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Amid Sri Lankan Denial, Threats Rise For Journalists

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By Bob Dietz/CPJ Asia Program Coordinator

In the wake of the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution calling for an investigation into Sri Lanka's alleged abuses of international humanitarian law during its war with Tamil separatists, the government has resorted to outright threats of violence against journalists who might dare to return home after taking part in the Geneva discussions.

Thursday, CPJ called on the government to immediately halt its intimidation of journalists who supported the adoption of the HRC's resolution. Several were labeled "traitors" on state-run television. One journalist previously denounced as a traitor was J.S. Tissainayagam, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. After intense international pressure, he was released in May 2010 and now lives outside the country.

According to the pro-government Daily Mirror, "Minister of Public Relations Mervyn Silva warned that he will break the limbs of some journalists, who have gone abroad and made various statements against the country, if they dare to set foot in the country."

"'I'm the one who chased one of those journalists 'Poddalajayantha' out of this country. I will break the limbs of all these journalists, in public if they dare to set foot in the country,'" the Minister warned, the Daily Mirror said.

Threats from Silva, a former labor minister, have to be taken seriously. On December 27, 2007, accompanied by a large group of men, he stormed the state-run television station Sri Lanka Rupavahini Cooperation and assaulted the news director, T.M.G. Chandrasekara. The station's staff held the minister and his supporters while police were summoned, and videotaped the minister's apology for his actions. Silva was apparently angry because a speech he had delivered the previous day was not fully reported by the station.

Given the anti-media atmosphere being pumped up by the government, Silva will not have to apologize if his threat of violence should ever materialize:

Still smarting from the international slapdown it received in Geneva, another pro-government paper, The Island, termed India a "loser" for its backing of the resolution. "India has failed to carry Asia, or at least South Asia with it. In other words, Sri Lanka has won against India in Asia," The Island said. China and Russia, long-term opponents of what they consider outside interference in countries' internal affairs, voted against the Geneva resolution.

There are many issues that Sri Lanka will have to face in the coming months and years. These include economic growth, energy dependence, international status, and maintaining democratic institutions while the Rajapaksa government trends increasingly toward authoritarianism. But the greatest danger I see in the government's inability to accept even a watered-down version of an international call for investigation into Sri Lanka's efforts to end decades of ethnic violence, is that the rejection will become the issue that defines the country. Instead of emerging victorious and resilient after ending the hatred of so many years, Sri Lanka will continue to wear a shroud of failure for its inability to confront its unfortunate past and move into a new era. More than three years after the end of its national tragedy, Sri Lanka continues to fight battles domestically and internationally that should have ended with the declaration of victory on May 6, 2009.

Bob Dietz, coordinator of CPJ's Asia Program, has reported across the continent for news outlets such as CNN and Asiaweek. He has led numerous CPJ missions, including ones to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.

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