Global Human Rights Defence

“DOWN WITH THE GUNS AGAINST TAMIL PENS” – HOW TAMIL JOURNALISTS ARE ATTACKED IN SRI LANKA
Ethili.te/Tamil Guardian, 2021 [https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/mullaitivu-press-club-condemn-brutal-assault-and-torture-tamil-journalist].

Author: Judit Kolbe 

On November 27, 2021, the independent Tamil journalist Viswalingham Viswachandran was brutally assaulted and beaten by three military personnel in the town of Mullaitivu, northern Sri Lanka. According to media reports, Viswachandran was attacked while taking a photograph of the Mullivaikkala name plate; security forces beat him with Palmyra branches wrapped in barbed wire, resulting in severe injuries for which he was hospitalised. Three military personnel were arrested for the brutal assault and torture of Viswachandran. However, they were shortly released on bail, according to Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS).

This incident of targeted violence against Tamil journalists in Sri Lanka and the infringement upon their right to freedom of expression is one of many. Moreover, it highlights the lack of accountability for these crimes, in turn fostering a culture of impunity. 

History and Statistics 

“While attacks against Tamil journalists continue, unabated complaints even up to the President have gone unattended. This culture of impunity continues to put journalists and freedom of expression into serious hardship.” 

Mullaitivu Press Club, 2021.

Historically, media freedom and attacks on journalists have been a serious challenge for Sri Lanka. Notably, within the countries’ Civil War period from 1981 to 2009, 116 “media personnel, media workers, artists and cultural activists” were assassinated. Tamil journalists, particularly in the North and East regions of the country, have been disproportionately affected by these crimes during that period. Yet, investigations and prosecutions to establish liability for those cases have been inadequate. After the Civil War, between 2010 and 2014, 43 journalists and other media personnel were killed or disappeared according to JDS. 

Further incidents surrounding media freedom and the freedom of expression have been recorded up to this date. In addition to the assassinations and enforced disappearances, abductions, assaults, threats, harassments, obstructions and intimidations against both journalists, as well as media institutions/stations have taken place. Moreover, media institutions have experienced the blocking of their social media accounts and websites, internet shut-downs, legal issues and censorship, as well as arson, with Tamil newspapers in Sri Lanka being the most affected. Despite the seriousness and multitude of crimes, impunity has prevailed in the Sri Lankan justice system, as there have been no convictions and only two prosecutions to hold the perpetrators accountable, one of which has reached a stalemate.

The Mullaitivu Press Club, in a public statement issued after the attack described above, voiced that journalists in the “North and East are subjected to serious challenges amidst severe threats to their lives and profession”. Furthermore, they criticised the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka regarding violence against and harassment of journalists and the lack of accountability for 44 forcibly disappeared Tamil journalists. 

Due to these facts, the freedom of expression and press freedom in Sri Lanka are ranked rather low internationally. Freedom House declares Sri Lanka as “partly free”, while Reporters Without Borders (RSF) places the country at 127 out of 180 countries in their press freedom index. RSF notes that while there have been no assassinations of journalists since 2015, a “surge in cases of police harassment of journalists, including raids, interrogations and acts of intimidation, for all sorts of reasons” and impunity for violent crimes against journalists, since the inauguration of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President in 2019, can be established. RSF furthermore highlights an increase of police attacks on journalists covering issues on the Tamil minority.   

“Impunity has served as a licence for continuing crimes and violence against journalists […].“

– Fernando, R., 2021. 

Freedom of Expression in International and National Law 

The right to freedom of expression and speech is guaranteed by several international law instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Nonetheless, freedom of expression is not an absolute right within international law. It may be restricted under specific circumstances, if the restriction is provided by law and necessary for specific aims which are exhaustively listed in the instrument. Of the relevant international law treaties concerning the freedom of expression, Sri Lanka has signed and ratified the ICCPR. 

Within Sri Lankan domestic law, the Constitution of Sri Lanka enshrines the right to “freedom of speech and expression including publication” in Article 14. In the second paragraph of the provision, one can find the exception to the right of freedom of expression by way of restriction in certain circumstances, similar to the international instruments. Consequently, a restriction must be provided for by law, necessary in a democratic society and in the “interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals and of the reputation or the rights of others”. However, the grounds in the Sri Lankan Constitution are more detailed than in the ICCPR and allow for additional restrictions, such as “privacy, prevention of contempt of court, protection of parliamentary privilege, for preventing the disclosure of information communicated in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”. Moreover, Article 15 yields another possibility to restrict the freedom of speech, provided the interference is prescribed by law and in the “interests of racial and religious harmony”. 

