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Friday, March 16, 2012

Sri Lanka media restrictions come amid rise in abductions

On March 9, Sri Lanka's military authorities told all news and media organizations that they would have to get prior approval before releasing text or SMS news alerts containing any news about the military or police.

I checked with some reporters in Colombo. The restrictions on reporting on the military were formally lifted in August 2011, after the end of the fighting with Tamil separatists three years ago.

Here's what one journalist told me when I asked about restrictions having been lifted: "Ostensibly yes. But if you write about them you have to be prepared to be abducted by a white van. We've also been told that if you write anything against the defense secretary [Gothabaya Rajapaksa, brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa], you can be certain he'll put a tail on you. So that's freedom for you."

About that white van: The reporter was referring to white Toyota Hi Ace vans with deeply tinted windows -- some with no license plates, others with differing numbers on the front and rear -- that are seen frequently in Sri Lanka. They have often been used in abductions, as we have noted many times. The first journalist to write about them, in November 2006, was a brave young reporter named Parameswaree Maunas├ími, a Tamil writing for the Sinhalese-language weekly Mawbima. She was picked up soon after her article appeared and held for five months, but never charged.

More from the reporter I have been messaging with in the past few days: "Incidentally, white van abducts are back with a big bang. Two weeks ago they even abducted someone from the court premises. On Saturday they tried to abduct an Urban Council member, an opposition party man. His supporters managed to foil the abduction and apprehended five people who turned out to be army personnel."

Charles Haviland, the BBC's correspondent in Sri Lanka, yesterday filed a strong piece about broad human rights violations. His story confirmed the rise in abductions and disappearances.

One abduction that we have covered extensively is that of Prageeth Eknelygoda. He was taken on January 24, 2010, and has not been heard from since, despite the intense, unflagging efforts of his wife Sandhya and the couple's two teenage sons. There has been no movement in the case, despite her appeals at all levels of government, from the cabinet to the local police desk.

Nor has she gotten any support from the United Nations in her quest to find out what happened to her husband. A 2011 campaign lead by CPJ asking the U.N. to investigate came to naught, even though U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNESCO, which oversees press freedom, to look into the case.

The Eknelygoda case will be one of many raised when the U.N. Human Rights Council discusses abuses in Sri Lanka at its 19th session, now underway in Geneva. But given the Rajapaksa government's ability to skirt international pressure so far, progress in investigating the case doesn't seem likely.

The government has gone into high gear in denouncing its critics, at home and abroad. Given the vitriol spewing out of the government-aligned press in Sri Lanka, it doesn't seem likely that the accelerating anti-media campaign or the abductions of anyone in opposition to the Rajapaksa government will be reversed any time soon, either.