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Cablegate: Sri Lanka: Surge in Violence and Intimidation

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OO RUEHBI RUEHLMC
DE RUEHLM #0144/01 0381222
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O 071222Z FEB 08
FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 7670
INFO RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA PRIORITY 0734
RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD PRIORITY 7723
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU PRIORITY 5904
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 4253
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI PRIORITY 1830
RUEHNY/AMEMBASSY OSLO PRIORITY 4258
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 3354
RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI PRIORITY 8332
RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI PRIORITY 5823
RUEHON/AMCONSUL TORONTO PRIORITY 0535
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI PRIORITY
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RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 COLOMBO 000144

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR SCA/INS (BILLINGSLEY) AND DRL/NESCA (MIKOSZ)

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM PTER SCUL CE
SUBJECT: SRI LANKA: SURGE IN VIOLENCE AND INTIMIDATION
AGAINST FREE MEDIA

REF: 07 COLOMBO 1489 (AND PREVIOUS)

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Intimidation and attacks on the media in
Sri Lanka have risen sharply since the beginning of the year.
The International Federation of Journalists ranked Sri Lanka
as the fifth deadliest country for journalists based on 2007
incidents that included six recorded deaths. January
portends even worse for 2008: press organizations report that
in January at least three journalists were attacked with
knives, journalists' cars have been rammed and attempts made
to run them off the road, and at least six journalists
received death threats. The Free Media Movement reported
that police tried to abduct the General Secretary of the Sri
Lankan Journalists' Association. Statements by senior Sri
Lankan officials encourage the trend toward censorship and
intimidation: Army Commander Sarath Fonseka labeled sections
of the media and journalists "traitors" in an interview
published on January 2. In a January 27 interview with a
Sinhalese nationalist daily, Defense Secretary Gothabaya
Rajapaksa reportedly stated, "journalists should not be
allowed to write about military matters." The International
Federation of Journalists and other international
organizations have issued strong statements on the situation.
The Ambassador expressed concern about Sri Lanka's worsening
environment for press freedom in a February 1 meeting with
the Foreign Secretary. End Summary.

THREATS AND ATTACKS AGAINST MEDIA MULTIPLY IN JANUARY
--------------------------------------------- --------

2. (SBU) The media freedom environment in Sri Lanka
continues to deteriorate, with press organizations reporting
dozens of attacks and threats against journalists in January.
Journalists and other observers claim that the attacks are
organized, sanctioned, and in some cases carried out by
members of the government and the police. In other cases,
they say, the police have not responded to complaints
journalists have filed with them, citing one recent case of
police refusing to act even when the victim knew the identity
of the attackers.

3. (SBU) Public statements by senior leaders are stoking the
fires: Army Commander Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka
accused sections of the media of "treachery" in a January 2
interview. Defense Secretary (and brother of the president)
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa called for media censorship, the judicial
enforcement of criminal defamation and the prosecution of two
specific media outlets for "critical reportage" in a January
27 interview. "Journalists should not be allowed to write
about military matters. Strong action ought to be taken
against those who do. We should return to the laws that
criminalize defamation in order to punish those who try to
murder us," he was quoted. Government websites also
complain about "sordid media operations." The Media Center
for National Security warned on Jan. 19 that "rumors,
including SMS text messaging, regarding the war situation
will be dealt with severely." Social Welfare Minister
Douglas Devananda (also head of the pro-government EPDP armed
paramilitary) accused Tamil television personality Sri Ranga
Jeyaratnam of working on behest of the LTTE and publicly
called on police to investigate this "traitor."