The ICCPR was implemented into Sri Lankan domestic law in 2007 by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act (ICCPR Act). Additionally, Sri Lanka adopted further legislation ensuring media freedom, by way of the Right to Information Act of 2016. Judicially, the right to freedom of expression has been interpreted in a landmark judgment by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court as one that includes media freedom. 

Use of Legislation to Attack (Tamil) Journalists

Despite the laws protecting freedom of expression in line with the international obligations under the ICCPR, in reality, the former is not ensured in Sri Lanka. In fact, the existing domestic laws are used to discriminate against and attack journalists. 

Following the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, the ICCPR Act was used to detain and arrest media personnel and journalists, especially members of the minority Muslim community, for their publications. The provision that security forces relied upon in these cases was Article 3, criminalising the propagation and advocacy of “national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. This use, or “misuse”, of a law that was originally intended to protect fundamental human rights has been considerably criticised by the media.

“This is a clear misuse of the law, which was enacted to protect human rights recognised by the international community including fundamental freedoms such as freedom of speech” 

– CIVICUS and Asian Human Right Commission (AHRC), 2019. 

In a similar fashion, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and its extension, the PTA (De-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulation No. 01 of 2021 (PTA Regulation 2021), have been used against journalists. One of the provisions of the PTA allows for the Minister of Defence to limit freedom of expression without the possibility of appealing these restrictions. Furthermore, the PTA Regulation 2021 enables the detention of individuals for their “words, either spoken or intended to be read”, or individuals who seek to commit “acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups“. The PTA and the PTA Regulation 2021 have been disproportionately used to target religious and ethnic minorities, including the Tamil community and its members. Thus, Tamil journalists are disproportionately affected by the use of this law. 

Domestic and International Attention 

Several media organisations advocating for freedom of expression and media freedom have been established in Sri Lanka. These organisations advocate for media and fundamental rights at different levels, including organisations focused on the Tamil minority. Moreover, international organisations, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFP) have voiced their concern about the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka and the disproportionate attacks on Tamil journalists, like the incident described in the beginning of this article. 

Moreover, at the beginning of the 48th session of the UN HRC in 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, identified a number of risks to human rights in Sri Lanka, and eluded that “regrettably, surveillance, intimidation and judicial harassment of […] journalists […] has not only continued, but has broadened to a wider spectrum”.   

In late 2021, the new People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists situated in The Hague, the Netherlands, officially commenced its operations, trying among others the murder of Sri Lankan journalist, politician and human rights activist Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009. The Sri Lankan government will go on trial for the case of Lasantha Wickrematunge, for “grave violations of the international human rights”, specifically the right to life, the right to freedom of expression and the right to an effective remedy. While this case does not concern a Tamil journalist, it represents an important opportunity for international pressure to pave the path towards accountability which has been lacking in the Sri Lankan system regarding crimes against journalists and the freedom of expression. 

Overall, it is concerning that police officials misuse their power and the law to target journalists and, thus, infringe upon their freedom of expression. Particularly, Tamil journalists are disproportionally affected by this violence due to intersecting forms of discrimination, both against their ethnicity and their position as journalists in general. A censure of the media through physical violence and the fear thereof, in particular of minority voices, must be condemned. 

Bibliography 

International Law 

United Nations General Assembly (UN GA) Resolution 217 A (10 December 1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entry into force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171

Domestic Sri Lankan Law

Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, as amended on 29th October 2020 – Revised Edition 2021. https://www.parliament.lk/files/pdf/constitution.pdf

Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) Act No. 48 of 1979. http://www.commonlii.org/lk/legis/num_act/potpa48o1979608/

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act, No. 56 of 2007. Supplement to Part II of the Gazette of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka of 16 November 2007. https://citizenslanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/International-Covenant-on-Civil-Political-Rights-ICCPR-Act-No-56-of-2007E.pdf

Right to Information Act, No. 12 of 2016, Supplement to Part II of the Gazette of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka of 05 August 2016. https://www.media.gov.lk/images/pdf_word/2016/12-2016_E.pdf

Prevention of Terrorism (De-radicalization from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulations No. 01 of 2021, http://www.documents.gov.lk/files/egz/2021/3/2218-68_E.pdf

Domestic Sri Lankan Case Law 

Fernando v The Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation (1996) 1 Sri Lanka Law Reports 157. https://www.lawnet.gov.lk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/007-SLLR-SLLR-1996-1-FERNANDO-V.-THE-SRI-LANKA-BROADCASTING-CORPORATION-AND-OTHERS.pdf

Books 

Ranjee, S. (2011). Martyrs of the Freedom of Expression in Sri Lanka. Free Media Movement.

