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Thursday 24 April  
The assault of journalist Keith Noyahr was protested in Colombo 2008
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Colombo, Sri Lanka
Colombo, Sri Lanka

Fighting for press freedom in Sri Lanka

Published on : 9 August 2011 - 4:33pm | By Sara Nics (Free Media Movement)
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“If you are not with the government, you become an instant traitor to the country. They said I should be killed; very clearly, they said I should be killed.” In his 30-year career as a reporter and editor in Sri Lanka, Sunanda Deshapriya says he was non-political, but his reporting on the 25-year civil war and human rights violations in the country rubbed the government the wrong way.

Branded a traitor, his life threatened, Deshapriya sought asylum in Switzerland. Although he continues to write about his home country from afar, Deshapriya knows his stories would be stronger if he was free to be a reporter in Sri Lanka. 

“I talk to people back home and try to get a feeling for the story, but... I know my stories are not really full of flesh and blood,” Deshapriya says. “Because I am a marked person, I don’t want to associate with anyone openly in the country; I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. In that sense, it’s difficult sometimes to get the information about what’s happening.”

What press freedom?

Over the past five years more than 70 Sri Lankan journalists have fled the country, fearing for their safety. Many more have been threatened, beaten or abducted within Sri Lanka. Twenty-five journalists have been killed there since 1999, according to the independent Committee to Protect Journalists. There has been no conviction in any of those cases. Deshapriya says he won’t feel safe going back to Sri Lanka until it’s clear that there is no longer tacit impunity for crimes against journalists.

The London-based Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice has just released a call to action to improve press freedom in the country. Campaign director Fred Carver says the Sri Lankan government seems to have no interest in promoting media freedom, actively working to shut down transparency and dialogue in the country. Rather than facing possible assault or assassination, Carver says many Sri Lankan journalist self-censor. “Clearly that is not a solution. That just plays into the government of Sri Lanka’s hands.”

In part, press freedom has been declining in recent years because of the threat of international investigations into possible war crimes committed during the civil war. “The government of Sri Lanka’s paranoia about a free media is - to a large extent  - driven by their fear of the international accountability process,” Carver says. 

Calling on international media

The action plan released this week calls on foreign governments and international media to support press freedom where the Sri Lankan government will not.

It asks foreign media organizations to use Sri Lankan correspondents, partially to keep international attention on Sri Lanka. Carver says working for foreign press may also help protect the journalists. “That gives them a level of protection in the eyes of the government. The government will not be so quick to bring the mob squads - the ‘heavies’ - against them because these are people who have international contacts and therefore will be missed.”

Perhaps more importantly, Carver says, they are asking other countries to make it possible for threatened journalists to apply for asylum while they are still in Sri Lanka. He says many journalists he’s talked with have told him that would help them feel freer to do their jobs well.

Sunanda Deshapriya applied for asylum in Switzerland when he was in Geneva in 2009, although he could have applied from within Sri Lanka. But Switzerland is the only country with an embassy in Sri Lanka that accepts asylum applications. The Dutch Immigration and Naturalization ministry - although it gives special consideration to journalists from Sri Lanka - only accepts applications from people who are already in Holland.

Asylum, or something like it

But Deshapriya says for many journalists, being granted refugee status might not be necessary. 

“Journalists need a long term stay; we don’t need asylum," he says. "We are here to survive and continue our work until the situation in Sri Lanka gets better enough to go back.”

Although working and living in Switzerland means he’s no longer continually looking over his shoulder, Deshapriya says he still doesn’t feel truly free. “Even here sometimes, I need to self-censor a bit. My colleagues and my family are still [in Sri Lanka], and I still want to go back.”

But he says he won’t feel safe in Sri Lanka until the government has made it clear that it will not participate in - or tacitly condone - attacks on media personnel. And Deshapriya will only believe that once the culprits in past attacks have been duly tried, convicted and punished.

Read about the recent experiences of Radio Netherlands Worldwide reporters in Sri Lanka here.

Discussion

Truth Finder 14 August 2011 - 3:37pm

Sunanda's elder Brother holding a very prestigious position in Government. He is a Election Commissioner there (Mr. Mahinda Deshapriya)

His younger brother closely working with the current President of the Country at Presidential Secretariat (Mr Wasantha Deshapriya)

so, what he is talking about democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka?

Shame... shame to interviewed such a person for RNW

Anonymous 10 August 2011 - 4:43am / sri Lanka

This man had ruined the Free Media Movement FMM (MEDIA RIGHTS GROUP IN SRI LANKA) Holding a top post. there was an inquiry against him and several other journalists, who left the country claiming that they were under threat. Inquiry found out that sunanda had use funds of FMM for personal use and accused of misappropriation of a large sum ofmoney. If any of these organizations, which r trying to help this man should find about this man.if they want they can contact FMM for more details.ask any independent journalists in SLabout this man

Anonymous 10 August 2011 - 3:08pm

If politicians didnt like reporters and opposition, life threatening and putting false corruption charges are very easy for rajapakse,even he didnt spare his ex army general

maithree 10 August 2011 - 2:45am / sri lanka

Mr. Deshapriya,
You and Sunila ratained me as your Lawyer when you wanted to shut down Yukthiya news paper. Every word transpired during that inquery is being recorded. Take that records and read it to your self. you can find what your so called jounarlist said about you. Its a shame. We know this is your sorce of income. But don't let this country down. I am still living in this country. We don't have five star democracy here. You can not have it even in America. But you are exteamly exaggerating the situation for your personal gain.This is how people like you created a communal division and hate among Sri Lankans. All NGOs and people invoved in that business are equal. All are highy corrupted. Your dorners know this. But they are not worried, because you are doing what they want. They want other countris to be unstable. Please have a better life in Swisterland and leave us along. We love this country not money.

Martin Wickrama 10 August 2011 - 5:39pm / Sri Lanka

Hello Sir! You are a lawyer! Can you name any lawyer who stands for truth! How many lies have you uttered because you wanted to get the money from your clients! So you say you love your country???? Is it your country or your belly?

maithree 11 August 2011 - 5:37pm / sri lanka

Dearv Mr. Wickrama,

Thank you for your comment. I may be a lier, but definitely not a traitor.

P.S. What about other comments. Do you agree with them.

Pearl Thevanayagam 10 August 2011 - 1:46am / UK

Sunanda is right. However when journalists are abroad they are much safer and can report as much as they like. If Sunanda was given asylum then he has the right to bring his family over to Switzerland. I cannot understand why he did not do so.

While Sunanda was working for Centre for Policy Alternatives he was accusedof swindling CPA funds. I am not quite sure how much credibility is there in this accusation.

Another Tamil journalist who claimed he was abducted in a white van and who came to UK to speak about his abduction refused to give interview to CNN and BBC. The Exiled Journalists Network of which I am a founder member
paid for both Sunanda and this journalist Nadaraja Guruparan to attend the Press Freedom Forum on Sri Lanka held at the House of Commons and during his speech he gave two different months for his abduction.

I was arrested in 1995 for venturing into LTTE territory in the North and held for 19 hours and to this day I can vividly remember the time (July 17, 9.00pm) at the railway station in the border between govt controlled area and the LTTE area.

Guruparan never returned to Sri Lanka and has claimed asylum in the UK.

Although journalists are at very high risk we must not forget many have used NGOs and foreing media and persuaded them to portray themselves as champions of media freedom.

A little bit of investigation into journalists' background could prove their bona fide.

Anonymous 9 August 2011 - 9:46pm / New zealand

Is this the man who left the country in a hurry before embezzlement charges were brought against him for siphoning off the funds of the group he represented?

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