombo have condemned the unwarranted crackdown on websites opposed to the new government as a threat to media freedom.

No court orders

Internet Media Action (IMA) said the raid on the media offices were conducted without a valid court order.

The Free Media Movement (FMM), Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) and the Professional Web Journalist Association (PWJA) denouncing the police action have highlighted that they are not challenging the authority of CID to question citizens for a valid reason.

“Nevertheless, we believe that questioning journalists for hours, raiding premises and offices that house websites, without a valid reason or even a legally valid court order, is a formidable pressure on media freedom,” said IMA convener Sampath Samarakoon.

Meanwhile, a Sri Lankan staff member of the Swiss Embassy in Colombo has been abducted and harassed on November 25th, for hours before being released later, .

Swiss authorities say that she was threatened in order to force her to disclose “embassy related information”.

“On 25 November 2019, a serious security incident involving a local employee of the Embassy of Switzerland in Colombo occurred. The employee was detained against their will in the street, forced to get into a car, seriously threatened at length by unidentified men and forced in order to disclose embassy-related information,” said a Swiss embassy statement issued from Colombo on 29 Friday.

Asylum seekers

Local and international media quoted officials in Colombo who said the men forced her to unlock her cellphone data, which contained information about Sri Lankans who have recently sought asylum in Switzerland, and the names of Sri Lankans who helped them as they fled the country because they feared for their safety after Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency.

Announcing an immediate investigation into the abduction, police rejected a purported claim by abductors that they were CID personnel. “It is a false claim to mislead investigators,” said police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekra.

"Due to a deteriorating health condition, the victim is currently not in a state to testify," said the Swiss Embassy in Colombo.

Meanwhile, the Swiss foriegn ministry has confimed that the Sri Lankan ambassador Karunasena Hettiarachchi has been summoned to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Bern, by the State Secretary Pascale Baeriswyl.

Secretary Baeriswyl has requested the Sri Lankan envoy to "explain the purported evidence against the events described by the embassy, which the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs had alluded to in its press release," said a statement issued by Swiss foreign ministry, on Monday (2). 

Detective flees

The abduction was carried out a day after a top detective from the country’s main police investigating body fled to Switzerland with his family.

The detective, CID chief inspector Nishantha Silva was the lead investigator in several high-profile cases of abduction, torture, disappearance and extra judicial killings, where senior army and navy officers including one navy commander were named as suspects.

JDS had earlier reported of credible information that the CID officer feared for his life in the event of Gotabaya Rajapaksa ascending to power.

Before Inspector Silva left the island, his boss, CID Director Shani Abeysekera had been removed from handling the investigations and transferred to serve in a junior position away from the capital.

The new government has banned more than 700 CID officers from leaving the country.

Politically motivated

Journalists strongly suspect that the rapid moves against investigators are aimed at protecting security force members who should be held responsible for serious crimes.

Sri Lanka’s Young Journalists Association has decried the transfer of the ex CID director as a politically motivated step to undermine investigations into high profile cases including the killing of journalists. (The list attached)

In a letter urging the head of police commission, KWO Karalliyadda to reinstate Shani Abeysekera, the YJA has provided the commission with an extensive list of criminal investigations he was involved. Almost all the crimes have been committed during the time when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the powerful defense secretary under the presidency of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The highest number of journalists killed in Sri Lanka was during the rule of the Rajapaksa’s from 2005 to 2015. No one has been punished for the crimes so far, while the few investigations themselves have revealed the alleged involvement of security forces.

JDS has also received unconfirmed reports of police visiting several offices of human rights organizations based in the island.☐



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.