burnt-down printing press in Colombo
Journalists take photographs at a burnt-down printing press in Colombo, 2007 © Reuters

On a warm Saturday evening in late August, Sri Lankan journalist Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema was working at the home she shared with her husband, young daughter and elderly parents in a quiet, tree-lined suburb of the capital Colombo.

The 39-year-old, a senior editor and political columnist at the Sunday Leader newspaper, eventually went to bed at around 1am only to be woken a few hours later by intruders. “One held a knife to my chest, another to my neck,” she says. “They asked where my husband was, and started ransacking my bedroom …One of them punched me in the face.”

The ordeal lasted two hours as five men ransacked the house, terrifying the family. It ended only when her husband Romesh, returning late from a social gathering, noticed the disturbance from outside. He called the police, who arrived quickly, shooting and killing one of the intruders and capturing the other four.

The following day a senior Sri Lankan police officer described the incident as a robbery. Abeywickrema, who earlier this year founded a journalist’s trade union to campaign for media freedoms, disagrees. She says one of the intruders told her they had been contracted to attack her, and that the break-in followed a pattern of anonymous threats, relating to her journalism. Either way, four weeks after the incident, she fled the country, saying she feared for her safety.

In so far as she escaped without severe physical injury, Abeywickrema was more fortunate than a number of her peers in Sri Lanka’s media. Nine journalists have been murdered over the past decade, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists; none of the crimes has resulted in prosecution. More broadly, the country sits 162nd out of 179 on an index of national press freedom compiled by the charity Reporters Without Borders, making it the lowest-ranked parliamentary democracy.

Sri Lanka’s bloody 25-year civil war earned the south Asian island a reputation as one of the world’s least safe places to be a journalist. Reporters faced extensive censorship and the threat of violence. Today, four years after the final defeat of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, the government of charismatic, populist president Mahinda Rajapaksa argues that, with wartime restrictions lifted, the media are freer than at any time in a generation.

The reality is more complex. Threats and attacks on journalists continue, while organisations that monitor press freedoms, including the US civil liberties group Freedom House, say Sri Lanka now suffers from a subtler but no less extensive system of media control, marked by occasional violence, widespread intimidation and extensive self-censorship.

The pressure on independent media is just one reason why the decision to hold this week’s summit of Commonwealth leaders in Colombo has provoked controversy. Sri Lanka’s main opposition parties, along with international groups such as Human Rights Watch, have attacked the decision to host the summit in a country whose government, they argue, has acted to undermine democratic institutions, including the judiciary. Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, will boycott the gathering, while others, including Britain’s David Cameron, have been criticised for attending an event that, critics say, will be used by Rajapaksa’s regime to promote his country’s postwar resurgence.

These critics believe power has been centralised in the hands of Rajapaksa, first elected in 2005, and his immediate family, most notably his brothers Basil and Gotabaya, who control economic policy and the army respectively. Together with an unwillingness to investigate alleged war crimes committed during the civil war’s final stages, in which as many as 40,000 civilians are said to have died, such developments point to a country that is, according to Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights, “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”.

Bob Dietz, head of Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists, says: “The government took their victory [in the war] as a mandate to suppress opposition more generally. Pro-government media thrive, enjoying access and commercial support, and giving the illusion of an open media. But outright opposition is now treated harshly.”

On the surface, Sri Lanka’s media show signs of health. Around two dozen newspapers are produced each week in a country of just 20m people. There are publications in English, such as the Sunday Leader, as well as in Sinhalese for the island’s Buddhist majority, and Tamil for the minority population who live mostly in the island’s north. Some outlets are owned directly by the government, including the Daily News, one of the country’s most widely read English newspapers, but most belong to private businesses. Spirited private sector cable TV channels also operate in all three languages. Print coverage is typically populist, with a tradition of long, trenchantly written political columns.

Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
Former Sunday Leader journalist Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, following the attack on her and her family in August © AFP

Even within this lively mix, the Sunday Leader stood out as a feisty, anti-establishment periodical. It was founded in 1994 by journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, along with his brother Lal, who controlled its business dealings. The paper’s strapline – “unbowed and unafraid” – hinted at the reputation it would establish for questioning those in power. During the final years of the civil war in particular, it endured a combustible relationship with the administration, criticising both the conduct of the military campaign and the growing role of Rajapaksa’s family.

In January 2009, a few months before the war ended, Lasantha Wickrematunge was gunned down and killed while driving to work in Colombo. It was an attack that his brother, in common with numerous international human rights groups, believes was orchestrated by people with links to government. The Rajapaksa administration strongly denies any role in the murder. Yet Wickrematunge had become so convinced of his own likely fate that he had pre-written an essay to be published after his death. “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me,” he wrote in what became an editorial entitled “And Then They Came For Me”, carried in the Sunday Leader three days after the attack.

The killing of one of Sri Lanka’s most recognised journalists provoked international outcry and brought renewed focus to claims that the country’s media were being cowed by a mix of threats and violence. “The independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced,” wrote Wickrematunge. “Murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty.”

The pattern of violence he described continued after the war, most ominously during a period of “white van” attacks, in which dozens of people, from social activists and petty criminals to journalists, were abducted in commercial vehicles. Many were beaten, some never returned.

