Annual Press Freedom Report 2008 - Reporters without borders criticises lack of public commitment to press freedom and fears anti-media violence in coming months



    The plight of journalists in 98 countries reviewed

    MONTREAL, Feb. 14 /CNW Telbec/ - Reporters Without Borders today accused
public officials around the world of "impotence, cowardice and duplicity" in
defending freedom of expression.
    "The spinelessness of some Western countries and major international
bodies is harming press freedom," secretary-general Robert Ménard said in the
organisation's annual press freedom report, out today (13 February) and
available at www.rsf.org. "The lack of determination by democratic countries
in defending the values they supposedly stand for is alarming."
    He charged that the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva had caved in to
pressure from countries such as Iran and Uzbekistan and expressed concern at
the softness of the European Union towards dictators who did not flinch at the
threat of European sanctions.
    The report's introduction listed problems expected in the coming year,
especially physical attacks on journalists during key elections in Pakistan
(18 February), Russia (2 March), Iran (14 March) and Zimbabwe (29 March).
    The worldwide press freedom organisation voiced concern about the safety
of journalists covering fighting in Sri Lanka, the Palestinian Territories,
Somalia, Niger, Chad and especially Iraq, where it said "journalists continue
to be buried almost every week."
    It also protested against censorship of new media (mobile phones
transmitting photos and film and video-sharing and social networking websites)
and highlighted media repression in China in the run-up to the Olympic Games
there this summer.
    "Nobody apart from the International Olympic Committee seems to believe
the government will make a significant human rights concession before the
Games start," it said. "Every time a journalist or blogger is released,
another goes into prison. (S) China's dissidents will probably be having a
hard time this summer."
    The report includes surveys of press freedom in every region of the world
over the past year and chapters on 98 countries, including European Union
members and the United States.
    A press conference to introduce the report will be held in Washington on
13 February in the presence of journalists from Iraq, China, Eritrea and
Pakistan. Another will be held in Berlin with Russian and Zimbabwean
journalists.


    SRI LANKA

    Area: 65,610 sq km.
    Population: 19,800,000.
    Languages: Sinhala, Tamil, English.
    Head of state: Mahinda Rajapakse.

    The government and the military have intensified the war against the
Tamil Tigers and President Mahinda Rajapakse has sworn to stamp out the
rebellion, at the price of appalling human rights violations if necessary.
Both the Sinhala and English-language press came under even greater pressure
from the authorities in 2007. On their side, the Tamil Tigers allow no
dissident voices in the areas they control.

    Bolstered by military victories in the east of the country, the
government of Mahinda Rajapakse, backed up by his brother, defence secretary
Gotabaya Rajapakse, has vowed to inflict military defeat on the Tamil Tigers
(LTTE) who have stepped up attacks on Sinhala civilians and threats against
journalists whom they consider to be in cahoots with the authorities. Security
forces supported by militia have sown terror in Tamil areas, carrying out many
extra-judicial executions, kidnappings and threats. Despite international
condemnation, the government has used the fight against terrorism to justify
this "dirty war". The Tamil press has been badly affected by this strategy
that is aimed at dissuading the Tamil population from supporting the LTTE.
    In the capital Colombo, the government, allied to ultra-nationalists of
the right and the left, cracked down on independent press groups, closing a
radio network and publications in Sinhala. Officials have made frequent
statements hostile to press freedom activists and investigative journalists,
forcing the best known of them, Iqbal Athas, to temporarily flee the country.
    Access to conflict zones is virtually impossible for journalists and the
war of words and statistics between the government and the LTTE spilled over
into the press. This was the case in January when the army vaunted the success
of its bombardment of an LTTE military base in Padahuthurai, eastern Sri
Lanka. But the Tamil Tigers said that 15 civilians had been killed in the
attack, which they claimed had not hit any military objective. Since no
independent journalist was able to reach the scene, the majority of the
Sinhala and English language press in Colombo carried the government account
without being able to check it, while Tamil news websites and media carried
news and footage put out by LTTE.
    The government, ever more resistant to international pressure, refused to
allow UN observers into the country and summoned several ambassadors who had
expressed opinions about human rights in the country. The national human
rights commission is so lacking in independence that it lost its international
status in 2007. Since March it has been preventing its offices from providing
information to the media on certain cases.

