The brutal, political murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya has reminded us yet again that the practice of journalism in so much of the world is a dangerous - indeed life threatening - activity. Few of us however, would rank democratic, and seemingly benign, Sri Lanka, as one of the most dangerous places for journalists, even allowing for the civil conflict which has bedevilled that country for over two decades. It is chilling, then, to learn that eight media workers have been murdered in Sri Lanka in the past year alone.
The brutal suicide bomb attack which claimed over 90 lives and injured 100 more in Dmbulla in the country’s north last week, is just the latest - and the worst - tragic episode in this long and senseless struggle.
For two decades, the Government of Sri Lanka has been engaged in a conflict with a Tamil insurgency known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or the Tamil Tigers). The LTTE, which was formed in 1976, wants a separate state for the minority Tamil population in the north and east of the country. The Tamil separatist movement grew, in turn, out of a long history of victimisation of the Tamil population by the majority Sinhalese.
The conflict turned violent in 1983 and during the past two decades has claimed approximately 70,000 soldiers and civilian lives. A further 700,000 have reportedly been displaced both within Sri Lanka and overseas.
Although there has been a ceasefire since 2002, the truce has suffered increasing violations. More recently, each side has sought to maximise its position before a renewed round of peace talks slated to take place shortly in Geneva. The recent suicide bomb attack in Dmbulla would seem to confirm the view among those involved in the peace process that the prospects for a settlement are slim.
Despite indignant denials from government spokesmen, a broad consensus suggests that ultra nationalist Sinhalese militias and para military groups act as extra judicial enforcers - and executioners. These are believed to operate with, at the least, government acquiescence. Needless to say, journalists are a prime target for these groups.
Most of the journalists targeted are Tamils, but threats, murders and abductions are not confined to one ethnic or religious group and one of the eight media workers murdered recently has been a Sinhalese journalist.
Earlier this year five Tamil students in the north were killed. They were suspected LTTE sympathisers. The government was quick to state that the cause of their death was accidental - it claimed a bomb which they were manufacturing exploded. The clear implication was they were not just LTTE sympathisers, but terrorists.
Unfortunately for the government, a news photographer from a Tamil paper obtained access to the temporary morgue and photographed the dead students. His photographs showed unambiguously that each was shot in the head, execution style. For his efforts in exposing the truth he was shot. His executioners remain at large as do the executioners of the students.
Some other examples this year are:
On May 3, as journalists gathered in Colombo to celebrate Press Freedom Day, a group of unidentified men attacked the office of the Uthayan newspaper in the northern city of Jaffna. Suresh Kumar, the Marketing Manager and Ranjith Kumar, working in the Circulation Department, were killed. Five others were injured and the office damaged. The police took six persons into custody but allowed bail. Sources in Jaffna allege that these persons were not involved in the incident at all.
On July 2, 2006, freelance journalist Sampath Lakmal de Silva was shot dead by an unknown group. He was abducted at 5.00am (local time) from his parents' home in Borallasgamuwa, south of Colombo. He was found shot dead three kilometres from his home. His mother said he went out to meet some military operatives, known to him for some time.
Jim Nolan visited Sri Lanka on October 8-10 as a representative of the International Federation of Journalists as part of a special Press Freedom mission.