Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sri Lankan Editor Held at Knifepoint as Gang Searches Documents

Rifled belongings in the home of journalist (Pic. courtesy Sri Lanka Mirror)


A senior journalist was held at knifepoint in her home on Saturday by a gang of five, at least one of whom is a serving soldier in Sri Lanka’s Army, allegedly searching for documents and files. The incident happened a day before the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights arrived in the country on a week-long fact-finding mission.

Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, an award-winning journalist and associate editor of the weekly The Sunday Leader, was held at knifepoint in the early hours of Saturday morning, with her 10-year-old daughter and aged parents. The gang spent over two hours rifling through her belongings including documents and files. Meanwhile, her husband Romesh Abeywickrema, who is the business editor in the same newspaper returning home and seeing suspicious movements in the house, alerted the police. In the ensuing confrontation one intruder was shot dead and two injured as the gang tried to fight its way out. Three policemen too were injured, one critically.

What has followed are sharply differing interpretations from skimpy facts of the intrusion that have come out. While the police and the government-controlled media maintain the incident was a heist that went bust, media watchdogs and the statement of Abeywickrema point to something more insidious – an attempt to either silence her or seize documents in her possession.

Speaking to the privately-owned television station MTV, Abeywickrema said the gang had told her that they had been contracted by someone who was her enemy. “The incident raises serious suspicion as the attackers had spent several hours going through various documents and files after cutting off the phone lines” Free Media Movement’s convenor Sunil Jayasekara said in a statement. The Free Media Movement is respected media watchdog in the country.

Abeywickrema was also at the forefront of the formation a new trade union for journalists. Priyantha Karunaratne, general secretary of the Sri Lanka Journalists Trade Union (SLJTU) said that the “sordid and organized act had been carried out by those who detest and are alarmed at the practice of the SLJTU and journalism of Ms. Mandana Abeywickrema.”

Mandana IsmailAbeywickrema  (Pic gstatic.com)
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemning the incident urged the police to act: “[w]e call on the police to determine the genuine motives behind the attack and prosecute those responsible.”

The police however was insistent that the incident was nothing more than attempted burglary. This line of analysis was also enthusiastically taken up by the military. 

“Some statements/reports have even attempted to portray this as an attack on the media. This is far from the truth and we refute all such allegations. The Sri Lanka Army does not approve of any crime and particularly we regret this incident in which a senior journalist has suffered at the hands of a gang of thieves,” Army Spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya said in a statement.

The incident came a day before UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay arrived in the country on a six-day visit. Her visit is primarily because of a resolution adopted n the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in March this year empowering her to report to it on the human rights situation in the country following the end of the civil war in May 2009. Issuing a statement to coincide with Pillay’s visit, media watchdogs pointed to the Abeywickrema incident as an example of the threat to the media freedom in the country and urged the High Commissioner to address the issue.

“Reporters without Borders [RSF] and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka expect the High Commissioner to be firm in securing a transparent commitment from the Sri Lankan government to bring justice to those who have been victims of grave crimes against media freedom. ‘As long as crimes against the media and its workforce go unpunished, while perpetrators feel safe with the implicit assurance of impunity, media freedom in Sri Lanka is facing a grave threat. We urge Navi Pillay to remind Sri Lanka’s leaders of their accountability in delivering justice,’ said the two organisations,” reads an RSF statement posted on its website. Journalists for Democracy (JDS) is a highly respected group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists living in Europe.

Sri Lanka is placed 162nd of 179 countries on RSF’s Press Freedom Index in 2013.

The Sunday Leader has incurred the wrath of the government several times. Its founder editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was murdered in January 2009 allegedly by government operatives close to the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse. His killers have not been brought to justice. Frederica Jansz who succeeded Wickrematunge and carried articles critical of the president’s brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, was verbally abused and threatened by him. (RSF has designated Gotabaya Rajapakse as a predator of the media). Last year Jansz resigned alleging her editorial freedom was compromised, after majority shares of the newspaper were bought by a businessman with strong government sympathies. She has since fled the country.

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