Cablegate: Leading Tamil Editor Receives Death Threats
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 COLOMBO 000954
DEPT FOR SA/INS (BRENNIG, DEAN) SA/PD (SCENSNY, ROGERS,
TAGS: PHUM KPAO PTER EAID OIIP PREL CE LTTE
SUBJECT: Leading Tamil Editor Receives Death Threats
REF: Colombo 812
1. (U) Summary: Following the high-profile April 29 murder
of Tamil commentator Dharmaretnam Sivaram, (Reftel), another
prominent Tamil journalist, Vediwel Thevaraj, Acting Editor-
in-Chief of the mainstream independent Tamil daily
Virakesari, has reported receiving anonymous death threats.
Mr. Theveraj does not know who has been making the threats,
just as the police still have not been able to identify
Sivaram's murderers a month after his slaying. Reporters
Without Borders submitted a letter May 24 to the Minister of
Public Security, Law and Order expressing concern for the
safety of Mr. Thevaraj. End Summary.
2. (SBU) Virakesari (circulation: 125,000) is the most
mainstream of Sri Lanka's independent Tamil papers.
Although generally considered neutral, it has become
somewhat more sympathetic to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE) since February. Virakesari does not openly
criticize the LTTE nor take a position regarding other
political parties, but does publish the statements of rival
Tamil groups such as the EPDP (Douglas Devananda's Eelam
People's Democratic Party) and TULF (Tamil United Liberation
Front). Although Mr. Thevaraj is known among his colleagues
as an LTTE sympathizer with good relations among senior LTTE
members, his reporting in Virakesari has been very balanced.
He has never directly criticized the LTTE in his writings,
but neither has he been their cheerleader. Moreover,
Thevaraj was a close friend and former classmate of Sivaram.
3. (U) According to a statement filed May 25 by Mr.
Thevaraj to the Superintendent of Police, unidentified
persons speaking both Sinhala and Tamil phoned the Thevaraj
home on April 29th and 30th, while Mr. Thevaraj was in
Australia. The callers allegedly told the journalist's
niece, who took the calls in his absence, that her uncle
would be the next to be killed. According to Mr. Thevaraj,
he visited the home of the late Sivaram on May 1st, from
3:30 to 9:30 PM, where he saw a gray "Intercooler" jeep with
tinted windows, similar to the vehicle in which Sivaram was
allegedly abducted, parked outside the house. The next day,
he reported seeing the same jeep parked outside his own
house gate, with the engine on, between 12:30 and 2:30 a.m.
Mr. Thevaraj stated he received similar threatening calls on
his direct office line in English, Tamil, and Sinhala on May
2nd and 3rd. Frightened after receiving the threatening
phone calls, Mr. Thevaraj said he decided to visit his
sisters in Canada, where he remained from May 6th to May
21st. Since returning to Sri Lanka, he said he has not
received other threats.
4. (SBU) Mr. Thevaraj, visibly nervous and agitated, told
PAO and IO on May 26 the threatening callers had said, "You
supported Sivaram, so we have marked you." The caller who
allegedly phoned Thevaraj at work on three consecutive days
spoke English, Sinhala and Tamil: "Perfect Sinhala and
colloquial Tamil," said Thevaraj, "not Jaffna or Batticaloa
Tamil; the kind a Sinhalese person would speak." Thevaraj
said he and Sivaram had been close friends and colleagues
for the past six to seven years. When asked who might have
threatened him, Thevaraj said eight to ten years ago he had
received threats from the anti-LTTE EPDP (Eelam People's
Democratic Party), though he had "not criticized the EPDP."
He said he had been critical of the Karuna faction, but did
not believe the Eastern Tigers to be the perpetrators of the
threats against him or Sivaram's murder, instead implicating
the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the government's junior
alliance partner, and "government-side intelligence" for the
latter incident. Thevaraj added, "Most of the Tamil
journalists feel themselves to be in danger," and agreed
that many would increase self-censorship following the
latest threats. Thevaraj said he would not censor himself.
On May 1st, he said, he published his own positive eulogy of
Sivaram in the Sunday Virakesari despite recent threatening
calls received at his residence. However, he told us, "The
police inspector told me as a friend to leave this country,
that the police couldn't guarantee my safety."
5. (SBU) Conversely, News Editor of Virakesari, Prabagan
Ratnasabapathy (protect), told IO he "cannot confirm there
was a real threat." He implied that this incident might be a
ploy by Thevaraj to obtain an immigrant visa to Canada
through an asylum petition, stating Mr. Thevaraj had been
denied a visa that would allow him to work for a Tamil paper
there. Another senior journalist, Lucien Rajakarunanayake
(protect), took the alleged threats against Mr. Thevaraj
more seriously: "Mr. Thevaraj was a close friend of Sivaram.
Sivaram had contributed most recently to the Sunday
Virakesari on the 24th of April, in which he was critical of
[Norwegian Special Peace Envoy] Erik Solhiem and the peace
process in general. With the way things happen, the calls
may have been just to frighten [Mr. Thevaraj], but knowing
the condition of Tamil journalists, there are several forces
who may wish to threaten him. Mr. Thevaraj is certainly
taking his own precautions now, but this threat will affect
other Tamil journalists."
6. (SBU) Comment. The independent Virakesari newspaper has
become more sympathetic towards the LTTE of late, perhaps
due to pressure from the LTTE, which brooks little dissent
from Tamil journalists. Just as Sivaram's murderers have
not yet been identified (although a letter from a previously
unknown Sinhalese group was widely sent out to embassies and
press organizations three weeks after Sivaram's murder
claiming responsibility), there appears no ready clue as to
who threatened Mr. Thevaraj (and we tend to believe
Thevaraj's story given his shaken condition and his
willingness to endure several hours of police questioning).
However, death threats to another prominent Tamil journalist
lend weight to many Sri Lankan journalists' fears about
freedom of the press here. Regardless of the source of the
threats, they are adding to the sense of apprehension among
the media and could lead to increased self-censorship. We
will continue to monitor and report on these disturbing
developments. End Comment.