Freelance Tamil journalists Antony Christopher Christiraj (left), Selvakumar Nilanthan (center), and Valasingham Krishnakumar (right), were held by a mob for five hours on August 22, 2023. (Photo : Valasingham Krishnakumar)
Sri Lanka has again come in for condemnation for its intimidation of the press and stifling free media.
New York-headquartered Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has expressed its deep anguish over the treatment meted out to three Tamil journalists recently in Batticaloa district where they have gone along with a group of inter-religious leaders and civil society members to study the issues faced by cattle farmers in the Mylathamadu area.
“Sri Lankan authorities must investigate the recent harassment of freelance Tamil journalists Selvakumar Nilanthan, Valasingham Krishnakumar, and Antony Christopher Christiraj and hold the perpetrators responsible” CPJ said in a statement released on 30th August.
The three journalists along with the inter-religious team were surrounded by a Sinhala mob led by a Buddhist monk. They were held for over three hours and their recordings were forcefully erased by the mob and made to sign a statement that the details of their coverage will not be published.
The incident happened around 12:30 PM on August 22 when the Buddhist monk-led mob surrounded vehicles holding the three journalists after they reported on alleged state-backed encroachments on Tamil farmers' land in the Mylathamadu area.
“The men—some armed with knives and swords—moved the three journalists and around 17 others, including farmers and members of an accompanying interfaith group, to an open area and held them in the presence of officers from a local government development authority”.
The CPJ statement also notes that although the interfaith group leaders immediately called the police, officers arrived five hours later, and that too only after Tamil MPs raised the issue in Parliament. They have also slammed the police for not investigating the issue even after eight days.
"As of August 30, police have not opened an investigation into the incident," the three journalists told CPJ. CPJ’s messages to the officer-in-charge of the Karadiyanaru Police Station, which oversees Mylathamadu, and Sri Lankan police spokesperson Nihal Thalduwa did not receive any replies”.
Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, has called upon the Sri Lankan authorities to thoroughly and impartially investigate the harassment of the three Tamil journalists and work to end the pattern of impunity relating to the attack on Tamil reporters.
“Tamil journalists have a right to report on issues affecting their community without interference or fear of reprisal.”
Nilanthan, Secretary of the Batticaloa District Tamil Journalists Association was wearing a press jacket at the time of the incident and reporting for a UK-based broadcaster-IBC Tamil.
While being held he was forced to delete photos and videos of farmers’ testimony and the mob setting fire to the land, CPJ said further. He was also forced to sign two letters in Sinhala and Tamil that he would not report on the incident.
The other two, Krishnakumar and Christiraj, both freelancers were not wearing press jackets and hid their cameras and did not let the Buddhist monk-led mob they were reporters, they told CPJ.
Krishnakumar is also the head of the Batticaloa District Tamil Journalists Association. The mob turned hostile once they were aware that they too were reporters while the monk asked the police official to order all three journalists to delete all their recordings.
A Hindu priest was assaulted by the mob, the journalists told CPJ though they were not physically harmed.
Selvakumar Nilanthan says media oppression is continuing unabated and he is so scared to venture out for coverage.
“I am terribly traumatized. I was told straight away if the videos or photos taken by me are released then I would be killed. I was shocked when the Sinhala thugs held the Hindu priest by his tuft. It was very humiliating and it was a direct assault on his culture and traditions. This has affected me mentally very much. When I was told the consequences would be serious, then it’s clearly something is very seriously wrong there”.
Locals say the Buddhist monk and the mob who attacked the team are from the nearby Amparai district and such threats are happening regularly.
Cattle farmers say the economy of Batticaloa district depends on the dairy industry. Seenitambi Thiyagaraja, President of the Mylathamadu-Mathavanai Cattle Farmers Association says close to 2000 cattle farmers live in the area and they are dependent on the 100-acre land granted by the government for grazing their cattle.
“The economy of the district depends on cattle farming. Sinhala people hold on to 10-15 acres of land, starve the cattle and threaten us. Mahaweli Development Authority remains silent as the grasslands and the forest areas where the cattle graze are set on fire. The economy of the district depends on cattle farming. Sinhala people hold on to 10-15 acres of land and starve the cattle and threaten us. Mahaweli Development Authority remains silent as the grasslands and the forest areas where the cattle graze are set on fire. The Wildlife authorities say they won’t permit us to have a piece of iron and threaten to arrest us if so. But the Sinhala people are allowed to come with weapons and attack us and none are arrested. Many courts including the Batticaloa and Valaichenai have permitted cattle rearing here. So where do we go and what do we do if we can’t take our cattle for grazing in the lands allotted by the government?," he noted.
Meanwhile, journalists including Nilanthan and Sasitharan Punniyamoorthy have complained to the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (SLHRC) about the intimidation and ill treatment meted out to them.
They were barred from covering the Batticaloa District Development Committee meeting (DDC)stating they did not possess the required media cards provided by the state information department for the year 2023. In their complaint to the SLHRC these journalists have pointed out others who held the cards issued for 2022 or before were allowed to cover the meeting, they were barred.
When Punniyamoorthy raised this issue with the chairman of the DDC Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan he replied the decision to bar him from the meeting was based on reasons that he addressed the Governor of the province as Mr. Governor and raised questions about the 13th Amendment with the President.
The Tamil National People’s Front and the Tamil National Alliance have vowed to take the issue of the multi-religious team held captive and intimidated including death threats as well as media freedom and would be raised at all platforms including the Parliament.