Media watchdogs in Sri Lanka have condemned the attempted intimidation of local journalists involved in a New York Times
investigation of a massive Chinese-funded port development. They called on associates of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa
to stop attacking two local reporters, Dharisha Bastians and Arthur Wamanan, who assisted the American newspaper. Bastians and Wamanan were accused of acting on behalf of the current government to malign Rajapaksa, a lawyer who was the nation's president from late 2005 until early 2015. Following the June 26 publication of the article, there was a campaign on Facebook and Twitter accusing Bastians and Wamanan of political bias. And in one news conference a close-up photo of Bastians was held up for media cameramen. This was seen as particularly threatening because when Rajapaksa was president, as well as the imposing of official curbs on media freedom, 11 reporters were murdered and others were beaten. New Delhi-based New York Times
South Asia correspondent Maria Abi Habib wrote the article that has caused a storm of controversy in Sri Lanka. The story dealt with a US$1 billion loan from China taken out by Rajapaksa's former government to build the Hambantota Port
in the nation's south, which has failed to attract significant business but has given Beijing a strategic foothold close to rival India. And the article referred to an ongoing official investigation of alleged payments by the state-owned China Harbor Engineering Co. to people said to be linked to Rajapaksa's unsuccessful 2015 re-election campaign. Aravinda Dilruk, a senior Sri Lankan journalist, said any criticism of the involvement of Bastians and Wamanan should have a factual basis rather than just questioning their motives. The president of the Sri Lankan chapter of the South Asia Free Media Association, Lakshman Gunasekera
, expressed grave concern for the safety of Bastians and Wamanan. "This naming and attempt to shame publicly these two Sri Lankan journalists is most alarming and worrying because it is being done by the same people who did it earlier while they were in power," Gunasekera said. "During their regime, we journalists lived through a time where such direct naming and targeting of journalists could end with physical attacks, grenades thrown at houses, disappearances, killings and assassinations." The Free Media Movement (FMM) in Sri Lanka also complained that there had been a threat to the security of Bastians and Wamanan. Lasantha Ruhunage, president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists' Association, said there are established ways of responding to media articles, including scope for legal proceedings. Rajapaksa has publicly denied receiving Chinese campaign funding.
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Michael Slackman, international editor of The New York Times
, said on July 3 that if Rajapaksa took issue with the newspaper's reporting, he should contact senior editors. "The Times
expects Sri Lankan authorities to ensure the safety of journalists working for our — or any — news organization," Slackman said.