“DOWN WITH THE GUNS AGAINST TAMIL PENS” – HOW TAMIL JOURNALISTS ARE ATTACKED IN SRI LANKA
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.
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
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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/
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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/
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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
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Sri Lankan Government
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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