Media Freedom

Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka – September 2014

Summary:
September was a month that saw almost daily incidents of repression of dissent. A commemoration planned for a well-known woman human rights defender and academic, Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, was obstructed when two pre-booked venues were withdrawn and a protest march was banned by the Police. A prayer service for displaced Tamils in the district of Jaffna was banned, and Police in Batticaloa obtained court orders to ban commemorations for persons killed twice within two weeks.

In Colombo, two human rights lawyers received death threats and opposition trade unionists were assaulted. The Military obstructed journalists from trying to report on the situation in the Aluthgama area where anti-Muslim riots took place in June. Journalists covering the post-election situation in the Uva province were assaulted, one of the men was hospitalized for several weeks due to his serious injuries. A Northern Tamil journalist narrowly escaped death and a Tamil media activist in Jaffna was subjected to continuous questioning, intimidation and harassment. A Tamil Catholic Priest in Jaffna was questioned after he wrote a poetry book about his war time experiences and a number of school Principals were also questioned for receiving the book. Pressure by extremist groups led to the withdrawal of a literary award to a Sinhalese writer now living in exile due to death threats, due to his criticial political views of the government. The four (out of five) judges who chose him as the awardee were also discredited by an extremist writer supportive of the government.

A training workshop for web journalists was disrupted in Negombo. A civil society organized meeting in Trincomalee was also disrupted when venues were withdrawn twice and the meeting was subjected to surveillance. An Australian University admitted to un-inviting two prominent Sri Lankan human rights defenders after they were invited to participate in an international conference, due to pressure from the Ministry of Defence. Police unleashed water cannons and tear gas to supress a peaceful protest by Catholics over a statue. When a protest calling for the release of a prominent anti-disappearance campaigner whose son had disappeared was held in Colombo, a group that held a counter protest distributed leaflets portraying her as a terrorist supporter, despite there being no charges brought against her 200 days after being detained. A banner displayed at the counter-protest showcased photos of 8 human rights defenders depicting them as traitors.

Student activists also faced suppression. Protesting students were threatened and protest banners were destroyed by the Chairman of the Moneragela Pradeshiya Saba. Police surrounding the Buddhist and Pali University searched the premises and demanded the handover of 4 student leaders. Opposition parties were subjected to a series of attacks and intimidation in the lead up to the elections in the Uva Province and there was a call for lists of opposition party activists working as government officials, which was seen as an initial move to persecute them for their political affiliations. Secretary to the Ministry of Defence accused a leading Tamil political party of causing political turmoil and encouraging separatist sentiments. The Deputy British High Commissioner was watched when she visited the Eastern Province and some of the people she met were questioned afterwards. A family that was visited by the British High Commissioner in the North was also questioned.

There were no visible attempts by authorities to address the continuing incidents of suppression of dissent. As before, government politicians, government officials, police, military, state media and journalists sympathetic to the government appear to be responsible for most reported incidents in September, and relevant institutions, such as the Police, appear unwilling to take actions even when complaints are made.

For full reports with summary table of incidents, see:

English: Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka – Sept 2014 -English (23Oct2014)

සිංහල: Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka – Sept 2014 – Sinhala (24Oct2014)

தமிழ்: Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka – Sept 2014 – Tamil (24Oct2014)

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Repression of Dissent – July 2014

Summary

July is known as “Black July” in Sri Lanka, due to the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, where thousands of Tamils were killed and their properties destroyed. It was a turning point in the ethnic conflict, which saw support for Tamil militancy increase and the birth of Tamil Diaspora. This year’s July, saw a commemoration of “Black July” being interrupted by Police. An event to commemorate the worst riots since then, in June 2014 against Muslims in Aluthgama, was also obstructed by the Police.
July 2014 turned out to be a “Black July” for dissenters. Leaders of the Bar Association and Free Media Movement, a leading political analysts and outspoken Catholic Bishop were threatened, intimidated and subjected to surveillance, while an exiled peace activist, who is now an Australian citizen, was harassed when he applied for a visa to come for his mother’s funeral. Film makers were threatened, several Tamil journalists were threatened, interrogated and obstructed from carrying out their duties when they were covering issues such as sexual abuses and illegal land occupation allegedly committed by the Military. A well-known Al Jazeera journalist was also interrogated. Tamil journalists travelling to Colombo was obstructed in middle of the night by the Police and Army, and the workshop they were travelling to participate had to be cancelled due to threats from a mob that protested outside the venue where the training was due to be held. A protest rally organized in Jaffna also had to be cancelled after the Police obtained a court order against it.
July was also Black month NGOs. The NGO Secretariat, functioning under the Ministry of Defence issued a circular that prohibited NGOs from issuing press releases and organizing press conferences and trainings for journalists. The Department of External Resources also issued a public notice warning about funding for NGOs, and various agencies cooperating with NGOs. USAID was compelled to withdraw funding for voter education programmes after opposition from the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. The Prime Minister and State Media accused NGOs of being a threat to national security and of having supported terrorism. The government again expressed their opposition to those who may cooperate with the UN’s international investigation, with the official government spokesperson threatening appropriate action against Sri Lankans overseas who may give testimony via skype.
Student Activists were arrested and there were obstructions in getting bail even after a Magistrate ordered them to be released on bail. A student protest was attacked for the third time and Student Unions dissolved. Opposition parliamentarians on a fact finding mission claimed they were obstructed by goons protected by the Police.
The military spokespersons denied there were any attacks against journalists last few years and some government representatives tried to indicate the restrictive circular was only “guidelines” for NGOs. Generally, Police were part of the repression of dissent or choose not to take decisive and firm action to prevent and respond to violations.
But repression was met with resistance and defiance. Even after getting death threats, Sunil Jayasekera, the Convener of the Free Media Movement went ahead with a press conference, exposing the death threats and declaring that “death threats will not deter us”. The President of the Bar Association also choose to publicly expose intimidation and surveillance he was subjected to, along with many other journalists who were threatened, harassed and obstructed. When protest march in Jaffna was stopped, organizers had a meeting in a large public hall, with widespread participation of people affected by abuses, clergy, opposition politicians etc. A film maker summoned by the Police refused to abide, citing his fundamental rights. Lawyers dismissed the circulars and notices related to NGOs as having no legal basis. NGO representatives, concerned persons and groups dumped copies of a circular in a garbage bin and burnt them in public. The courage and determination shown by those subjected to repression and others imminently at risk keeps alive hope for democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka.

