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Sunday 21 December  
Free press in Sri Lanka?
International Justice Desk's picture
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Colombo, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s white vans deliver fear and oppression

Published on : 20 July 2011 - 3:11pm | By International Justice Desk (Photo: RNW)
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Sri Lanka’s reputation as an Indian Ocean paradise may hold true for determined holidaymakers, but for the sober-minded this image has been shattered in recent months.

First a damning UN report accused both sides in the country’s 30-year civil war of atrocities – a claim the current government refutes categorically. Then in June British TV station Channel 4 broadcast a devastating account of the closing weeks of the conflict in 2009. At this time, the programme said, the Sri Lankan military systematically murdered thousands of civilians. Colombo says the evidence is ‘fabricated’. Distinguishing truth from artifice is problematic in a country where the free press claims it is under constant threat. RNW sent a team to Sri Lanka to investigate.

Reporters with borders
In a new report the International Crisis Group says Sri Lankan “President Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers continue to repress the media and political opponents”. Other rights groups describe killings and disappearances of reporters alongside police impunity.

And they claim a widespread lack of press freedom – that the media does not tell it as it is, and that people are afraid to speak to reporters. Pressure is brought to bear on them with the use of armed men in white mini-vans, who kidnap or murder journalists. RNW’s team experienced the phenomenon first hand after a surprise roadside attack.

Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean you’re not being followed
Few Western reporters have visited the former Tamil Tiger administered north and east of the country in the past year – journalist visas are not issued without months of bureaucratic delays.

Travelling from the relatively affluent capital Colombo, RNW’s two person team saw how the further eastward one travels the poorer and more militarized the country becomes.

Entering on tourist visas to a former Tamil Tiger administered region, RNW spoke to locals on subjects as diverse as business, sport and the UN’s development role. During one such conversation in a restaurant they were spied on and reported to the police, who later that night arrived at the hotel for a midnight interrogation. Ten police officers, including the Chief of Police, scared the team into leaving the region. The following morning, on their way back to the well trodden tourist path, they were robbed and attacked at gunpoint by a gang in a white van.

Deliberate intimidation or just another robbery?
The intimidation of the ‘white van’ tactic that Sri Lankan reporters had described now came sharply into focus.

“The police reaction is absurd, but it shows the fear of anything that, in their perception, might be connected to the Channel 4 programme or the UN investigation into war crimes”, said Sanjana Hattotuwa from the independent media watchdog Groundviews based in Colombo. “The government reaction is understandable because their stance has always been that there were no war crimes committed by their side – so they clamp down violently on anyone suggesting otherwise”, he added.

Leading the way
Raisa Wickrematunge from Sri Lanka’s most controversial newspaper, The Sunday Leader, believes the attack on western journalists marks a new low.

"What is particularly shocking is the robbery that happened... Disappearances and things like this unfortunately still happen here. So in that sense it’s not really a first, but it’s quite shocking that they did this to foreign journalists, particularly the robbery."

Raisa is the niece of its outspoken and fearless former editor Lasantha Wickrematunge who was gunned down in 2009. The Leader’s Colombo newsroom is adorned with pictures of a smiling Wickrematunge, pen in hand. Raisa joined the paper shortly after his murder, wanting to keep the memories and values of her uncle alive. "But after it happened, we decided we can't take that same hard line. Because the fact is that in the past people would attack us, now they would kill us."

Sri Lankan journalists self-censor to protect themselves. The current editor of the Sunday Leader Frederica Jansz explains why. "I don’t do this myself. I am willing to die for my job. But I understand that not everybody will do this." Raisa says the fears are legitimate: "Many (reporters) … are taken in those white vans and they vanish. There are also cases documented where people were taken and abandoned later with their legs broken."

Mini-van, big trouble
The white van phenomenon is well-known to the Tamil diaspora. Donald Gnanakone, the president of pressure group Tamils for Justice, based in Los Angeles, told RNW: “You got white-vanned. This is a state-terrorist act’”.

