By Munza Mushtaq
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AA) - Just weeks since Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president, journalists in Sri Lanka have been on edge, fearing a crackdown against media freedom following a recent spate of incidents including intimidation and interrogations.
On Nov. 26, Colombo-based news website newshub.lk was raided, with police searching for content on its desktops and laptops in relation to the key word "Gota", the short form used for Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Incidentally, the warrant produced during the search operation had expired in December last year. On the same day, journalist Sanjay Dhanushka, who manages the video channel at TheLeader.lk news website, was summoned and questioned by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for several hours.
Two days later, the editor of voicetube.lk, Thushara Vitharana, was summoned by the CID for questioning for two hours about her past activities for another website where she no longer works. When she asked why she was questioned, the police said it was in connection with a complaint by the Sinhalese National Organization, a group that promotes Sinhalese and Buddhist supremacy -- a theme that was also at the heart of Rajapaksa’s successful election campaign.
In another incident, Sakthivelpillai Prakash, editor of the Tamil-language newspaper Thinappuyal, was questioned by plainclothes police in the northern city of Vavuniya on Nov. 25. They interrogated him over the newspaper’s coverage of the former Tamil Tiger rebellion and also asked him to provide the contact details of all its reporters, which he refused.
- Journalists still being targeted
Most recently, Maduka Thaksala Fernando a senior figure in the state-run Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, was assaulted on Tuesday morning by a group who he said belonged to the pro-government Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna trade union.
"They held me by my neck and dragged me out of the Resa newspaper editorial where I was at the time they came searching for me," he told Anadolu Agency.
"Then they took me near a corridor towards the press, which is usually deserted and pushed me to the wall while holding onto my neck and said I have no right to step into the place ever again and assaulted me. I was scared and I wanted to get out of there, so I didn’t argue with them because there was about 10 to 15 people and I was alone," he added.
Fernando has already lodged a complaint with the police since the incident and has also brought the incident to the attention of senior management. He submitted his resignation soon after the presidential election to go into effect on Dec. 31.
Fernando believes he may have been targeted by the group due to his personal political ideology. However, he insists that he never reflected his personal preference in his work.
Following the alarming rise in such incidents, international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed concern over the searches, interrogations and acts of intimidation against Sri Lankan journalists.
"The authorities must put a stop to all forms of intimidation," RSF said in a statement.
The period from 2005-2015 when Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is currently prime minister, served as president was branded as the "dark era" for media freedom in the country due to killings, abductions and harassment of government critics, mainly journalists.
- Bad impact on media freedom
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the defense secretary during his elder brother’s reign and was accused of being the architect behind the dreaded 'white van' unit which abducted journalists and other critics.
The most high-profile case during Mahinda Rajapaksa's presidency was the assassination of the editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was killed in 2009 in broad daylight in a suburb of Colombo while on his way to work.
Wickrematunge was a critic of the Rajapaksa government and had exposed several large-scale corruption cases of the Rajapaksa family, including that of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
He was killed days before he was supposed to give evidence about the new president's alleged corruption in a multimillion-dollar second-hand MiG plane deal from Ukraine.
Duminda Sampath, president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalist Association, said they have no issues with the police questioning journalists, but it is the manner in which they are carrying out the interrogations that is very concerning.
"If the police want to question them, they have the right to do so. But they must inform the journalists in advance as to the reason for summoning them, and it should be done in a respectable way," he told Anadolu Agency.
Last week, journalist for the Lankadeepa newspaper Thusitha Kumar de Silva and his wife were assaulted by a group of thugs in the southern town of Aluthgama after he reported on bootleg toddy, a local alcoholic beverage. Sampath believes this is the beginning of a "bad trend".
"When a journalist is attacked for his or her reporting, then this has a bad impact on the media freedom in the country, and the government must ensure all wrongdoers are punished in an urgent manner, but we don't see this happening," Sampath said.
He was also highly critical of the previous government under President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for using the killing, abduction and intimidation of journalists as merely a vote-buying ticket during the 2015 presidential election.
"They used these incidents as an election tool, but they clearly were never interested to get to the bottom of these incidents and hold the culprits responsible," he said.
Sampath said that despite four years of investigations, the government failed to live up to its pledges, with perpetrators "still roaming free".
Richard Gowing, Director of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, said it was the speed of the recent crackdown that was shocking.
"It's been just over three weeks since Gotabaya was elected, and already there has been a spate of pretty conspicuous attempts to intimidate members of the press. It really looks and feels like they are trying to send a message to potential critics to be careful," the human rights group director told Anadolu Agency.
The question remains just how far authorities will be willing to go to silence dissent.
"The commendable strides the previous government made in expanding media freedom has resulted in some much more outspoken journalism in Sri Lanka. That's a good thing -- but now that the winds are changing again, it could also leave many exposed," he added.
- Govt. official denis allegations
Last month, fears of the white van unit resurfaced after a staff member of the Switzerland Embassy in Colombo was abducted for a few hours by a group of unidentified men who allegedly came in such a vehicle.
They threatened the female staff member and had reportedly demanded sensitive information from her pertaining to a visa which had been allegedly issued by the embassy to CID official Nishantha Silva who had fled to Switzerland with his family fearing reprisal from the new government.
Silva was investigating several high-profile cases including the murder of Wickrematunge and the disappearance of another journalist, Prageeth Eknaligoda as well as several other abduction and assault cases of journalists.
Meanwhile, a government spokesman categorically denied the allegations that the new president and his government were trying to intimidate or harass journalists.
Ramesh Pathirana told Anadolu Agency that the government was not after any media personnel and only wanted to ensure they would create an environment which would fully establish and further strengthen media freedom in the country.
"There is no reason for the government to carry out such activities. These are baseless allegations," he said.
However, Pathirana highlighted that if a formal complaint was lodged against a journalist, police would open an investigation. There would otherwise be no attempt by the new government to intimidate or harass journalists, he added.
"It has come to a point that even if two people fight with each other on the roadside, everyone blames it on the government and the president. We are very clear that we don't want to do anything to deter media freedom or undermine the freedom journalists have enjoyed in this country," he said.
Pathirana added that the government "firmly" believed a conspiracy was behind the latest incidents, aiming to bring the "party and country to disrepute".