Over the past year the situation seems, on the surface, to have changed. “The white van [attacks on journalists] have gone,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, and a prominent critic of the government. “Now we have a situation characterised more by self-censorship, partly the fear that the vans might emerge again …It is in a way a more sophisticated system of control, given force is no longer much needed.”

Violence against media organisations still occurs. In April, gunmen attacked the offices of Uthayan, a Tamil-language newspaper based in the northern city of Jaffna, setting its printing presses on fire. Overt censorship also takes place. The Colombo Telegraph, an independent online news outfit operated from London, has found its site repeatedly blocked.

In June the government floated a draft media code with potentially wide-ranging restrictions on, among other things, reporting on national security. The proposed rules are now on hold but, even without them, the simple threat of government reprisals often seems sufficient to keep Sri Lanka’s media constrained.

“I’d say it’s mission accomplished. They’ve got the press almost exactly where they want them,” one western diplomat, who asked not be named, told me in Colombo. “The red lines are fairly simple,” explains a Sri Lankan journalist, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “You don’t write about the first family. You don’t write about the army, or the end of the war. And you are careful about investigating people who have any business connections with the government.”

After the death of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Sunday Leader continued to test many of these red lines, worsening its already tense relationship with the inner circle around Rajapaksa’s government. In particular, Frederica Jansz, who succeeded Wickrematunge as editor in 2009, attracted the ire of the president’s powerful younger brother Gotabaya, or “Gota” for short.

In July 2012, Jansz examined a seemingly bizarre story that alleged Sri Lanka’s national airline had altered its flight schedule to transport a puppy, intended for Gota, from Switzerland. Jansz called him to discuss the claims. The result was an expletive-laden exchange, involving insults and threats, which she went on to recount in a column entitled “Gota Goes Berserk”.

Car of Lasantha Wickrematunge
The car in which Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was shot and killed in January 2009 © AP

From here events moved quickly. The Leader had long been in financial difficulties and, within months of the row over the puppy column, a deal was agreed to sell a majority stake to Asanga Seneviratne, a successful businessman with links to the country’s ruling family. According to Jansz, Seneviratne made it clear she would no longer be able to write directly about Rajapaksa’s family. She refused and says she was fired. Seneviratne says she resigned.

Over the next few weeks Jansz heard that an arrest warrant was likely to be issued against her, in relation to a court case dating from 2004. There was more obvious intimidation too. “Even after my removal as editor, I was followed home on two occasions by men on motorbikes, and I received an anonymous death threat,” she explained on the phone from her new home in the United States. Western diplomats also warned her that her life might be in danger. “I decided that push had come to shove. With what had happened to Lasantha, I thought, ‘I am a mother, I have two kids.’ I had to put my children first. So I left.”

The Sunday Leader’s ownership changes reflect what Freedom House describes as a wider pattern, in which most of the country’s privately owned media groups are now in some way linked to, or owned by, figures with links to government. Since its sale, the Sunday Leader’s editorial line towards the government has notably softened. In November 2012 it also published an apology to Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the puppy story.

However, Seneviratne denies a wholesale change of direction. “There has hardly been any change in how we approached the news but I don’t believe you should attack individuals personally without proper information,” he told me, sitting in his plush office, where he runs his main tourism business. “We are trying to build a credible paper, not just a paper that attacks the government.”

Rajapaksa’s supporters argue that any limitations placed on the press reflect the broader will of Sri Lanka’s people or, rather, its Sinhalese majority who re-elected him with a large majority in 2010.

The president himself has also disputed the allegation that his government limits free expression. “I don’t understand how they could accuse me of being a dictator while casting such allegations in public,” he said at a political rally in August. “They slander me using obscene language …but they have been given that freedom to do so.”

Manik De Silva, an editor at the Sunday Island, a moderate weekly, describes his country’s situation as paradoxical. “There is a lot of print and television media which is controlled by the government, and which is blatantly used by the government for propaganda,” he says. “But, on the other side, given the plethora of publications, both print, electronic and online, if you are diligent enough to read the lot, you can get a very fair idea of what is going on.”

Abeywickrema is less sanguine. Her departure from Sri Lanka made her the last of the prominent journalists who worked with Lasantha Wickrematunge to leave the Leader, though she says she hopes to return to the island soon. “The Sunday Leader isn’t going to have me back, and who knows if anyone else will do independent reporting now,” she explains. “But journalism is a drug. I am hooked on it, and here I am going cold turkey. So I feel I can’t give up.”

Wickrematunge ended his final editorial on a note of optimism, both for his profession and the newspaper he co-founded. “Many more of us have to be, and will be, killed before the Leader is laid to rest,” he wrote. “I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts.”

Despite the lack of progress during the years since his brother’s death, Lal Wickrematunge sees some grounds for optimism. He hopes that resilience from domestic journalists, combined with pressure from abroad, at this month’s Commonwealth summit for example, may begin to reverse the trend of restrictions on Sri Lanka’s press freedoms.

“There is self-censorship in a big way but there is also apathy. People have become used to how [the government] operates. And the problem is everything you write reflects on them, because they control almost everything,” he says. “But right now I sense a change might be possible. They have been in power a long time, and perhaps the fear factor will get less pronounced …I am watching it. I haven’t given up. I think we just have to be a little clever.”

James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai bureau chief

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