Sri Lanka journalists ‘risk death’

A group of heavily armed men, their faces covered, they smashed windows, broke down doors and tried to blow up the control room at the Sirasa TV studios on the outskirts of Colombo last month.

This is the other side of Sri Lanka’s war – a violent crackdown on dissent.

Inside the control room there are shards of glass and bits of debris on the floor. The walls and ceiling are covered in thick black grimy soot.

There are TV screens burnt out of shape, and recording equipment and wires lying in mangled heaps.

On one wall three plastic buttons – red, yellow and green – have melted in the heat. The plastic has leaked down the wall like bits of bubble gum.

The government has categorically denied any role in this attack, but someone is trying to silence the critics.

‘Climate of fear’

I have been shown around by the station director, who for understandable reasons is cautious.

“As to why this happens, you just don’t want to say,” I suggest.

He looks at me, he looks at my colleague, he looks at the floor, and he gives a slight smile.

I nod and turn away. His silence speaks volumes. Some things are too sensitive to discuss.

Two days after the attack at Sirisa TV, a prominent newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunga – a feisty government critic – was shot dead as he drove to work.

At least nine journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka in the past three years.

Lasantha’s brother Lal now runs the newspaper. He shows me Lasantha’s empty office – left as it was on the day he died.

“There is a climate of fear. More than the fear is the uncertainty of where it will strike next,” he says.

The government has strongly denied any involvement in this murder as well.

But in a posthumous editorial, which gained widespread publicity around the world, Lasantha Wickramatunga was chillingly certain about what would happen to him.

“When finally I am killed,” he wrote, “it will be the government that kills me.”

‘Fighting for the country’

Lasantha’s wife, Sonali Samarasinghe, is one of at least 10 journalists who have fled from the country in the wake of his murder. Reporting has become a perilous business.

Others have been assaulted or threatened. JS Tissanayagam, a Tamil journalist, has been in custody for nearly a year.

But the government’s position is clear. There is a war on, and the country comes first.

“People seem to be scared of you,” I say to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “Should they be?”

“This is wrong propaganda,” he replies. “The only thing I have done is fight the terror.”

“I have only two groups – the people who fight terrorism and the terrorists.”

“Does that mean,” I ask, “that you think dissent or criticism during a time of war is treason?”

“Yes,” he says. “We are fighting to save our country – the sovereignty of our country.”

Sri Lanka will mark Independence Day this week with a huge military parade on Galle Face Green in the heart of Colombo.

For many it will be a celebration of victory, of a civil war almost won.

But for anyone who disagrees with prevailing official opinion, these are dangerous times.

Some of it is about internal political rivalries, but much of it is not. It is about the freedom to express an alternative view.

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