Mounting harassment of journalists poses threat to media freedom in eastern Sri Lanka

Journalists in Sri Lanka’s ethnically diverse eastern province, reporting racial tensions intensified by acts of politicians, are finding it increasingly difficult to carry on with their duties due to ongoing intimidation.

This week, a leading activist of the Batticaloa Press Club (BPC) was interrogated by police about coverage of the rising concerns of Tamil dairy farmers following the recent handing over of traditional grazing lands to Sinhala cultivators. Another was given a telephoned by a senior police officer to record a statement. The state minister responsible for the development of journalists had called for a ban on journalists covering official meetings in the district.

A team of police officers visited BPC Secretary Selvakumar Nilanthan at his home after he reported of tensions between farmers of the two communities.

Governor's promise

The land in Mailaththamadu, Mathavanai had been allocated to recently settled Sinhala farmers for corn cultivation by the newly appointed Eastern Province Governor Anuradha Yahampath depriving Tamil farmers of their access to grazing land. The governor, who entered into active politics with her association with the hard line Sinhala nationalist group National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT) in the mid-90s, is a leading member of the Sinhala Buddhist think tank ‘Viyath Maga’ (Path of Professionals) that provided Gotabaya Rajapaksa with a platform to launch his successful campaign to become the president.

The governor had visited the disputed land with a camera crew and promised a settlement.

Tamil farmers protesting the landgrab have been highly critical of ruling party parliamentarian Sathasivam Vyalendiran from Batticaloa, who is the state minister for promotion of domestic animal husbandry as well as professional development of journalists.

Following media coverage of the protest, Batticaloa Journalist Nilanthan had been grilled for over one and a half hours by four policemen who visited him at his home on 16 November. He had been asked to provide names of other colleagues who covered the grassland dispute and details of websites that publish his reports. The cops from the Eravur police station had incessantly questioned whether those news sites had any association with the Tamil diaspora.

Banning journalists

A few days before the visit, BPC President Balasingham Krishnakumar had received a telephone call from the Batticaloa Superintendent of Police saying that they wanted to record a statement. The officer who phoned had not made the reason clear.

Local journalists are convinced that the police intimidation had been set in motion by the state minister for professional development of journalists.

Earlier, the state minister had wanted a ban on journalists covering the Batticaloa District Development Council (DDC) sessions.

When opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) politicians attending the DDC meeting on 13 November requested the return of grazing lands, the presiding eastern province governor had vehemently opposed it leading to a heated exchange.

BPC Treasurer Punnyamoorthy Sasikaran had posted the pandemonium on social media with a headline saying “Today, the Batticaloa district secretariat resembles a fish market”.

Angered by the facebook post. State Minister Viyalendran had urged to ban journalists from covering future DDC meetings.

Later, unverified claims that Sasikaran was sacked, posted allegedly by the minister’s supporters had surfaced on social media. Journalists say that the campaign was launched following the state minister lodging a complaint with Sasikaran’s employer, Maharaja TV. It is not clear what action the media giant had taken.

Death threats

In January, a leaflet carrying death threats against seven BPC activists was publicly available in Batticaloa.

In addition to Selvakumar Nilanthan and Punniyamoorthy Sasikaran, Krishnakumar of Independent Television Network (ITN), Kuharasa Subojan and Nallathambi Nithyananthan of Maharaja Television, Vadivel Shakthivel and Subramaniam Kunalingam of the Thinakkural newspaper had their faces circled in a photograph in the leaflet.

In July, Tamil and Muslim journalists in Batticaloa staged a protest demanding the arrest of police officer Neomal Rangajeewa who manhandled and threatened Sinhala Photojournalist Akila Jayawardena at the Colombo court complex premises.

Neither Inspector of Police Rangajeewa nor the publishers of the death threat had been arrested.



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.