Sri Lanka ‘deadly’ for scribes, aid workers

Sri Lanka is fast gaining notoriety as “one of the world’s worst places” both for journalists and humanitarian aid workers — due primarily to a rising death toll and veiled threats from government and paramilitary forces in the country. At least four INGOs monitoring the media — the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Press Institute, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) and the International Federation of Journalists — have singled out Sri Lanka as “deadly” for journalists. “Journalists have been victims of murders, threats, kidnappings and censorship,” said RSF in a report released last week.

An RSF fact-finding team specifically zeroed in on “the isolated, Tamil-populated Jaffna peninsula” where there have been “grave press freedom violations”. In 2006, described as “the most savage year for journalists and news media workers”, the most dangerous place was Iraq where 46 newsmen were killed, followed by the Philippines (10), Mexico (seven), Sri Lanka (five) and Pakistan (four). Last week, the consulting editor at the Sri Lanka Sunday Times, Iqbal Athas, was threatened and harassed for a series of articles he wrote detailing a corruption-ridden multi-million-dollar government deal involving the purchase of fighter planes from Ukraine.

Recounting the latest incident, Athas said that a person purporting to be a retired Air Force officer walked into the Wijeya Newspapers Ltd, the publishers of the Sunday Times and other publications in the native language Sinhala, and threatened the staff. The visitor met the English-to-Sinhala translator, WD Gunaratne, and warned him not to translate any of Athas’s articles into the local language newspaper.

Meanwhile, after a recent visit to Sri Lanka, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs described the Indian Ocean island nation as “one of the most dangerous places” for aid workers, second only to Afghanistan. Addressing a meeting of the Security Council in June, John Holmes said that in 2006, 24 aid workers were killed in Sri Lanka, including 17 from Action Contre Le Faim, “in a single horrifying act.” The perpetrators of these and similar attacks — including the killing of two Red Cross workers in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and the murder of a Caritas International aid worker in Darfur, Sudan — “are yet to be brought to account,” Holmes said. Holmes also pointed out that countries as far apart as Sri Lanka and Colombia were experiencing assassinations, disappearances and other violations of humanitarian law and human rights law.

Implying Sri Lanka was virtually culpable of war crimes, he added: “Killing humanitarian staff and arbitrarily denying access violates international humanitarian law.” Ambassador John McNee of Canada placed Sri Lanka in the company of Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, northern Uganda, Lebanon and Somalia as countries that have failed to provide protection to civilians in war zones.

“Girls and boys are recruited as combatants; civilians become unwitting targets of suicide bombers; families are displaced from their homes; sexual violence is a deliberate weapon of war; and civilian infrastructure and economies are often shattered,” McNee said. The consequences of these actions play themselves out daily, he pointed out, in countries ranging from Sudan and Afghanistan to Somalia and Sri Lanka. — IPS