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Cablegate: Sri Lanka: Journalists Face Continued Pressure

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DE RUEHLM #0902 2700238
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 260238Z SEP 08
FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 8713
INFO RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI 2293
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON 4542
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO 3614
RUEHNY/AMEMBASSY OSLO 4510
RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI 8702
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK 0816
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA 2955
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC

UNCLAS COLOMBO 000902


SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR SCA SCA/INS, SCA/PPD and DRL/NESCA

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PROP CE
SUBJECT: Sri Lanka: Journalists Face Continued Pressure

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Munza Mushtaq, news editor the English-language,
independent daily "The Nation," resigned on August 30, 2008 to
protest a spate of recent actions by the publication's new
management to curb journalistic and editorial independence. The
change in management and in editorial oientation at the Nation will
muzzle a moderate bt independent voice and further narrow the
spectum of opinion in Sri Lanka's media landscape. EndSummary.

2. (SBU) Embassy PD officers met withMunza Mushtaq, who resigned
her post on August 30as News Editor for the Nation, an
English-languae, independent daily. Mustaq had been employed by
the Nation since its beginning in 2006, when a Si Lankan
businessman established the paper to seve as an independent voice.
The management recruited several leading journalists from other
newspaers, and the paper quickly gained a strong reputaton as a
reliable and unbiased publication.

3. (SBU) In March 2008, Nilanka Rajapaksa purchased a 49 percent
share in the Nation. Rajapaksa, although not a relative, is
reportedly a close friend of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaska.
According to Mushtaq, soon after Nilanka Rajapaksa became involved
with the paper, journalists felt their independence threatened.
Tension erupted in late May 2008, when the Nation's Defense
correspondent Keith Noyahr was abducted and brutally tortured by a
group of thugs with alleged ties to senior military officers. He
had been warned not to criticize the military activities of the
regime, according to Mustaq. Noyahr has since left the country with
his family.

4. (SBU) Shortly after the attack on Noyahr and approximately two
and half months after Rajapksa purchased his 49 percent share, the
remaining 51 percent was sold to Prasanna Wickremasuriya, brother of
the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S. and a cousin of President
Rajapaksa. According to Mushtaq, initially Wickremasuriya assured
the editorial staff of total independence. However, soon
thereafter, management frequently stopped editors from printing
stories critical of the government. This environment caused
further tension and dissatisfaction among a group of senior editors,
and the group handed over their resignation letters in July en
masse. Fearing the fallout of such an exodus, the paper's new
general manager refused the resignations and instead offered large
financial incentives if the journalists stayed. The journalists
accepted the offer and rescinded their resignation letters.

5. (SBU) Tension briefly subsided, according to Munza. However,
on August 24, Munza penned an article, verified by multiple sources,
outlining Ambassador Wickremasuriya's attempts to have the Sri
Lankan Foreign Ministry give the Sri Lankan embassy assistance to
counter the efforts of U.S. lobbyist Bruce Fein (who is viewed as
pro-LTTE by the Sri Lankan government). According to Munza, it was
Nilanka Rajapaksa who was agitated with the article, rather than
Prasanna Wickremasuriya, the Ambassador's brother.

6. (SBU) In response to the article, the Nation's management asked
longtime chief editor Lalith Allahakoon to resign. Allahakoon
refused. He challenged the board to fire him, knowing that his
dismissal would create a media uproar. The management subsequently
relieved Allahakoon of his responsibilities, but has kept him on
staff. In response, Munza and Marianne David, another senior
journalist, tendered their resignations. The management accepted
both with immediate effect.

7. (SBU) COMMENT: The events underscore the tense working
environment for independent media in Sri Lanka. Journalists are
fearful of writing pieces critical of the government or the military
offensive in northern Sri Lanka. The beating of Noyahr in May was
viewed by many journalists as both a punishment for his articles and
a threat to other journalists of the consequences for authoring
critical pieces. The purchase of the Nation by the president's
cronies, while ostensibly motivated by investment considerations, is
likely to further narrow the spectrum of opinion reflected in Sri
Lanka's media landscape.

BLAKE

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