For Sri Lankan reporters, the ghosts of violence and intimidation loom again | Global development

Terror tore by way of me once I heard that my good friend and editor of the Nation newspaper, Keith Noyahr, had been kidnapped. It was Could 2008; the civil conflict was raging and Sri Lankan troops have been chalking up victories in opposition to Tamil Tiger separatists in the north. In the fog of conflict, authorities critics have been being terrorised throughout the nation. We had realized to anticipate the worst when a journalist went lacking.

Outdoors Noyahr’s house that evening, by way of his six-year-old daughter’s screams, I heard telephone calls pleading with diplomats and politicians to save lots of Keith’s life. The journalist was released by his abductors shortly earlier than daybreak and staggered house, his head matted with blood, legs unsteady from steady beatings.

Inside days, Noyahr had fled the nation. He told investigators he had been suspended in midair, stripped and overwhelmed by his captors.

Seven months later, we realised the assault had been a trial run. In January 2009 the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, one other Sri Lankan journalist and editor of the Sunday Chief, despatched shockwaves throughout the world.


The person Wickrematunge’s daughter has accused of planning her father’s killing, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is now president of Sri Lanka. His election in 2019 heralded a right away crackdown against the media.

Human Rights Watch says the Sri Lankan media practices “rampant self-censorship” – maybe as a result of there may be an eerie familiarity to the latest intimidation. The final time this regime held energy, journalists had a front-row seat to repression.

A poster of the Sri Lankan journalist Keith Noyahr, who fled the country days after being abducted – allegedly by soldiers – at a human rights activist’s office in Colombo.

A poster of the Sri Lankan journalist Keith Noyahr, who fled the nation days after being kidnapped – allegedly by troopers – at a human rights activist’s workplace in Colombo. {Photograph}: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

When Wickrematunge was killed, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defence secretary. As brother of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa wielded unparalleled navy affect, incomes a repute as the nation’s most feared bureaucrat. When Wickrematunge exposed a corrupt arms deal Rajapaksa had signed off, he broke the silence in the press about the actions of the defence secretary.

Years later, Sri Lankan prison investigators alleged that Gotabaya Rajapaksa operated navy death squads to assault journalists, together with Wickrematunge and Noyahr. Rajapaksa has persistently denied this and all different allegations of wrongdoing.

From 2005 to 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over a scientific assault on the press. The Committee to Defend Journalists estimates that 13 journalists have been killed over the decade. Others have been threatened, kidnapped and tortured. Tamil journalists have been disproportionately victimised. In 2014, Sri Lanka ranked fourth on an index of countries the place journalists are slain – and their killers go free.

The assaults had a chilling impact on reporters. Worry unfold like scars over elements of us reduce open by the violence, remodeling our reporting. We realized to write down between the strains, to depart issues unsaid.

Journalism’s calling is to talk reality to energy. However each time a journalist is attacked, and the perpetrators go free, the area for unbiased reporting shrinks. In that decade of darkness from 2005 to 2015, the precedence for Sri Lankan journalists was to only keep alive.

A yr on from the begin of the world’s largest well being disaster, we now face a human rights pandemic. Covid-19 has uncovered the inequalities and fragilities of well being and political programs and allowed authoritarian regimes to impose drastic curbs on rights and freedoms, utilizing the virus as a pretext for proscribing free speech and stifling dissent.

Rights and Freedom is a brand new Guardian reporting sequence to analyze and expose human rights abuses at this important time, and elevate the voices of folks on the frontlines, preventing again for themselves and their communities.


After 10 years of watching colleagues fall or flee, journalists labored briefly with out worry after the Rajapaksa authorities was defeated in 2015. Outdated investigations have been reopened, and Gotabaya was implicated in a number of circumstances of corruption and violence in opposition to journalists.

By clinching the presidency in 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa secured immunity from the expenses. As president, he has suppressed investigations that led to arrests of navy personnel underneath his command. In a brazen rewriting of historical past, his administration has turned police detectives into criminals, and military officials accused of homicide into victims of persecution.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then defence minister, centre, rides in a Victory Day parade rehearsal in Colombo in 2013, marking the fourth anniversary of the defeat of the Tamil Tigers.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then defence minister, centre, rides in a Victory Day parade rehearsal in Colombo in 2013, marking the fourth anniversary of the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. {Photograph}: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP/Getty

Wickrematunge’s killers, Noyahr’s assailants and different perpetrators are free males, and journalists working in Sri Lanka are haunted by the outdated ghosts of violence and intimidation.

Throughout the world, authoritarians are weaponising the legislation to silence the press, from editors comparable to Maria Ressa in the Philippines to the reporter Mahmoud Hussein in Egypt.

In Sri Lanka, too, these new repressive tactics have been deployed. As soon as there have been white vans and weapons; now there are warrants, seizures and disinformation campaigns, which erode public belief in critics and the information media. As one of the earliest targets of this subdued terror marketing campaign, I can attest to its effectiveness. The federal government is waging a propaganda conflict – and journalists and critics are shedding.

In Sri Lanka the historical past of critical journalism is written in blood and bruises. Journalists have the ignominious honour of being amongst those that have borne the biggest burden of state terror over the years. Spanning a long time and governments, a tradition of impunity for crimes in opposition to journalists has thrived.

A Sri Lankan journalist lights a candle in front of the grave of the murdered editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, in Colombo on 8 January 2020, on the 11th anniversary of his death.

A Sri Lankan journalist lights a candle at the grave of the murdered editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, in Colombo in January final yr, 11 years after his homicide. {Photograph}: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP/Getty

Particulars that emerged about the 2005-15 assaults on our colleagues left little doubt {that a} Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency would power journalists to confront an existential query: the story or your life? No journalist ought to should make that alternative.

In the thrall of a populist president with evident authoritarian tendencies, Sri Lanka wants important journalists greater than ever. Unrelenting dedication and credible action from the worldwide group to finish impunity for many who harass and kill journalists sends a message to would-be despots about the penalties of repression, and maybe keep their hand.

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