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Freedom of press only on paper

Sri Lanka seems determined to hold on to its 162nd position on the press freedom index with attacks continuing on journalists who criticise policies and debate politics, reports Sutirtho Patranobis.

world Updated: Oct 28, 2009 00:28 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

Sri Lanka seems determined to hold on to its 162nd position on the press freedom index with attacks continuing on journalists who criticise policies and debate politics.

Days after a Sinhala newspaper editor was questioned by the police over a speculative political article — many Indian political reporters would be on the death row by that standard — two chilling threat letters were served to the editor and a senior journalist of the Sunday Leader.

The anti-establishment Leader has faced the brunt of anonymous attacks; its editor Lasantha Wickramatunga was shot dead in January.

“We have been burnt, bombed, sealed, harassed and threatened,’’ the newspaper said. The letters in red ink threatened to “cut the journalists into slices’’.

The story in question was a Channel 4 video showing men in fatigues executing blindfolded prisoners. The newspaper quoted an US forensic company claiming that the mobile phone video was not tampered. True, but the editor had also said on television that Channel 4 should have aired the video only after authenticating it.

Then, the defence ministry and the army issued a circular that legal action would be taken against journalists writing reports about serving army officers for “political gain or agenda”.

The issue was chief of defence staff Sarath Fonseka’s candidature in the coming Presidential election against incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa. Colombo’s political and bureaucratic circles are crackling with the possibility. Fonseka himself — who as the army chief during the last phase of the war against LTTE is considered a war hero along with Rajapaksa — is yet to put the speculation to rest.

It is too important a political development not to report on. But journalists who write on such issues are only fit to be behind bars, not at their desktops.

After 26 years of war, a democratic Sri Lanka is in transition. A free, responsible press will ensure the stakeholders’ accountability during the transition, not threaten it.