Other reactions to the RNW experience confirm the likelihood of this being an example of state-sponsored press intimidation. A senior European diplomat working in Colombo, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “You can be sure this is the authorities sending you a message”.

Fear is the key
That a conversation can be overheard and misconstrued by informants, and then reported to the police is a story not commonly associated with South Asia. Raisa Wickrematunge is pessimistic for the prospects of free speech in Sri Lanka'. "I don’t think that [objective journalism] is possible in this country. There are so many things you can’t write about. Even if you call people and say that you’re from the Sunday Leader, there is immediately this sense of fear, people don’t want to talk to you. We have to be very careful what we write about"

To listen to an interview with the reporters, click here



Anonymous 14 May 2012 - 5:55am / Sri Lanka

I think now everybody will know the real situation in Sri Lanka.

Thanaa Kaur 24 March 2012 - 5:03am

cool what a powerful source of info added to yahoo!buzz thanx

Anonymous 23 July 2011 - 11:40am / Sri Lanka

Listening to the interview I got the impression that the lady is obviously too shaken by her experience and being inexperienced is biassed while the gentleman had a more balanced view. It is obvious that the robbery would have been to take out any interview material, pictures or what ever than to rob or physically cause harm. A few points.
The LTTE carders now wouldn't mind at all an independent inquiry as their accountable leadership is all gone and only the govt. side could suffer any harmful consequences. To be reasonable the Northern and Eastern areas which were under the total control of the LTTE can not be just allowed to free wheel when you consider that there was no other leadership or social network after the LTTE destroyed every opposition to it. While it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi and a Sri Lankan President, nearly killed a second and many Sinhalese and Moslem leaders, it killed more Tamil leaders who opposed them. No government which had lost control and after all the sacrifices it also made could be expected to say "War is over and now control your areas." Yes, the government has its fears of a resurgence of any violence. It is a fragile peace that exists right now as the island settles into normalcy. The Tamil Diaspora and many elements that supported the separate state feel humiliated in defeat and would like a distabilising of the situation towards gaining an independent state. They talk of Eritrea, Kosovo, E.Timor. The govt. is releasing rehabilitated former LTTE carders batch by batch depending on the level of involvement. Issues like the Ch 4 and other such only delay this process towards normalcy and becomes a distracter.

The Sinhalese and Moslems and the upcountry Tamils are firm that the islands has no place for a separate state. There are more Tamils living outside the North and East who live peacefully. The Tamils have sacrificed even basic needs in the areas in the 30 years that it was under LTTE control and the rest of the island terrible fear of attacks suicide and other. Most Sri Lankans even those who oppose the government are sick of Western double standards and ask why wasn't there any war crimes against Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan....?

What do we expect in just 2 years after 30 years of war? Allow it a little more time for fear and suspicion on both sides to ease. There are lots of people on both sides trying hard to build it and the government for its part is not by any means stalling things deliberately to keep these areas under tight military control for ever. After all just a month ago it even removed restrictions of free travel to the former conflict areas......

Anonymous 21 July 2011 - 9:40pm / Sri Lanka

It is sad to see that we humans kill each other for the sake religion, cast and creed. Now that the war is over and whats done is done, we are still going at each other. Dont all of you people who have commented here including the so called journalist who wrote this article realize that the very people who end this war are actually looking at this and laughing their gutts out watching you go at each other when they are enjoying all the riches of the world.

Unbelievable and shocking all of you should be ashamed of your selfs.

Thillaiambalam 21 July 2011 - 8:14pm

Well documented genocide of Sinhala North & East by Dutch, British colonisers and their (imported) Tamil collaborators:

This amazing map, found at the Beeldbank National Archives, the Netherlands shows that more than 85% off all villages in Yapanaya or Jaffanapatnam in the early Dutch era, were in fact Sinhala. More so shocking, when today, not a single Sinhala family lives in the North.

Please visit the museum and see this for yourselves; do not blindly accept the false histories put forward by those who propagate the "Tamil Eelam/Ancient Tamil homeland" myths.