Articles 

Anandakugan, N. (2020, August 31). The Sri Lankan Civil War and Its History, Revisited in 2020. Harvard International Review. https://hir.harvard.edu/sri-lankan-civil-war/

Civicus (2019, July 05). Misuse of ICCPR Act and Judicial System to Stifle Freedom of Expression in Sri Lanka. Civicus. https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2019/07/05/iccpr-act-and-judicial-system-being-misused-stifle-freedom-expression-sri-lanka/

De Soysa, M. (2021, November 02). Creating a Safer World for the Truth. Groundviews.https://groundviews.org/2021/11/02/creating-a-safer-world-for-the-truth/

Fernando, R. (2021, March 05). Freedom of Expression: Where Do We Stand?. Groundviews. https://groundviews.org/2021/05/03/freedom-of-expression-where-do-we-stand/

Fernando, R. (2021, November 02). Challenging Impunity For Crimes Against Journalists. Groundviews. https://groundviews.org/2021/11/02/challenging-impunity-for-crimes-against-journalists/

Human Rights Watch (HRW) (2021, March 16). Sri Lanka: ‘Religious Disharmony’ Order Threatens Minorities – Withdraw Expansion of Notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/16/sri-lanka-religious-disharmony-order-threatens-minorities

Newspaper Articles

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) (2021, November 02). Tribunal for murdered journalists to open in The Hague. CJP. https://cpj.org/2021/11/tribunal-for-murdered-journalists-to-open-in-the-hague/

Fonseka, B. (2021, November 28). Mullaitivu Press Club condemns alleged attack on Tamil journalist. The Morning. https://www.themorning.lk/mullaitivu-press-club-condemns-alleged-attack-on-tamil-journalist/

Gonzalez, G. (2021, November 03). A tribunal to fight impunity for killing journalists. Deutsche Welle (DW). https://www.dw.com/en/a-tribunal-to-fight-impunity-for-killing-journalists/a-59710156

International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) (2021, December 02). Sri Lanka: Journalist attacked by soldiers for reporting on Tamil memorial. IFJ. https://www.ifj.org/media-centre/news/detail/category/press-releases/article/sri-lanka-journalist-attacked-by-soldiers-for-reporting-on-tamil-memorial.html

LankaNewsWeb (2021, November 28). A Tamil Journalist from Mulativu hospitalized after being assaulted by the SL Army Personnel. LankaNewsWeb. https://www.lankanewsweb.net/67-general-news/98067-A-Tamil-Journalist-from-Mulativu-hospitalised-after-being-assaulted-by-the-SL-Army-Personnel

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) (2021, January 13). Sri Lanka: tamil reporter held on abusrd terrorism charge. RSF. https://rsf.org/en/news/sri-lanka-tamil-reporter-held-absurd-terrorism-charge-0

Tamil Guardian (2021, November 28). Mullaitivu Press Club condemn brutal assault and torture of Tamil journalist. Tamil Guardian. https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/mullaitivu-press-club-condemn-brutal-assault-and-torture-tamil-journalist

Online Websites

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) (2022). Sri Lanka. CPJ. https://cpj.org/asia/sri-lanka/

Freedom House (2022). Freedom on the Net 2021 – Sri Lanka. Freedom Househttps://freedomhouse.org/country/sri-lanka/freedom-net/2021

Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) (2022). Media workers killed in Sri Lanka (2004- 2010). JDS. http://www.jdslanka.org/index.php/killed-media-workers

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) (2022). Sri Lanka. RSF. https://rsf.org/en/sri-lanka

UN Publications 

United Nations Human Rights Council (2021, September 13). Oral Update on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka; 48th session of the Human Rights Council, Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. United Nations Human Rights Council. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=27447&LangID=E

Sri Lankan Government 

Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka (2020). Overview Conventions. Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka. https://mfa.gov.lk/overview/

Other 

Civicus, Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) (2019, June 17). Sri Lanka: release poet and drop spurious charges against him – Joint Statement from Civicus and Asian Human Rights Commission. Civicus. https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2019/07/05/iccpr-act-and-judicial-system-being-misused-stifle-freedom-expression-sri-lanka/

