Another neglected neighbour

BY Ammu Joseph| IN Media Practice | 26/03/2007
Several stories related to the conflict in Sri Lanka remain untold by the Indian media, including the situation of the embattled media in Sri Lanka.

Ammu Joseph

The renewed conflict in Sri Lanka has been making some news in India over the past few months - though not quite as much as the continuing violence in Iraq, despite the proximity, as well as the historical and cultural connections, which render the former particularly significant for this country. 

However, the scanty and sporadic reports on the Sri Lankan conflict in the Indian media remain largely event-based, with little depth and even less analysis, as Sri Lankan journalist Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Editor-Investigations and Political Correspondent of The Sunday Leader, Colombo, pointed out recently.

Her brief presentation at the recent 5th Annual Meeting of the Network of Media, India in Bangalore was based on an informal, ad hoc survey by three journalists of Indian print and television media from 2000 to 2006.  Their review revealed that the image of Sri Lanka in the Indian media can be broadly classified into two categories:  an exotic land with an ancient history or a war-torn neighbour. 

They found that coverage of the conflict focused primarily on the fighting - details of bombings, casualties, capture of territory, etc. -- and, to some extent, the number of displaced people or refugees.  The event-driven reporting lacked depth and there was little discussion of the many issues involved.  According to Handunnetti, the human tragedy unfolding in India¿s backyard was obviously of little interest to the media here. "The spill-over effect has not resulted in the Indian media covering the many angles of the conflict…despite the serious political and security implications for India," she added.

The survey showed considerable regional variation in coverage.  Not surprisingly, there was more extensive and consistent coverage in the south of the country, especially in the Tamil Nadu-based media.  More local stories were used and there were a number of articles tracing the historical links between Sri Lanka and southern India.  Several pieces urged support for the embattled Tamil population in northern Sri Lanka, while some even advocated a separate Tamil homeland. 

The renewed outbreak of hostilities in August 2006 resulted in a wave of fresh reporting on the subject, with the issue of Sri Lankan refugees getting considerable attention.  It is only natural that the latter are of particular interest in the south.  According to Handunnetti, before the ceasefire agreement between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2002, over 200,000 displaced Sri Lankans lived in refugee camps in South India, especially Tamil Nadu.  Following the truce some 70,000 refugees returned to their own country.

Much of the media coverage in the south was obviously driven by Tamil Nadu politics, with several state politicians playing a major role in highlighting issues relating to the Sri Lankan conflict. The survey found that Chief Minister K. Karunandhi and V. Gopalaswamy (alias Vaiko), General Secretary of the MDMK party, dominated stories in the recent phase of conflict coverage.  Nevertheless, according to Handunnetti, the coverage was fairly balanced, with reports focusing not only on events and statistics but also on issues, including the humanitarian crisis.  Several opinion pieces also appeared. 

In contrast, coverage of the conflict in media based in northern India was found to be largely event-based.  It also focused primarily on the political angle:  the peace talks, Norwegian facilitation of the peace process, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh¿s regular appeals to the Colombo administration for talks to be resumed, and so on.  Much of the coverage comprised knee-jerk reactions to events, with little attention paid to issues and few reports focusing on the humanitarian crisis in the island nation.

Interestingly, the survey included the media in Assam, which were found to be relatively sympathetic to the Tamil cause, with a certain level of advocacy reflected in the coverage.

Under the circumstances, several stories related to the conflict in Sri Lanka remain untold by the Indian media.  And one of the neglected areas is the situation of the embattled media in Sri Lanka, which has been causing concern not only within the country but also in international human rights and press freedom circles. 

For example, the final report of the International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression Mission to Sri Lanka, which visited the country from 9 to 11 October 2006, was released on 7 March in Colombo.  Although the mission comprised representatives of an impressive range of global organisations (including the World Association of Newspapers and UNESCO) it received little attention here. Titled "Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression in Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Survival," the report documents recent restrictions on and violations of freedom of expression and media rights in the country. The full report is available on the website of the Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka (, which also has regular updates on the media situation there.

The story of Parameshwari Munuswamy and Maubima, the Sinhala weekly newspaper she works for, illustrates some of the pressures faced by the Sri Lankan media today.  The young woman journalist was finally released last week - a full four months after she was arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the Sri Lanka Police.  She had been in custody since 21 November without any formal charges being brought against her.

It was, ironically, on International Women¿s Day (8 March) that a petition filed by 25-year-old Parameshwari, alleging violation of her fundamental rights, was taken up by the country¿s Supreme Court.  Hopes for her release were raised when the counsel appearing for the Attorney General that the latter would consider granting her bail.  However, the next day the Chief Magistrate¿s Court of Colombo extended her custody until 23 March, saying that bail could not be granted at that level of the judiciary to those who were arrested and detained under the Emergency Regulations currently in force.

Parameshwari, who worked for the paper primarily as a Tamil translator, had written a series of investigative articles on the abductions and harassment experienced by Tamil civilians.  She met Tamil businessmen and ordinary citizens to collect information about the threats they had received.  She also met family members of Tamils who had gone missing in the southern parts of the country, often after being taken away by gangs in unmarked white vans.  Significantly, she stated in her petition that the van in which she was taken to the TID, where she was subsequently detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, also had no number plates.  In Sri Lanka a white van without a number plate has long been a symbol of terror associated with the disappearances that have occurred in different parts of the country at various times since the 1980s. 

