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BBC reporter interrogated even as Pillay slams Colombo

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and its partner organisation, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) vehemently condemn the summoning and questioning of the Vavuniya Reporter of the BBC Tamil Service, Ponniah Manikavasagam by officials of Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism unit on Monday (02) and urge the authorities to ensure his safety.

The BBC Tamil Service reporter Manikavasagam has been summoned and interrogated by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) with regard to the telephone conversation he had with two prison inmates at Colombo Magazine prison, where hundreds of Tamil political prisoners are housed without any legal proceedings for several years. He was not allowed to be accompanied by a legal representative.

“Being a senior journalist, Manikavasagam has all the rights to maintain contacts to discharge his professional duties. The authorities trying to intimidate and behave in a threatening manner should be seen as serious assault on the already worsened media freedom and freedom of speech in Sri Lanka. We urge the international community, especially the United Nation to ensure the safety of Manikavasagam and fellow journalists in the country, which is ranked 162 nd out of 179 countries in the 2013 RSF press freedom index,” the two media rights organisations said in a joint-statement.

“The latest incident clearly shows that Colombo is not taking any international pressure seriously on the issues of media freedom and human rights issues,” they said.

The BBC is yet to issue a statement in this regard.

Manikavasagam has been the BBC Tamil Service Reporter for nearly 15 years and has been covering the island’s bloody ethnic conflict from the volatile Vavuniya district.

The TID questioning Manikavasagam has coincided with the death of a Tamil political prisoner who has been kept in the Magazine prison for over seven years.

According to reports, the victim is identified as Frances Nelson (31) from north-eastern Mullaitivu district. He has contacted his wife Sanjeevani on September 1. However, his wife has been informed about his death on the very next morning while in prison custody.

His wife Sanjeevani, who has been suffering physically, mentally and financially without her husband since his arrest in 2006, has requested the authorities to conduct an independent and thorough investigation into his death. She is so broken that she cannot even undertake a visit to the Magazine prison hospital with her two children.

It is not immediately known whether the death of Frances Nelson and the questioning of Manikavasagam by the TID has any link.  The incident has sent fresh panic waves among journalists in the country in general, and in the region in particular.

The interrogation of BBC Tamil reporter has come barely a couple of days after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navaneetham Pillai openly blasted the incumbent regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa as one that is “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”.

“The war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded,” she stressed, adding that the physical reconstruction “alone will not bring reconciliation, dignity or lasting peace”. She said this while addressing the media in Colombo at the end of her week-long trip on Saturday.

Referring to the incidents where a number of human rights defenders, priests, journalists, and many ordinary citizens who met with her or planned to meet her were subjected to harassment and intimidation by police or military officers both before and after her visit, Pillai publicly warned that it was “utterly unacceptable at any time”.

Over 30 media workers have been killed, abducted and made to disappear while media institutions have been bombed and burnt, forcing many to flee the country. Sri Lanka’s only provincially produced newspaper, Jaffna based ‘Uthayan’ alone, has come under brutal attacks over 37 times and at least five of its journalists have been killed since 2002. While all these crimes were committed in an extremely militarised area, no one so far has been brought to book to date.

It is notable here that Reporters Without Borders and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka issuing a statement prior to UN rights chief's visit, urged the High Commissioner “to be firm in securing a transparent commitment from the Sri Lankan government to bring justice to those who have been victims of grave crimes against media freedom”.

“As long as crimes against the media and its workforce go unpunished, while perpetrators feel safe with the implicit assurance of impunity, media freedom in Sri Lanka is facing a grave threat. We urge Navi Pillay to remind Sri Lanka’s leaders of their accountability in delivering justice,” said the two organisations.

Reporters Without Borders | Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka



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.