Sri Lankan TV journalist Kapila Chandana Kuruppuarachchi thought he was just doing his job when he tried to cover a clash between backers of rival political parties in late September.
Instead, he says, a mob of pro-government supporters chased him for almost a kilometer before pelting him with stones. He was hospitalized with major bone and tissue damage to his face, which will require at least two surgeries to repair.
“These thugs are supporters of a government minister and they severely attacked me,” Kuruppuarachchi told ucanews.com by phone from a hospital, where he has been recovering since the assault.
The vicious assault was the latest in a line of threats, intimidation and outright attacks against journalists and human rights lawyers that activists say are part of an attempt to stymie free speech in Sri Lanka.
On October 2 and 3, more than 300 journalists, lawyers and activists demonstrated in central Colombo, calling for an end to attacks against members of their professions. They say the threats have created a hostile environment where speaking and writing the truth is a dangerous proposition.
“There is no freedom to write freely amid the continuous threats to rights activists,” said Sunil Jayasekara, convener of the group Free Media Movement.
As a journalist, Jayasekara has worked amid repeated death threats. Jayasekara said that over the last 25 years, more than 50 journalists have been forced to flee the country, while more than 80 other journalists, employees or owners of media organizations have been murdered.
“The government has created an environment of fear and does not ensure the safety of journalists,” he said, describing repeated scenarios where unidentified men, hiding their faces with helmets, follow journalists and activists and threaten them.
“Unruly mobs enjoy officials’ protection and violate the rights of activists. These rights are guaranteed by the constitution and the duty of the officers is to protect these rights.”
The same month Kuruppuarachchi was attacked, leading human rights lawyers Namal Rajapakshe and Manjula Pathiraja were threatened when two unidentified men walked into their office and told the lawyers they would be harmed if they participated in any “unnecessary cases”.
“The unidentified men wore helmets to cover their faces and threatened us,” he said.
Sri Lanka Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said the department has deployed a team to find those responsible for the attack, though no arrests have been made.
Either way, activists say the government has failed to ensure the safety of journalists and human rights campaigners.
“It is a shame that every week, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers must demonstrate about the protection of human rights,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives. “Activists live in fear and insecurity.”