She was accused of helping a member of the LTTE¿s suicide cadre but she consistently denied involvement in any unlawful act.  The lawyer representing her at the Chief Magistrate¿s court also pointed out that there was no evidence that she had any connection with, let alone that she had helped, the LTTE.  According to him, all the official allegations against her were based purely on suspicion.  This perception was strengthened when the police statement before the court also mentioned only suspicions that she had connections with and had extended help to a person suspected of being an LTTE suicide bomber.  Now that she has been released without any charges against her, it certainly appears that the TID had no real case.  Yet, as the FMM has pointed out in a recent press release, both she and her family and friends will probably continue to suffer from the after-effects of the campaign involving false allegations that were obviously meant to influence public opinion against her.

In addition, although Parameshwari has now been released, there is still considerable concern within media and human rights circles about recent developments that have led to the virtual silencing of Maubima.  The relatively new paper, launched in July 2006, has apparently been paying for exposing human rights violations in the north and east of the country.  According to Standard Newspapers Pvt. Ltd., publishers of Maubima and the Sunday Standard, the government began to pressure other media institutions to portray the paper as sympathetic to the LTTE in August 2006.  That happens to be the month when the precarious ceasefire agreed upon by the government and the LTTE in 2002 finally fell apart, leading to an escalation of violent conflict, which has already displaced at least 150,000 civilians in the east and led to hundreds of deaths.

Since January 2007 the newspaper and its parent company, as well as associated organisations (including educational institutions), have faced raids from the Inland Revenue Department as well as the TID, tax audits, freezing of bank accounts, as well as suspension of the mobile phone connection distributorship for the north and east that was the primary source of revenue of CBE Pvt. Ltd., the business group that owns Maubima¿s publisher, the Standard Newspapers company.

In February the editor in chief of Maubima, Thilakaratne Kuruwita Bandara, received death threats, the publishers¿ passports were impounded, and one of them -- Dushyantha Basnayake -- was arrested by the TID, again with no formal charges filed against him to date.  In March several CBE employees were interrogated by the TID.

In a 13 March press release, the Free Media Movement (FMM) condemned the "pattern of systematic intimidation and suppression of a newspaper which is not following the official line in reporting the conflict and corruption."  International human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as press freedom groups like Reporters without Borders, have also criticised the harassment of the media and threats of freedom of the press in Sri Lanka, including the latest instance involving Maubima. 

According to a letter released by Standard Newspapers, "In Sri Lanka`s long and troubled history there has never been such a frontal attack of such intensity on a mainstream mass circulation newspaper."  In an article headlined "Murder of a Newspaper" in The Sunday Leader, detailing the Maubima experience, Kumuthu Amarasingham pointed out that  "Irrespective of the veracity of Maubima`s content, the fact remains the newspaper had the right to say what it wanted. If the government felt the need to challenge anything, they could, and should, have done so within the legal framework. Unfortunately, suppression and terror tactics are not, by any standards, new to Sri Lanka, or to its media. The lesson here, however, is not so much that they exist, as that repression and aggression can always be taken to new, and more horrifying, heights."

Speaking at the 7 March event at which the report of the International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression Mission to Sri Lanka was released, Sunanda Deshapriya of FMM highlighted the fact that nine media workers had been killed in Sri Lanka over the past 15 months.  Pointing out that media organisations have been officially accused of aiding and abetting militant activities, he said, "Naming and shaming media organisations as `Tiger organisations` without evidence is a deliberate attempt to suppress the media in this country."

Meanwhile, the situation of the media in Jaffna is particularly grim and even more invisible.  Their problems have, of course, been exacerbated by the escalation of conflict in August 2006, which has further isolated the northern peninsula from the rest of the country. 

The small local press - basically now comprising three surviving Tamil newspapers - has faced considerable intimidation and violence, especially over the past year.  One newspaper, Uthayan, has been under direct attack since last May, when two employees were killed and two others seriously injured as six armed young men attacked their office - ironically on the eve of World Press Freedom Day.  The intruders had come looking for two journalists but assaulted non-editorial staff since the men they were after were not in the office at the time (one had left just minutes earlier). The journalists later returned and brought out the next day¿s edition, with photographs of their dead colleagues on the front page. Two of them lived in the office for several weeks, not daring to venture out but still bringing out the paper.

In August a driver working for the newspaper was killed and warehouses containing its printing equipment were burned to the ground. In September two men, one brandishing a pistol, forced their way into the papers¿ offices threatening the staff with violence if they did not print their statement.  In December, a policeman standing guard outside the newspaper office was reportedly shot dead.  According to local journalists, they have unfortunately had to resort to self-censorship as a survival strategy.

The financial situation of journalists in embattled Jaffna - always precarious -- has obviously worsened in recent times. The FMM recently extended monetary support to 34 of them, through a project supported by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the International Media Support (IMS). Among the journalists receiving financial help are those who had lost their jobs and, as a result, their primary source of income due to the prevailing situation. Other journalists working for little pay and facing dire financial hardship, as well as some part-time journalists, are also being supported.

Clearly, despite the good news about Parameshwari` s recent, long-awaited release, all is far from well with the media in Sri Lanka.  According to a recent FMM press release, while her release without any charges is "a triumph for truth and justice," her experience demonstrates the dangers of "draconian anti-terrorism and emergency regulations," which constitute "a threat to media freedom in Sri Lanka."  The FMM has also reiterated their concern about the many journalists still facing similar threats and harassment, calling upon all those in support of democracy to support their work in securing and strengthening media freedom and fundamental rights in Sri Lanka.

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