The ongoing humanitarian and human rights challenges in Sri Lanka have been covered by the media, such as the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00sr2r0) and the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/17/world/asia/17lanka.html?ref=srilanka), but it has been difficult to get accurate information and analysis because journalists in Sri Lanka face intimidation and harassment if they try to challenge the government’s version of events. Independent reporting is almost impossible. When comparing the coverage received by Sri Lanka to the conflict in Gaza where some 1400 people were killed it seems that the international media does not believe its readers are interested in Sri Lanka.
The local media continue to operate in a climate of fear knowing that phones and e-mails are tapped and practice self-censorship when it comes to stories that expose the regime. Threats and intimidation are common and those who challenge the government risk their lives. Media outlets such as Sirasa TV and The Sunday Leader have experienced attacks on their premises, and several journalists have been abducted or attacked (Amnesty International estimates at least 15 killed since 2006). Last year, Lasantha Wickrematunge, founding editor of the Leader, was assassinated in broad daylight in a 'high security zone' patrolled by the army.
To date, no cases of violence against journalists or attacks on media outlets have been properly investigated and there have been no prosecutions, even for the most serious crimes. Sri Lanka was named the fourth worst country (http://www.cpj.org/reports/2010/04/cpj-2010-impunity-index-getting-away-with-) in the world for press freedom by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Afghanistan, Colombia and Russia are safer countries for journalists! And according to Reporters sans Frontiers, Sri Lanka comes 162nd out of 175 countries in terms of press freedom, behind Uzbekistan, Rwanda and Libya (http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2009,1001.html).
Sri Lanka's constitution allows for freedom of expression to be limited when it is deemed 'in the interests' of the country and therefore has a long history of restricting press freedom but the situation has deteriorated significantly under the Rajapaksa regime. Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch document cases spanning the last two decades of attacks on journalists, government control of publications, censorship, lawsuits and arrests of those accused of 'violating harmony' under the country's Emergency Regulations.
The trend towards media control started during the revolutionary uprising of the JVP when 30,000-60,000 Sinhalese people were killed, mostly by the military. This is another bloody episode in Sri Lanka’s recent past (1980’s) which those in power and indeed ordinary citizens try to erase from memory.
NGO workers are treated with suspicion, diplomats and UN officials have faced harsh censure for venturing any criticism and corruption watchdogs and human rights lawyers are routinely intimidated. It was recently reported that state intelligence has drawn up a list of names of active NGO workers, scored with a point system with prominent government critics like Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu (director, Centre for Policy Alternatives) and Krishantha Weliamuna (director, Transparency International Sri Lanka) topping the list. Both have been threatened in the past (http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=18676). Most recently, the lead staff of the Nonviolent Peaceforce staff were effectively expelled (http://www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org/our-work-sri-lanka-continues). Self-censorship by local and international NGOs is now the norm.
A vibrant free press and active civil society are essential to the proper functioning of any democracy - and these elements have not been present in the past and are certainly not present in Sri Lanka today. Draconian emergency regulations and counter-terrorism legislation are still in place a year after the end of the war. In 1992, Human Rights Watch issued a report stating that 'restrictions continue on freedom of expression which hamper an open debate about the government's role in human rights violations”.
The current regime has allowed the culture of impunity to flourish and tightened its grip on the media with journalists continuing to face threats and harassment. One journalist, Prageeth Ekneligoda, has been missing since January's presidential election and is feared dead. Another, J.S. Tissainayagam was sentenced to 20 years hard labour for ‘inciting hatred’ but was released after sustained international pressure demonstrating that the international community can have an impact on the situation in Sri Lanka. It is noteworthy that he has gone into hiding and remained silent since he was released.