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Cablegate: Sri Lanka: Media Come Under New Fire; Fight Back

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PP RUEHBI RUEHLMC
DE RUEHLM #1489/01 3051006
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 011006Z NOV 07
FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7110
INFO RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA 0497
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON 4089
RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD 7486
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU 5646
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI 1516
RUEHNY/AMEMBASSY OSLO 4135
RUEHOT/AMEMBASSY OTTAWA 1214
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO 3228
RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI 8080
RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI 5681
RUEHON/AMCONSUL TORONTO 0435
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA 2417
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS
RUEHLMC/MILLENNIUM CHALLENGE CORPORATION

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 COLOMBO 001489

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

SIPDIS

STATE FOR SCA/INS

E.O 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM PINS KPAO KDEM CE
SUBJECT: SRI LANKA: MEDIA COME UNDER NEW FIRE; FIGHT BACK

REF: COLOMBO 475

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: A series of recent government actions against
media outlets or individual reporters has given rise to concern that
the government may again be trying to muzzle or intimidate media
critics. The Information Ministry has withdrawn the broadcasting
license of a radio network on the grounds that one of its stations
aired a report of an LTTE attack which proved to be erroneous (the
network retracted the story). The police Criminal Investigation
Division (CID) arrested a newspaper reporter based on an
uncorroborated charge of blackmail by a minister who was the subject
of a story on corruption. A magistrate later released the reporter
on bail, while severely criticizing police conduct in the incident.
Separately, Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa threatened to sue
the newspaper for articles about alleged corruption in military
procurement; the paper challenged him to do so, saying it would
countersue for defamation. Another reporter was shot dead in
Jaffna. In a bizarre twist, the government issued a draconian war
censorship regulation, kept it under wraps for two days, and
withdrew the measure within hours of it becoming public. End
summary.

WITHDRAWAL OF RADIO NETWORK LICENSE
-----------------------------------

2. (SBU) On October 26, 2007, the Ministry of Information withdrew
the broadcasting license of the Asian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)
radio network (no connection to U.S.-based ABC) and ordered the
network to stop broadcasting immediately. This affected five radio
stations: Hiru and Sha (Sinhala), Gold (English), Sun (English) and
Sooriyan (Tamil). The move was ostensibly in reaction to an
erroneous news report by Hiru on October 24 regarding a suspected
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attack on Ranminitenna, a
village near Tissamaharama in Sri Lanka's deep south. The news item
was picked up by other media outlets. Hiru promptly corrected its
story after learning that, although villagers had gone to police
with reports of seeing some strangers in black uniforms in the
vicinity, no attack had taken place. Other media outlets did not
issue corrections; however, the Information Ministry took action
only against ABC.

3. (SBU) Raynor Silva, Managing Director of ABC said: "Even
internationally, a warning is issued on the radio station when an
error is said to have occurred, and certainly the whole network is
not penalized and asked to shut down." In fact, the ABC radio
stations are close to the main opposition United National party and
have generally been critical of the government. The GSL had
previously warned ABC against broadcasting recorded statements by
LTTE leaders. On August 28, 2006, Sooriyan News Director N.
Guruparan was abducted and released 13 hours later.

4. (U) Reporters Without Borders condemned the Government's action,
saying "The circumstances should not be used by the government as a
pretext for a form of censorship" The Sri Lanka-based Free Media
Movement (FMM) stated, "FMM is deeply concerned about this drastic
action by the government not only because of what it indicates about
the state of media freedom in this country, but also because of the
impact such a sudden closure can have on the over 300 persons who
are employed by the ABC radio network".

5. (U) The Court of Appeal took up a Writ Application against the
withdrawal of ABC'S broadcasting license on October 29. Appeal
Court Judges obtained an undertaking from the Telecommunication
Regulatory Commission, one of the respondents, that ABC's
frequencies would not be allocated to a third party until November
16, the date listed for giving support to the Application. Also on
October 29, ABC filed a Fundamental Rights petition in the Supreme
Court challenging the withdrawal of its broadcasting licenses and
frequencies and asking for 400 million rupees [$3.6 million] in
damages. Managing Director Silva has also filed for an injunction
to prevent police from arresting or detaining him. The Information

COLOMBO 00001489 002 OF 003


Ministry countered with a submission stating that no private
broadcaster in Sri Lanka had applied for or received a license to
carry news. On November 1, in a sign that ABC will face a tough
battle, the Supreme Court charged the company with contempt because
of omissions and technical defects in its affidavit alleging
infringement of its fundamental rights.

