Why Gotabaya Rajapaksa victory is worrying for journalists and press freedom in Sri Lanka

There has been a stifling of critique of the new President within two weeks of him coming to power.

ByRaisa Wickrematunge
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Why Gotabaya Rajapaksa victory is worrying for journalists and press freedom in Sri Lanka
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It has been almost two weeks since Gotabaya Rajapaksa won Sri Lanka’s Presidential elections. In Delhi, banners of his face, suspended alongside Modi’s, flutter in the breeze. Gotabaya is currently on a two-day visit to India — his first as head of state. 

But as Gotabaya was feted in India, Thushara Vithanage was being questioned for hours by the Criminal Investigation Department of Sri Lanka. Vithanage is editor of VoiceTube, a news, political and entertainment channel on YouTube. Two days earlier, on November 26, police officers raided news website Newshubs’ office, claiming that they had received a complaint that they were publishing defamatory material and hate speech targeting Gotabaya in the run-up to the presidential elections. Police officers combed through laptops and PCs. A statement released by the National Movement for Web Journalists noted that Dhanushka Sanjaya, an announcer at the website The Leader, was questioned by the CID for eight hours. 

On November 25, a Swiss Embassy official was detained and questioned for two hours reportedly on the whereabouts of CID Inspector Nishantha Silva. Silva had been investigating several key cases — including corruption charges against the new President, which have now been dropped since he enjoys diplomatic immunity. It was widely reported that he had fled overseas, fearing for his safety. The Swiss Embassy confirmed that one of their staff had been detained and compelled to release ‘embassy-related information’ (they would neither confirm nor deny the information was pertaining to Silva). While the Cabinet spokesman initially denied knowledge, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs later said an investigation would be launched into the incident. 

It didn’t take long for people to fall in line with this new reality. 

On Twitter, several popular anonymous accounts (some of them parody accounts, others that share news) were deactivated within days of Gotabaya assuming the Presidency. @garikaalan, a citizen journalism account that regularly shared news largely focused on the Tamil community, tweeted “Decided to leave this platform for a while due to security concerns.” 

Without a single official arrest being made, there has been a stifling of critique of the new President, a mere two weeks after he took office. These incidents are disturbing harbingers of what is to come and should be viewed in the context of violence in the past. 

For many, the very name Rajapaksa evokes fear; being reminiscent of a time when Sri Lanka was one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. In 2014, Sri Lanka ranked fourth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Global Impunity Index. When Gotabaya’s brother, Mahinda was President (from 2005 to 2015) seven journalists were murdered and six more died during dangerous assignments or caught in the crossfire, according to the CPJ. Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), which also includes attacks on media workers, puts the figure much higher, at 40. Silva, the CID officer who fled overseas, was a key investigator in the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of Sunday Leader, who was shot dead with a bolt gun in a High-Security Zone on his way to work. 

He was also reportedly involved in investigating key cases of abducted journalists, including that of deputy editor of the Nation, Keith Noyahr, and journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda. Progress made during the Sirisena regime indicated the involvement of military intelligence. White vans became a symbol of oppression during the Rajapaksa regime, with journalists and activists deemed outspoken (including members of the Tamil minority) being abducted in these innocuous vehicles. Some of those abducted, such as Keith Noyahr, were returned, severely beaten. Some, such as Eknaligoda, did not. 

At the time, Gotabaya was Secretary of Defence. He has denied any knowledge or involvement in white-van abductions.

This is not counting the arson attacks on a number of media institutions— from the national newspaper The Sunday Leader, in 2007 to the offices of the private TV and radio channel MTV/MBC in 2009

In 2009, Sri Lanka’s decade-long civil war came to an end. The Office of the Human Rights Commissioner would later allege that both state forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) committed crimes against humanity in the war’s final phases. Though a coalition government elected in 2015 briefly expressed a desire to set up a hybrid court to investigate these allegations, the state has by and large remained fairly consistent in maintaining that they wanted no foreign interference into its affairs. 

As the country recovered from the aftermath of civil war, incidents of violence grew less frequent — but this did not mean that there were no attempts at stifling. 

In 2010, Gotabaya himself sued the national newspaper, the Sunday Leader, seeking billions of rupees worth in damages. “If they can’t afford it, they have to close down,” he retorted in a now-infamous interview with BBC HardTalk’s Stephen Sackur (the newspaper later folded). 

The repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act was also used to target journalists — most notably J S Tissainayagam, who in 2009 received a 20-year sentence of Rigorous Imprisonment for ‘causing communal disharmony’ through his articles. 

Gotabaya’s victory at the Presidential polls relied heavily on his military background — recast by his supporters as ‘discipline’. But even their accolades often had disturbing undertones. In June 2018, amidst rumours that Gotabaya was considering contesting for the Presidential election, a prominent member of the Buddhist clergy said Gotabaya was referred to as a Hitler. He did not see this as a drawback — rather, he said Gotabaya should be like Hitler and build the country. 

In August this year, his own brother Basil told reporters that Gotabaya would be a ‘Terminator’ adding that the country needed a disciplined leader. Gotabaya’s military background and emphasis on national security would gain fresh relevance after a series of devastating suicide bomb attacks targeting civilians and churchgoers on Easter Sunday, contributing substantially to his win on November 16. 

To date, there has been little to no accountability for attacks on freedom of expression — across successive regimes. Former President Maithripala Sirisena, elected in 2015, promised to investigate attacks on media institutions but failed to deliver. Indeed, the coalition government showed that it lacked the political will to protect freedom of expression, normalising the blocking of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Viber, purportedly to stop the spread of misinformation and hate speech. And shortly after the Easter Sunday attacks, it introduced repressive Emergency Regulations on publication and weaponised the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights, using it to detain an award-winning writer for posting a short story about homosexuality in the Buddhist clergy on Facebook. Attacks, intimidation and surveillance targeting journalists and activists working in the North continued even under Sirisena. 

Two weeks after the Presidential elections, there have been no blocks on social media, no official arrests. And yet the incidents of the past two weeks are harbingers for what is to come. For now, the censorship is largely self-imposed.

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