Sandraa 21 July 2011 - 2:59pm

If NATO did not act swiftly enough in Libya, we could have seen a 'bloodpath' in Benghazi and Colonol Gadhafi calling the killed Benghazi people all Al Qaedas.

Recently, one of the Sinhalese journalist in exile said 'Sri Lanka is a country built on the graveyards of my Tamil brothers and sisters.

Barbara O'Brien, a spiritual Buddhist author wrote in her 'Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lanka' about the damaging deceptions of Buddhist military kingdoms in Sri Lanka. She quotes 'the history of Sri Lanka has made the Sinhalese "a demographic majority with a dangerous minority complex of persecution."

DEMALA HUTHTHI 21 July 2011 - 3:34pm

NATO is killing millions of innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan and thats all great! Sinhalese have all rights to kill genocidal tamil terrorist LTTE! Killing LTTE terrorists is not a crime. Tamil diaspora terrorists are fooling the world with their big fat lies on Sri Lanka! LTTE are the worse terrorists humanity ever saw!

anonymous 21 July 2011 - 3:53pm

Mr Demala Hutha
The right name for you is Sinhala Hutha perhaps you like to call yourself a Tamil even though a lowly one as rightfully acknowledged by using the name you have chosen to call yourself. It would be useful if instead of slander you write to put forward some reasonable arguments why the Tamils should not have their own Tamil Elam. I hope you dont resort to the foul language you seem to be clever at but write some sense readable by civilised people

DEMALA HUTHTHA 21 July 2011 - 2:32pm

Unspeakable truth is that it has been LTTE genocide of Sinhalese and Muslims for the past decades. LTTE terrorists committed genocide of Sinhalese and Muslims by killing over 1,000,000 of them by blowing up daily suicide bombs in Colombo, which inhumane Tamils love the most! Now these Tamil terror remnants are so frustrated and depressed cos they cant blowup suicide bombs in Colombo as they did before killing millions of innocent Sinhalese and Muslims. TAMIL TERRORISM IS NOT GOOD TERRORISM! It is a billion times worse than AL Qaeda and Taliban!

Sandraa 21 July 2011 - 3:00pm

If NATO did not act swiftly enough in Libya, we could have seen a 'bloodpath' in Benghazi and Colonol Gadhafi calling the killed Benghazi people all Al Qaedas.

Recently, one of the Sinhalese journalist in exile said 'Sri Lanka is a country built on the graveyards of my Tamil brothers and sisters.

Barbara O'Brien, a spiritual Buddhist author wrote in her 'Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lanka' about the damaging deceptions of Buddhist military kingdoms in Sri Lanka. She quotes 'the history of Sri Lanka has made the Sinhalese "a demographic majority with a dangerous minority complex of persecution."

DEMALA HUTHTHI 21 July 2011 - 3:37pm

Hey talk about NATO and USA atrocities and genocides!
-USA massacred millions of innocent civilians in Vietnam
-USA massacred millions of innocent civilians in Iraq
-USA massacred millions of innocent civilians in Afghanistan
-USA massacred millions of innocent civilians in Korea

USA and UK have the worse human rights record of all as they are heinous criminal terrorist states! But for Tamils, USA and UK are angel saints begging them to carve out a terrorist state named Eelam in Sri Lanka.

Lanka Liar 22 July 2011 - 9:26am / Lybia

They all massacred in another country but SLTE massacred in their own land some time their own people some of them Sin Ha Lies

DEMALA HUTHTHI 23 July 2011 - 3:54pm

Killing your own people is perfectly ok! Killing Tamil terrorist LTTE who committed genocide of Sinhalese is perfectly fine! USA the terrorist state illegally invaded Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan and many more and killed millions of innocent civilians of other countries!