WAR CENSORSHIP IMPOSED, LIFTED HOURS LATER
------------------------------------------

6. (SBU) In a bizarre episode, the government issued a draconian
executive order on war censorship under the emergency regulations on
October 29, kept it out of the public domain until October 31, and
then withdrew it within hours. The rule would prohibit both print
and broadcast media from disseminating any information about
military deployments, operations, or use of weapons and any
information related to military procurement. An as-yet unnamed
"Competent Authority" (probably the Ministry of Defense) would have
authority to suspend publication or broadcasting of any media outlet
found in contravention of the order, and the authors and publishers
would be subject to criminal prosecutions. Defense analyst Iqbal
Athas (strictly protect) noted this would have a chilling effect on
any reporting on national security issues, including his own work.
The government said it had promulgated the regulation in reaction to
the ABC case, but was now retracting it because of the media's good
behavior in the interim.

JOURNALIST ARRESTED ON TRUMPED-UP CHARGES
-----------------------------------------

7. (U) On October 24, 2007 the Criminal Investigation Department
(CID) arrested Arthur Wamanan, a 22-year old Investigations Desk
Journalist at the muckraking "Sunday Leader", apparently on the
basis of an uncorroborated statement by Enterprise Development
Minister Mano Wijeratne. Wamanan was working on a story that
Wijeratne had an office under his Ministry cover his wife's
international roaming cell phone bill and called the Minister to
obtain his side of the story. Wijeratne rose in Parliament to
accuse an unnamed journalist of trying to blackmail him over a
story, cast aspersions on the general practice of journalism in the
country, and later filed a complaint with the Criminal Investigation
Division (after the story appeared in the Leader) alleging that
Wamanan tried to extort money from him.

8. (U) Wamanan was charged by the CID under the Penal Code for
Extortion, arrested and remanded. On October 26, Chief Magistrate
Ayeshani Jayasena conducted Wanaman's bail hearing. The CID
objected to granting of bail, citing (among other reasons) that
Wamanan was Tamil, had connections to Sri Lanka's North, where his
parents were born, and lived in a predominantly Tamil neighborhood
in Colombo. The magistrate lectured the CID officers at length and
reprimanded them for acting on hearsay without proper evidence. She
granted bail, saying Wamanan's further incarceration would send the
wrong signal at a time the media were already under pressure.
Jayasena fixed a hearing date of November 30.

9. (U) Wijeratne's brother Neranjan, a respected official of the
Buddhist "Temple of the Tooth" in Kandy, conveyed a personal apology
to Wamanan and the "Leader" on October 27 dismissing his brother's
claim as "an allegation which can be nothing more than a joke - are
journalists so mad to ask for a bribe of 5 million rupees [$45,000]
to hold back a story involving a payment of 80,000 rupees [$700]?"


DEFENSE SECRETARY THREATENS "LEADER" WITH LAWSUIT
--------------------------------------------- ----

10. (U) Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse sent a letter of
demand on October 18, 2007 to the Chairman of Leader Publications,
the Editor of "Sunday Leader" seeking damages of 1 billion rupees
for an article alleging huge kickbacks in the GSL's procurement of

COLOMBO 00001489 003 OF 003


MiG aircraft. (Note: The MiG transaction is presently under
investigation by the Permanent Commission Investigating Allegations
of Bribery and Corruption following a complaint filed by former
Ministers Mangala Samaraweera and Sripathi Sooriyarachchi in which
Gothabaya is cited by name.) In response, the Leader's attorney
invited the Secretary of Defense to file action in Court, saying his
clients would countersue for defamation. The letter suggested that
the Defense Secretary resign.

JAFFNA JOURNALIST MURDERED
--------------------------

11. (U) Tamil freelance journalist Kanagarajan Prashanthan was shot
dead in Jaffna on October 26, 2007. The Free Media Movement, in a
press release, stated "FMM is afraid Pradeepan was killed in
mistaken identity of his journalist brother, and journalist
Prashanthan may be in danger." Pradeepan's identical twin,
Prashanthan was formerly employed with the newspaper "Namathu
Eelanadu" in Jaffna. The paper's office has been closed since its
Managing Director, Sinnathamby Sivamaharajah, was shot dead at his
Jaffna home on August 21, 2006. Earlier in 2007, two Jaffna
journalists have been victims of extrajudicial killings: Selvarajah
Rajivewaran of the newspaper "Uthayan" on April 29, and Nilakshan
Sagadevan of the Jaffna University Media Research Training Center on
August 1. 2007 has also seen seven incidents of assaults and
attacks on journalists in the South.

12. (SBU) COMMENT: It appears that after a period of relative quiet
on the media front, the government has chosen to return to more
aggressive tactics intended to silence critical voices. There is
also speculation that senior GSL officials have been looking for an
excuse to revoke ABC's broadcast and frequency licenses in order to
redistribute them to political and business allies. It is hard to
fathom why the government withdrew its ill-considered censorship
regulation so quickly. Some observers believe that the GSL realized
it was vulnerable to charges of trying to muzzle criticism of
military procurement irregularities. Embassy will find a suitable
opportunity to raise with the GSL our concerns about this recent
spate of actions against media freedom.

BLAKE

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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