STATE TV EMPLOYEES TURN TABLES ON POLITICAL THUG
--------------------------------------------- ---

4. (SBU) A number of the January offenses appear to be
related to the December 27 raid by Deputy Labor Minister
Mervyn Silva into the offices of the state-controlled
television station Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC).
Silva was reportedly upset because the station opted not to
air an obscene, defamatory speech he had given. In that
incident, Silva ordered the men with him to beat up the
Channel's news director, who has since been transferred from

COLOMBO 00000144 002 OF 003


his post. Outraged employees of the state-run television
then surrounded Silva and his henchmen, cornering them for
hours until elite police until were able to free them. In
the aftermath, SLRC journalist Lal Hemantha Mawalage, was run
down and severely stabbed on January 25. He told police he
received death threats subsequent to the December 27
incident, and his car had been rammed three days prior to the
knife attack. Three other senior media personnel of the MTV
Channel, which covered the incident extensively, have also
reported death threats in connection with Silva's attempted
storming of the television station. Rather than looking into
Silva's invasion of the station, the Criminal Investigation
Division has called in at least 21 SLRC journalists for
questioning on the incident.

"TRAITOR" LABEL USED TO STIFLE REPORTS ON COPRRUPTION
--------------------------------------------- --------

5. (SBU) In spite of some government officials' claims that
the media are taking the side of the LTTE, many of the
journalists who have suffered attacks have been covering
corruption and transparency issues, reporting on such
seemingly non-political topics as illegal sand mining. The
Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association and other groups
have claimed that criminal gangs associated with Minister de
Silva are responsible for several of the attacks. Our media
contacts have explained that often journalists will be
accused of being unpatriotic and threatened with suits
alleging they are revealing state secrets or aiding the enemy
in order to "encourage" them not to cover individual cases of
corruption.

TAMIL MEDIA IN JAFFNA UNDER ATTACK
----------------------------------

6. (SBU) Journalists at Tamil language publications are at
particular risk. Suahib Kassim, the former Associate Editor
of a state-controlled Tamil daily was stabbed on January 28
at his home. He had previously received death threats, and
had been transferred from his position a few days before the
attack. The staff of the Tamil newspaper Uthayan in Jaffna
have reported new threats. As previously reported, Uthayan
has probably suffered the most of any Sri Lankan media
organization. Two support staff were killed when the Uthayan
office was attacked in May 2006. A delivery man for the
newspaper was killed in August 2006 while in a Uthayan
vehicle. Uthayan journalist Selvaraha Rajivaram was one of
the six journalists killed in 2007. No one has been arrested
for these attacks. The editor of Uthayan has reportedly not
left the newspaper's office for more than a year for fear for
being killed.

GOVERNMENT SHUTS DOWN CELLPHONE MESSAGING SERVICE
--------------------------------------------- ----

7. (SBU) Media contacts also lamented the government's order
to cellphone providers to block text-messaging services for
six hours on Sri Lanka's February 4 Independence Day. The
government also shut down all cellphone service, voice and
text, in the North and East. The government claimed that the
measure was for security purposes, but telecommunications
experts pointed out that Sri Lanka's Telecommunications Act
lays out procedures for such actions. Among other
process-related omissions, the government failed to inform
the fee-paying public about the nature of the threat and how
shutting off service was necessary to counter it.

8. (U) The International Federation of Journalists, the
Overseas Press Club of America, Reporters Without Frontiers,
Amnesty International, and other international associations
have written to the President and issued statements
condemning the spiral of press intimidation and the public
vilification of journalists in Sri Lanka.

COLOMBO 00000144 003 OF 003

9. (SBU) COMMENT: Ambassador raised U.S. concerns about the
situation in a February 1 meeting with Foreign Secretary
Palitha Kohona, and will continue to do so with senior GSL
interlocutors. Threats and violence against journalists are
not new in Sri Lanka, but the spate of incidents in January
represents a disturbing increase in violent and potentially
fatal attacks against the media. Inflammatory comments by
senior political leaders tend to encourage the thugs who
would harm journalists, indirectly provoking further
violence. In the wake of a number of bomb attacks in
government-controlled areas of Sri Lanka in the lead-up to
the February 4 Independence Day observances, it is likely
that this government will continue to pressure the press.
We will continue to deliver the message that Sri Lanka must
respect media freedom, and that the recent actions and
statements against journalists have done serious harm to the
country's image abroad.
BLAKE

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
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