ARUMBHU 21 July 2011 - 11:23am

Injustice to Tamils is still continuing even after 64 years because of the murderous mentality of Sinhala Majority.It is aprtheid of the worst kind.The whole world should set the things right as they have done in South Africa.The reason for these untold miseries now are the two hardliners BUSH and Osama.Liberation Struggles are now labelled unfortunately as Terror acts.Why would anyone waste life in struggles? The freedom fighters will be remembered for their sacrifices someday in the near future.The wounds are not going to heal soon.The SL nation's psyche is wounded beyond imagination of everybody on this planet.Sharing of power and ensuring life with dignity for all is essential.When these are denied there is bound to be discontent and at some stage armed struggle takes shape.This is what happens usually.SL is no exception.Instead of trying for a political solution SLA has gone ahead with the support of a Sicilian Lady and Chinese Govt. to kill thousands including innocent civilians.I believe, if there is any almighty it will punish the monsters with Tsunamis and earth quakes soon. In this small life what anyone is going to achieve permanently? Nothing goes with us when we leave this earth.What happens next is none of our business.Future will take care of itself.Live in the present and let others live their fullest life with dignity and equality should be the motto of majority groups.Suppressors too will suffer some time.There is no escape from this cycle. Instead of living in a garden the Sinhala majority has opted to create Graveyards.That's not humane.

DEMALA HUTHTHA 21 July 2011 - 2:29pm

Tamils are inhumane animals who love drinking Sinhala blood by murdering millions of innocent sinhalese using their FAVORITE SUICIDE BOMB! Tamil terrorists are now angry and frustrated as they cant keep blowing suicide bombs like pre 2009! Thats why they are crying war crimes now. Killing LTTE terrorist genocidal maniacs is not a crime at all!

madayan 21 July 2011 - 10:21am

In the interview the identities of the reporters are hidden, presumably so the Sri Lankan authorities don't find out who they are. "for the security of the people they talked to" it says, OK, fair enough.

But going by this article it would seem the authorities know exactly who they are; they managed to track them down in their hotel and later even during transit. Something doesn't quite add up here.

anonymous 21 July 2011 - 8:58am

Usage of names , when translated, which are derogatory and racial should not be allowed. Unfortunately some Sinhalese , by and large economic migrants and some claiming asylum under false identity as Tamils, have not changed in their attitude despite living in free Western societies- they all seem to favour the Western countries to emigrate and not to China, Russia or other communist states. still keep criticising the west, which they dare not do in a communist dictatorship like their own 'motherland'-the God forsaken killing fields in the Indian Ocean. For a change why dont you Sinhalese think rationally and concede that you cannot share power with the Tamils, against whom your hostility is open. devastatingly rude and obnoxious ,unlikely to change so concede that a seperate Tamil Elam is the only rational and viable solution for a peaceful coexistence- This will find endorsement among the internatipnal Community.

Van Thisj 21 July 2011 - 9:09am

Tamil need their own land. Tamils are not free and are treated worse than animals

Ponna Tamillean 13 August 2011 - 9:58am / Sri Lanka

You bloody Tamils deserve the brutul killings rather than any other methos of finishing your lives. Keep in your foul minds you smeely Tamil terrorists, there is no mother land to your deserters other than to beg someone to own one of yours. Sri Lanka belongs to great Sinhalese. Run from Sri Lanka...our beloved mother land. We will run you bloody tamils out of sea if you try it again. You smelly tamil sakkiliyans, there is no mother land to you in Sri Lanka. Keep it in your minds as well as put in your next generations or otherwise face the destory.

Doc Borwne 21 July 2011 - 8:04am / Sweden

As western doctor who happen to voluneteer in the tamil northeast srilanka here are my direct observation:

1. The Tamils and Sinhalese have a very different separate distinct language, religion, traditions and culture. The Tamils are the majority in the Northeast and the Sinhalese in the south. The Tamils were never ruled by the Sinhalese before the British. Can one southern majority rule race another majority race of the Northeast?

2. The SriLankan army is made up of 99% Sinhalese who cannot speak Tamil. If the Srilankan army is only for the Sinhalese who is for the Tamils ?

