Jaffna daily 'Uthayan' wins prestigious press freedom award

Well-known for its courageous journalism, Jaffna-based Tamil tabloid daily, Uthayan, has won the prestigious international Press Freedom Award for 2013 from the France-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Uthayan Editor Vallipuram Kaanamylnaathan and its proprietor Eswarapatham Saravanapavan received the award from the RSF at the award ceremony held in Strasbourg, France on Wednesday (Nov 27).

Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov, who is imprisoned for 14-long years, was announced as the joint winner of the award. Notably, Sri Lanka is ranked 162nd while Uzbekistan is ranked 164th out of 179 countries in the RSF press freedom index.

Uthayan newspaper coincidentally received this international award on its 28th birthday. The newspaper has faced 37 brutal attacks by pro-government paramilitary and other government forces during its historic journey. At least half a dozen of journalists and other staff had been killed during these attacks, while several journalists and editors have been forced to leave the country to safety. The perpetrators, however, still remain at large under the prevailing culture of impunity.

Standing tall for reporting matters that are usually shunned by other news organisations elsewhere in the country despite threats and attacks, Uthayan is the only Tamil newspaper which has not ceased publication in the war-ravaged northern Jaffna peninsula during the three-decade long bloody civil war.

War on Uthayan not over yet

Speaking at the award ceremony, Director-General of the RSF Christophe Deloire said that the war “in Sri Lanka is not yet over for Uthayan”, highlighting the ongoing threat, intimidations and harassment on journalists and media workers in the Northern Jaffna peninsula.

“If this newspaper were to succumb to the constant harassment to which it is exposed to, the abuses by the security forces against the population in the north would continue with complete impunity, without being brought to the attention of Sri Lankans and the international community. The courage and persistence of Uthayan’s staff in reporting what happens in this embattled country demands our respect and our full solidarity,” he said.

Receiving the award Uthayan Editor, Kanamylnathan said although the government of Sri Lanka has officially declared the end of the war, “nothing has changed as far as the media is concerned”.

“Each and every journalist has to toe the government line, regardless of their political beliefs and convictions. Apart from the fear factor that compels them to do so, there is a material aspect as well. If you play by the rules set by the authorities, you will not only be spared, but will also be rewarded. In Jaffna, Media Resource And Training Centre is involved in training new journalists, but there is no environment to practise what you learn,” the Uthayan Editor said.

People’s plight keeps us going

“Uthayan has won at least 10 awards so far. Many journalists, media workers attached to Uthayan have been murdered, abducted, assaulted and intimidated. Our office was attacked and printing machines were destroyed. There is nothing on the ground that encourages us to do our job, except the plight of our people. Therefore, in moments like this, we feel happy and proud, because such moments convince us that we have done our job properly,” he said. 

Coming hard on the Colombo-based mainstream media for grossly ignoring the plight of the war-ravaged Tamils in the Northern peninsula, Uthayan proprietor Saravanapavan said that his newspaper often came under the ‘vicious attack’ of the state-run and pro-government media outfits for bravely reporting on the happenings in Jaffna.

“In Tamil areas, people cannot move freely, without being stopped, questioned and searched at check points unless they have political or diplomatic privileges. The military intelligence personnel roam everywhere and keep an eye on everyone. The prevailing situation is extremely scary. Uthayan has paid a huge price for exposing what is happening in Jaffna,” Mr. Saravanapavan, who is also a parliamentarian of the Tamil National Alliance, said.

RSF in a statement said that it has been awarding an international prize to a journalist and a news organization every year since 1992. In partnership with Le Monde and TV5Monde, its aim is to encourage, support and publicize the work of journalists and media that have contributed significantly to the defence or promotion of media freedom.

“More than 30 men, women, news organizations and NGOs have received this prize in the past 20 years. Some who were in jail at the time subsequently recovered their freedom. Others who were in danger received a form of protection as a result of this international recognition,” the RSF statement said.