The journalists and civil society members recieved threatening text messages and phone calls from a group called Rata Beragath Deshapremi Balakaya (“patriotic force that salvaged the country”), which vowed they would “attack” should the reporters attend a planned investigating journalism workshop hosted by Transparency International Sri Lanka.
The text message sent to many of the 50 enrolled journalists claimed the meeting was canceled and warned the group against going, saying: “Do not attend this LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] meeting. You will be attacked.”
Jayasiri Jayasekara, an organizer who was threatened, said he was told in a phone call: “We will attack and kill your children and wife if you do not cancel the journalist meeting.”
The workshop was moved from its original location after “a poster was thrown into the hotel hosting the journalist event, warning it not to let LTTE in to the building,” said Jayasekara.
Minister of Mass Media and Information Keheliya Rambukwella said the police are investigating.
“This is not the first time it has happened,” he admitted.
Two other workshops hosted by TI Sri Lanka have been canceled in recent months, amid repeated threats, while others have faced similar pressure to shut down.
The incident, say rights activists, is part of an ongoing campaign to stymie free speech in the country.
“The government has created an environment of fear and does not ensure the safety of journalists and rights activists,” said Sunil Jayasekara, the head of Free Media Movement.
“Many civil society activists face harassment, intimidation and violence,” he said. “We urge the government to promptly investigate all cases of attacks on journalists and activists and bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.”
The government recently warned nongovernmental organizations to stop engaging in activities deemed outside the groups’ mandate. Civil society strongly condemned the government notice, saying it was unconstitutional and violated basic rights of freedom of speech and expression.
Provincial media groups say the government has failed to understand the importance of investigative journalism, instead seeing it as a threat and often branding journalists as militants.
“Journalists are not LTTE cadres… Journalists have a right and a duty to investigate and publish actual facts,” said Janur Kitchilan, president of Wayamba Media Society.
“I was threatened and asked not to attend the meeting in Colombo. I filed a complaint to the police,” he said. “We urge them to ensure the safety of provincial journalists in the country.”
According to the Free Media Movement more than 50 journalists have been forced to flee the country during the last 25 years, while more than 80 journalists, staffers or owners of media organizations have been murdered.
On Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s defense ministry announced new curbs on foreigners, including journalists, visiting the island’s former war zone and said the action was to protect “national security”. The new controls come amid a UN-mandated international investigation into Sri Lanka’s war record.