Justice for journalists: Media urge UN to pressure Colombo

'Black January' protesters demand govt hold those responsible for human rights abuses against the media to account
Justice for journalists: Media urge UN to pressure Colombo

Media activists in Sri Lanka hold a silent vigil in honor of reporters who have been killed or disappeared, during the so-called 'Black January' protest rally at Lipton Circle in Colombo on Jan. 29. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)

Media activists in Sri Lanka want the United Nations to keep pressuring the government to take accountability for media personnel who have either been killed or disappeared over the years, both during the civil war and after 2009.

Journalist organizations have held various activities in a bid to bring those guilty to justice.

On Jan. 29 they took to the streets of the capital to raise awareness of their decision to hand the U.N. a petition, and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka a document, detailing some 30 incidents still pending resolution.

These occurred from 2000 to 2015 and involve the abuse of reporters and media institutions in the country.

During that decade, Sri Lanka recorded at least 138 cases of the media being physically attacked. Sixteen media personnel were killed, according to the International Committee to Protect Journalists.

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Duminda Sampath, president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, said the delay in seeing justice served is indicative of the culture of impunity that prevails in the country.

"We don't want assurances from the U.N. We want it to take action," he said.

"It is essential for the U.N. to persist in pressuring the government to take accountability as we move forward."

The demonstrators in Colombo in January called on the U.N. to keep pressuring the government to bring those responsible for the dead or missing media personnel to account. They also demanded better safeguards for journalists operating in the country. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)


Sampath said he handed the group’s petition to Hanaa Singer, resident coordinator of the U.N.’s local Sri Lanka office.

"We have had diplomatic pressure, statements, promises, high-level visits, commissions of inquiry, investigative reporting, presentations to multilateral forums, and briefings to governments," he said.

"We have voted for successive governments based on their promises of bringing an end to this culture of impunity," he added.

"Victims, survivors and their families have long clung to their hope that justice will prevail, but those faint glimmers of hope, too, are dying."

Some of the relatives crusading for justice have even received death threats.

He suggested a road map to effect change.

"A first step would be to ensure the incumbent government fulfills the many promises it has made regarding holding to account those responsible for the many crimes committed against journalists in this country," he said.

"We trust the U.N. will take decisive, sustained action to ensure that media freedom and freedom of expression are installed to the fullest."

Among those crimes was the murder in 2009 of Lasantha Wickrematunga, 51, a newspaper editor known for her outspoken attitude and criticism of the authorities.

Other notable cases include the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, a political columnist who went missing in January 2010, and the abduction in April 2005 of Dharmaratnam Sivaram. He was found dead the following morning with gunshot wounds. 

During the reign of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005 to 2015 some 11 journalists were killed in mysterious circumstances. All of those cases remain unresolved.

This lack of progress has helped to position Sri Lanka high on the annual impunity index released by the Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) since 2008.

The government has promised to take swift action to resolve these murders but critics complain the wheels of justice are moving at an unacceptably slow rate.

Even the police have complained that a trove of evidence pertaining to those who were killed and disappeared was lost or destroyed under the previous government.

Dodawatta, Convener of the Free Media Movement, said the Sri Lankan public is used to seeing their constitutionally guaranteed rights violated.

He singled out freedom of expression, freedom to hold independent political opinions, and the right to live as among the most egregious abuses of power.

"The lack of political will, the delays in the judicial system, the links between the armed forces and paramilitary groups, the absence of proper investigations, and the fear of bereaved families that they will lose more loved ones by railing for their rights are all among the reasons why justice is being obstructed," said Dodawatta, who helped organize the "Black January" protest at Lipton Circle in Colombo on Jan. 29.

Similar rallies and appeals to the U.N. have been staged for years, notably in October 2012 when activists commemorated 1,000 days since the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, a journalist and cartoonist who was highly critical of the government.

The most recent protest saw demonstrators engage in a silent protest as they carried posters of the reporters who died or went missing from 2005 to 2015.

"The government should conduct proper investigations into the killings and the attacks on all journalists," he said.

"Media organizations are calling it 'black' January due to the high number of attacks that have historically occurred in this month."

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