Fear grips Sri Lanka's state television after wave of mysterious attacks
Tue March 18, 2008 08:34 EDT .
BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) Workers at Sri Lanka's state television channel fear they are being hunted. In the past two months, staff members have been stabbed, threatened and beaten by unknown assailants.
The violence has grown so bad that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had to give employees at the station, Rupavahini Corp., a personal promise of protection to prevent a walkout that would have likely forced it off the air.
The attacks, which employees say may be connected to a feud with a powerful government minister, are part of a wave of intimidation against journalists that has grown as a civil war between government forces and ethnic Tamil rebels has escalated sharply over the past two years, local and international media watchdog groups said.
Senior government officials publicly criticize journalists as unpatriotic, police repeatedly detain and arrest reporters, and senior military officials bar reporters from the conflict zone and call for strict censorship of all war reporting.
``It's very clear, the government wants to control the media and journalists,'' said Sunanda Deshapriya of the Free Media Movement.
Rajapaksa spokesman Chandrapala Liyanage denied the allegation.
``We have not imposed any censorship, and we don't want to control the media,'' he said.
The incidents were largely ignored until Labor Minister Mervyn Silva and his bodyguards walked into Rupavahini's offices Dec. 27 and reportedly attacked news director T.M.G. Chandrasekara for not covering one of Silva's speeches.
In a ruckus broadcast live on TV stations across the nation, the staff fought back, trapping Silva and his bodyguards in an office until police brokered their release in a deal that included a humiliating apology from the minister. As the men were led out under police escort, the angry employees hooted and jeered Silva and stoned his car.
A month later, a wave of attacks began against employees of the state television station, which is seen as more of a government mouthpiece than a critic.
Reporter Lal Hemantha Mawalage was attacked by two men on a motorbike as he headed home from work late Jan. 25. Four days later, two armed men broke into another employee's house in search of the man and threatened his mother, according to watchdog groups and station employees.
A group of men tried to stab journalist Priyal Ranjith Perera on Feb. 27, and the TV station's librarian, Ranjani Aluthge, was repeatedly slashed with a razor blade as she took a bus home from work March 5.
On Friday, two men attacked station official Arunasiri Hettige with a metal pipe at a bus stop, beating him so badly he had to be hospitalized.
Police are investigating the attacks, but no one has been charged, police spokesman N.K. Ilangakoon said.
Employees of the station fear for their lives, said one staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he worried about retribution for speaking.
Reporters at other television stations who covered the Dec. 27 incident said they had been threatened and attacked as well. Susil Kindelpitiya, director of news at the private Sirasa television station, said he was chased as he drove through the streets of Colombo and has seen suspicious people with guns lurking around his house.
``I believe that those threats are linked to what happened at Rupavahini,'' said Kindelpitiya, who supervised his station's live coverage of the incident.
``Definitely, all the attacks started after the Dec. 27 incident,'' said Kanchana Marasinghe, a Rupavahini employee and union activist.
Silva, who has been accused of repeatedly threatening journalists, denied any connection with the violence. ``I also condemn these attacks. No one has a right to assault or threaten others,'' he said.
The climate of fear grew so strong at the station that President Rajapaksa called an emergency meeting Monday with station officials, Silva and his top police and military officials to address the problem.
Rajapaksa ordered his security team to protect the employees and quickly complete investigations into the attacks, said Liyanage, his spokesman.
Marasinghe said he was hopeful things would improve, ``but you can't say what will happen in the future. We are waiting to see what's next.''Discuss this story
Published: Tue Mar 18 09:45:28 EDT 2008