To download the full report, please see the below links:

English: Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka -July 2014- English (07Sep2014)

 සිංහල: Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka -July 2014- Sinhala (07Sep2014)

தமிழ்: Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka -July 2014- English (07Sep2014)

 


 

To see other Repression of Dissent Reports, please see the Reports page

Repression of Dissent – June 2014

Summary

June 2014 will be remembered in Sri Lanka for the communal violence in the towns of Aluthgama and Beruwala in Southern Sri Lanka, that resulted in 4 persons (three Muslims and one Tamil) being killed, more than 80 injured and widespread damage to property, mainly of Muslims. The widely held belief, including by the Minister of Justice and several other Government Ministers is that the Buddhist extremist group, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS – meaning Buddhist Power Force) was primarily responsible for the rioting, particularly through an inflammatory speech by it’s leader, Ven. Galabodaatthe Gnanasara Thero, who said

“In this country we still have a Sinhala Police; we still have a Sinhala Army. After today if a single Marakkalaya (derogatory term for Muslims) or some other paraya (alien) touches a single Sinhalese…..it will be their end.”

Police had allowed the rally in which this speech was made to go ahead, despite appeals by Muslim religious and political leaders that it may lead to violence. The BBS and some government officials have claimed that the origins of the riots was an alleged attack by Muslim youth on a Buddhist Monk few days earlier. Others have reported that the Buddhist Monk in question was not attacked, but there was an incident involving Muslim youth and a Sinhalese – Buddhist driver of a Buddhist Monk. Three Muslim youth have been arrested for this incident. However, the Police and government institutions have been accused of inaction by those affected by the riots and the violence and eyewitnesses.
An opposition Parliamentarian and several journalists who went to cover the communal violence were attacked and threatened. A leading Sri Lankan journalist and a prominent citizen journalist website were accused of being “twitter/social media murderers” by the editor of a leading state controlled newspaper.  This was after they exposed facts about the communal violence, in the absence of independent coverage in mainstream newspapers. The Defence Ministry was accused by the Leader of the Opposition of attempting to censor media institutions.
A training workshop for Tamil journalists organized by a leading Sri Lankan NGO had to be cancelled for the second time due to protests by an unknown group and refusal of the Police to provide protection. Participating journalists were evacuated and housed in a leading Colombo hotel for safety, only to be driven out of the hotel rooms in the middle of the night by the hotel management following alleged threats by a “powerful” group. Media reports appeared about proposals by the Ministry of External Affairs to control events organized by NGOs, by demanding detailed information in advance and controlling visas for foreign visitors through the Ministry of Defence and other governmental authorities. The Military and Police also tried to stifle a protest by Tamil politicians and Families of Disappeared persons in the North.
Academics critical of the government received death threats. Repression of University students continued, with arrests, protests attacked and student activists being called lunatics, fools and foxes by the Minister of Higher Education in a speech publicized by mainstream TV in Sri Lanka. Even teachers and parents agitating about conditions in a school in Colombo were attacked. A report from “Students for Human Rights” claimed that a Magistrate has recommended to break necks of student activists while another Magistrate had advised female student activists to refrain from political activism.
Police protection was suddenly withdrawn for a Buddhist Monk who had been subjected to several attacks, threats and intimidation, and he was later found on roadside with injuries. The Police later arrested the Monk and accused him of having staged the abduction and inflicted the injuries on himself.
Overall, June was another month where minorities and those critical of the government faced numerous attacks and threats with impunity.

To download the full report, please see the below links:

English: Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka – June 2014 – English

 සිංහල: Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka – June 2014 – Sinhala

தமிழ்: Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka – June 2014 – Tamil

 


 

To see other Repression of Dissent Reports, please see the Reports page