Herath, V. (2021, May). Media Freedom in Sri Lanka 2020 – Annual Report. p. 10-11. Free Media Movement (FMM) Sri Lanka. http://www.fmmsrilanka.lk/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/FMM_2021_Aug_Annual_Eng.pdf

Home Office (2021, August). Country Police and Information Note: Sri Lanka – Religious Minorities. Home Office. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1014171/Sri_Lanka_-_Religious_Minorities_-_CPIN_-_v2.0_-_August_2021.pdf

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Kenza Mena
Team Coordinator -China

Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

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Aimilina Sarafi holds a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University and is currently pursuing a Double Legal Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law and International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She is an active advocate for the human rights of all peoples in her community and is passionate about creating a better world for future generations. Aimilina is the coordinator for the GHRD team of Pakistan, in which human rights violations of minority communities in Pakistan are investigated and legally evaluated based on international human rights legal standards.
Her team is working on raising awareness on the plight of minority communities such as women, children, religious and ethnic minorities within Pakistan.

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Gabriela is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD India, a country, she has had a personal connection with since childhood. Her primary focus is to raise awareness for the severe human rights violations against minorities and marginalized groups that continue to occur on a daily basis in India. By emphasizing the happenings and educating the general public, she hopes to create a better world for future generations.

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João Victor is a young Brazilian lawyer who leads our team of International Justice and Human Rights. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and possesses over 5 years of experience in dealing with Human Rights and International Law issues both in Brazil and internationally, including the protection of refugees’ rights and the strengthening of accountability measures against torture crimes.

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Angela holds a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from Vitória Law School (FDV) in Brazil. Her research combines more than five years of experience conducting debates and studies on the rights of homeless people, the elderly, children, and refugees. Besides that, she also volunteers in a social project called Sou Diferente (I am Different in English), where she coordinates and takes part in actions aimed at the assistance and the emancipation of vulnerable groups in the cities of the metropolitan area of Espírito Santo state (Brazil).

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She is currently heading the Promotions Team and University Chapter of Global Human Rights Defence. Her background is the one of European and International Law, which I am studying in The Hague. She has previously gained experience at Women´s Rights organizations in Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey over the past years.
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Pedro holds an extensive background in Human Rights, especially in Global Health, LGBTQ+ issues, and HIV and AIDS. He is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Moreover, he successfully attended the Bilingual Summer School in Human Rights Education promoted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group. Besides, Pedro Ivo has a diversified professional background, collecting experiences in many NGOs and projects.

With outstanding leadership abilities, in 2021, Pedro Ivo was the Secretary-General of the 22nd edition of the biggest UN Model in Latin America: the MINIONU. Fluent in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, Pedro Ivo is the Team Coordinator and Head Researcher of the Team Africa at Global Human Rights Defence. Hence, his focus is to empower his team from many parts of the world about the Human Rights Situation in the African continent, meanwhile having a humanized approach.

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GHRD Youth Ambassador
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Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
As GHRD’s E.U. Youth Ambassador, Alessandro’s two main focuses are to broaden the Defence’s reach within E.U. institutions and political parties, as well as mediate relations between human rights organizations abroad seeking European funding. 
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Wiktoria Walczyk has joined GHRD in June 2020 as a legal intern. She is currently coordinator and head researcher of Team Nepal and Indonesia. She has an extensive legal knowledge concerning international human rights and is passionate about children’s and minorities’ rights. Wiktoria has obtained her LL.B. in International & European Law and she specialised in Public International Law & Human Rights at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Moreover, she is pursuing her LL.M. in International & European Law and focusing on Modern Human Rights Law specialisation at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. In order to gain an essential legal experience, Wiktoria has also joined Credit Suisse’s 2021 General Counsel Graduate First Program where she is conducting her legal training and discovering the banking world. She would like to make a significant impact when it comes to the protection of fundamental human rights around the world, especially with regard to child labour. 

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Fairuz is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. Her primary focus is to establish and coordinate long-term research projects regarding the differentiating human rights dealings of vulnerable and marginalized groups in continental Africa, as well as conducting individual research projects.

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As GHRD’s Asia & America human rights coordinator and GHRD Political Advisor, Priya’s
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Jasmann is a political science student at Leiden University who joined GHRD in May 2021 as an intern in team Pakistan. Now, she is the team coordinator for North America and is responsible for coordinating the documentation of human rights violations in USA, Canada, and America.