    Terror in Jaffna

    The northern Jaffna Peninsula, where Tamils are in the majority and which
the army directly administers, has become a nightmare for journalists, human
rights activists and civilians in general. A wave of murders, kidnappings,
threats and censorship has made it one of the most dangerous places in the
world for the press. Two journalists were killed there during the year, two
more kidnapped and at least three media have been the victims of direct
attacks on them. Scores of journalists have fled the region and others have
chosen to abandon the profession altogether.
    The Tamil militia of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) who back
the security forces in their fight against the LTTE, have been implicated in
many violent episodes. Their leader, Douglas Devananda, is also social affairs
minister. In the east, a militia formed from a group that broke away from the
LTTE has sowed terror.
    A gunman on a motorbike killed a young reporter, Selvarajah Rajivarnam,
who was riding his bike near the office of Jaffna's biggest selling daily
Uthayan at the end of April. He covered criminal cases, going into police
stations and the hospital to obtain information about murders and
disappearances. Several sources in Jaffna said members of the EPDP could be
behind the killing. Also in April, the editor of local magazine Nilam,
Chandrabose Suthaharan, was murdered at his home in the government-controlled
town of Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka. Police have failed to find the
killers.
    Two armed men who arrived on a motorbike burst into the home of
journalism student Sahathevan Nilakshan, three kilometres from Jaffna on
2 August and shot him several times, leaving him fatally wounded. He was also
a member of the management of a Tamil-language magazine Chaa'laram, linked to
the student federation in Jaffna district. Another journalist, Kangarajan
Prashanthan, working for the nationalist Tamil-language paper Navadu Eelandu
until its closure in 2006, might easily have been killed in October but gunmen
murdered his twin brother in a mistaken identity attack.

    Two journalists disappeared

    Sri Lanka holds the record for the greatest number of disappearances
reported to the UN. Among them are two Jaffna journalists: Subramaniam
Ramachandran, a journalist on Thinakural, who has not been seen since February
after being arrested by the army; and Vadivel Nimalarajah, a sub editor on
Uthayan, who was abducted from the street, after spending the night working at
his office.
    Neither of these disappearances has been seriously investigated, despite
government promises and the identification of some suspects. Similarly, the
killing of two staff in a bloody attack on the offices of Uthayan in May 2006,
went un-investigated by police, even though the paper's management provided
the authorities with the name of a suspect, Valluvan, a militant in the
pro-government EPDP militia. However witnesses, quoted by Uthayan, saw
Valluvan in 2007 in the administration offices in Jaffna.

    Tamils deprived of independent news

    Throughout the year, the government and its allies have tried to block
the flow of independent sources of news in Tamil. Those living in the north
and east of the country, already isolated by the war, have also been gradually
deprived of media not affiliated either to the government or an armed group.
For their part, the LTTE increased their surveillance of Tamil journalists,
threatening those who dare to criticise them openly. And the media in the
areas in which they control are forced to relay the movement's belligerent
propaganda.
    Some staff on Uthayan live spend time holed up in their offices in the
centre of Jaffna. One journalist lived there permanently in 2007 for fear of
being killed in the street. "We had 120 staff, of whom 20 were journalists,
before August 2006. Now there are only 55 of whom five are journalists, who
are prepared to face up to the risks", editor M. V. Kaanamylnaatha said in
June when he welcomed Reporters Without Borders to his Jaffna office.
    Until May the Jaffna press went through huge problems to obtain essential
supplies. The regions three titles were being asphyxiated by the authorities,
who from August 2006 onwards refused to allow ink and newsprint on the list of
goods that could be delivered to Jaffna. Despite their growing popularity,
Uthayan, Yarl Thinakural and Valampuri were forced to drastically reduce their
pagination and circulation. Finally after pressure, mostly from abroad, the
army lifted its embargo and stock was able to arrive from the capital by boat.
    The information ministry decided on 25 October to suspend the licences of
five radio stations - Sun FM, Gold FM, Hiru FM, Shaa FM and Surayan FM -
belonging to the privately-owned Asia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) group for
putting out a news item that turned out to be wrong. It was the president in
person who ordered the investigation. The ABC group, several hundred of whose
staff lost their jobs because of the closures, had always stood up to the
authorities. The director of the Tamil-language Surayan FM was kidnapped in
Colombo in 2006. In January 2008, the government opened new negotiations with
the ABC management, which asked some employees to return to work.
    The English-language news website Tamilnet, which is very popular because
it often provides exclusive news about the situation in the LTTE-controlled
areas, was blocked by the country's Internet service providers on 15 June. A
bullet to the head had killed the website's director, Dharmeratnam Sivaram
"Taraki", in April 2005 in Colombo. The authorities once again in 2007 blocked
an investigation that had begun with the arrest of a suspect, a member of a
pro-government Tamil party.
    One by one Tamil correspondents for the national and international press
have been leaving the north and east and sometimes the country, after
receiving threats. When a Reporters Without Borders' representative was in
Jaffna in June, the correspondent for the Associated Press received a text
message and a call from a satellite phone telling him it was his last warning
before his execution. He left Jaffna the following day.
    "I have never seen anything like it. Even in Iraq under Saddam Hussein,
foreign journalists had more freedom of movement", a journalist working for
Agence France-Presse told Reporters Without Borders after returning from
reporting in Jaffna. He had only been allowed to visit the city accompanied by
a military escort and had not been able to interview a single resident. A
British television film crew was in October also prevented from working in the
peninsula, even though they had obtained permission from the defence ministry.
Soldiers forced the three journalists to stay at the Palaly military bases and
escorted them round Jaffna for two hours before telling them to return to
Colombo.
    In its war against the LTTE, the army at the end of November bombed the
installations of the movement's official radio, near Killinochchi in the
north. Nine civilians, three of them station staff, were killed and around a
dozen more were injured. The radio Voice of Tigers is certainly a propaganda
radio run by the LTTE, but the attack violates rules of engagement that
restrict military bombing to strictly military targets.
    By contrast, the pressure brought to bear by the LTTE was less visible
than that of the authorities, but was every bit as effective. The separatist
movement has never hesitated to go after dissidents within the Tamil community
and the press is no exception to this rule. The head of a Tamil media
explained: "We know that the reaction of the LTTE can also be potentially
harmful for our staff, so we are very careful. We weigh every word when we
talk about the LTTE and the army. And naturally we never refer to the Tigers
as terrorists". The LTTE intelligence services often summon or call Tamil
journalists when they want them to provide them with information.

