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State of siege

Sri Lanka must stop the intimidation of its press

The “with us or against us” gambit is a familiar one. In situations of conflict,states often suspend civil liberties and procedure and arrogate exceptional power to themselves. Sri Lanka is a particularly vivid example. Its campaign against the LTTE is accompanied by a zero-tolerance attitude towards journalistic dis-sent. That has caused it to be declared one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Lasantha Wickrematunge,the editor of The Sunday Leader,whose critical columns put him on a collision course with Sri Lanka’s political and military establishment,was assassinated this year. His posthumously published editorial,“And then they came for me”,where he predicted his own killing and reminded Sri Lankans of the fragility of their freedoms,made him an icon of independent media.

Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Rajapaksa,the president’s brother, has advocated censorship,harsh punishments for critical reporting on the military,and a criminal defamation law. The ministry website labels “baseless” criticism treachery: “Whoever attempts to reduce the public support to the military… is supporting the terrorist organisation that continuously murder (sic) citizens of Sri Lanka. The ministry will continue to expose these traitors… and does not consider such exposure as a threat to media freedom.”

And so,Sri Lanka’s siege takes place in a soundless netherworld. It seems unthinkable that modern conflict could be so sealed away from the world’s eyes,but news that trickles out is pre-selected and approved by the Sri Lankan government. As the New York-based nonprofit,The Committee to Protect Journalists,has said,“This is an open intimidation of the media… The Sri Lankan press sorely needs space to report independently on the escalating instability in the country,free of government intimidation.” We know that media freedom and other democratic institutions are closely correlated. Now that Sri Lanka’s military appears so close to its goals,it is vital that the country remake and empower independent institutions,including the free press.

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First published on: 05-05-2009 at 12:02:10 am
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