3. There has been serial Srilankan state sponsored Sinhalese attacks and ethnic cleansing against Tamils decades before 1983 (when LTTE was not active) in Srilanka. Similar to Tutsis and Hutus or Serbia and Kosova ot Israel and Palestine. How many Tamils were killed before the 1983 by the Sinhalese mobs ?. Why was the TNA the tamil party allways won in the Tamil areas ?

4. Independent media or journalist, NGO are not allowed in to Tamil areas by the Sinhalese SriLankan government to speak to the people freely. Who speaks for the Tamils civilians voice ?.. will the truth be heard ?

DEMALA HUTHTHA 21 July 2011 - 2:28pm

Hey learn the true facts about Sri Lanka
1. Tamils are mere coolies brought by the British colonizers to work in Sri Lanka as slaves in the plantations.
2. Sinhalese have been living in north east of Sri Lanka for milleniums and these tamil terrorists illegally chased away the sinhalese and muslims who lived in north east to claim a bogus tamil homeland when it is no where but tamil nadu
3. Tamil terrorists have been killing millions of innocent Sinhalese by blowing up suicide bombs and by encroaching villages
4. Tamil terrorist LTTE are the worse terrorist organization the world ever saw
5. Tamils terrrorists are now total stateless faggots

Lanka Liar 22 July 2011 - 9:28am / Cuba

1. LIE
2. LIe
3, Lie
4. Lie
all liess Sin Ha Lies

DEMALA HUTHTHI 23 July 2011 - 4:00pm


jayasingh 21 July 2011 - 8:02am / UK

The lowliness of some of the sinhalese comments and the the GOSL voted by the majority of Sinhala electorate goes only to support the tamil claims of the diaspora-( the tamils in SrI lanka are effectively hostages of the GOSL and the racist Sinhala electorate-The Local tamils are voiceless and no matter what , some / the majority of Sinhalese cannot stomach Tamil l participation In State power except as hostages like Devananda Karuna etc. This mentality of the moronic Sinhalese will never change-) for a seperate Tamil state just like Craotia Kosova Montenegro East Timor South Sudan endorsed by the world within the last few years- the Sinhalese by their actions and words have proved beyond doubt that they cannot tolerate any other indigenous nation like Tamils as proved by Mahinda Rakjapakse when he said that there are no minorities in SL and no Ethnic problem and also Gen Fonseka that SL belonged toi the Sinhalese . Tamil Elam, endorsed and supported by the world is the only viable solution to this more han sixty year conflict

DEMALA HUTHTHA 21 July 2011 - 2:35pm

Form your peelam poolam hellam evilam devilam terrorlam in the sea, in the moon, in the baking sun or in lost city atlantis. We have no room to accommodate LTTE terrorist genocidal barbarians in our soil. Sinhalese are not liable just because tamils are a bunch of stateless faggots. Low life Tamil hooligans like those LTTE terrorists writing here are the pure racist hate mongers.

Lanka Liar 22 July 2011 - 9:17am / Afganistan

Hey Demula H... your first name looks like Tamil second name is a very common Sin Ha La name. But you speak the national language of Sri Lanka, ie, Filth and vulgar. Please remember to keep up your culture that is lying.Good work D H keep the LIEOn flag flying high

DEMALA HUTHTHI 23 July 2011 - 4:01pm


madayan 21 July 2011 - 9:09am

Yeah, keep dreaming.

rohan j. 21 July 2011 - 7:05am / australia

DEAMLA HUTHTHA: if you have the guts why dont you translate your writing name into english, if you do the racist comments will be banned.

the whole world is very well aware that how the tamils are being treated.

use decent names, do not show off your breed you Obnoxious sad human beast.

DEMALA HUTHTHA 21 July 2011 - 2:38pm

Hey you coward you dont have a real name! Who the hell are Tamils? A bunch of racist, hateful, terror loving, hooligans! Tamils are the best in global terrorism! No other race is famous for Terror acts unlike Tamils.

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