    Officials turned into gang leaders

    Some ministers behave like gang leaders. Labour minister, Mervyn Silva,
arrived with his henchmen at the offices of the state-run television
Rupavahini, in Colombo in December and ordered one of his men to beat the news
editor because he had failed tot broadcast a speech he just made while
formally opening a new bridge. Police were forced to intervene and the
minister left the building under a hail of insults.
    The same minister had in January incited his supporters to physically
attack journalists, including a BBC correspondent, who were covering a
peaceful rally. He said in April that "journalists behave like mad dogs and
they have to be injected against rabies".
    The defence secretary and younger brother of the president,
Gotabhaya Rajapakse, in April called the editor of the Daily Mirror,
Champika Liyanaarachchi, on his mobile phone and threatened her, saying that
she would escape reprisals only if the resigned. He said he would put pressure
on the newspaper's management to ensure she was dismissed. He also threatened
to "exterminate" the journalist Uditha Jayasinghe, for writing articles about
the plight of civilian war casualties. Security forces on two occasions also
accused the Daily Mirror of betraying the country.

    Obstacles increasingly put in the way of investigative journalism

    The prominent investigative journalist Iqbal Athas and several of his
colleagues on the Sunday Times were in August victims of a campaign of
harassment orchestrated by army officers wanting to silence them after
revelations about the purchase of MIG-27 warplanes from Ukraine. The
government staged demonstrations outside the home of Iqbal Athas in Colombo
accusing him of being a "traitor". After his police protection was removed,
Athas left the country for several weeks and suspended his column that
specialised in military affairs.
    An article posted on the defence ministry website on 2 October accused
the journalist of taking part in "psychological operations by the LTTE
terrorists". A few days earlier, after Athas had just resumed his column in
the Sunday Times, army spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakakara, called on the
media to stop publishing his articles.
    The authorities also sponsored an arson attack in November on the
printers of the Leader Publications group, sending in around 15 men, with the
complicity of the army, who mistreated two staff before spraying machines with
petrol and torching them. The group publishes the English-language weeklies
The Sunday Leader and Morning Leader, the Sinhala-language weekly Irudina and
prints the Tamil-language daily Sudar Oli. The raiders destroyed thousands of
copies of the Morning Leader which were due for distribution that morning. The
editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickramatunga, known for his
investigations and critical editorials, condemned the attack as a commando
operation backed by the government.
    The few Tamil journalists who tried to carry out investigative work were
also targeted. In August, Kalimuttu Palamohan, known as K. P. Mohan, a
specialist in military affairs for the Tamil-language daily Thinakkural, had
acid thrown at him as he returned to his home in Colombo. Soldiers had
attacked the journalist two months earlier. "When I showed them my press card
they insulted me and then called other colleagues who beat me", K. P. Mohan
said about the first incident.




For further information:

For further information: Katherine Borlongan, secretary general,
Reporters Without Borders, (514) 521-4111, Cell: (514) 258-4208, Fax: (514)
521-7771, rsfcanada@rsf.org

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