Monday, 15 March 2010

Journalists in Sri Lanka face an uncertain future

By Aradhana Sharma

"Who is next?" - A painting by Uvindu Kurukulasuriya depicting Lasantha Wikramatunge's funeral on display at an art auction held at the " Royal Institute of Great Britain" in  November 2009.

The Committee to Protect Journalists calls Sri Lanka one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Aradhana Sharma meets a Sri Lankan journalist who could no longer practice his trade in his country and finds out how his uncertain future is inextricably linked to the future of the profession in his country.

It was a blustery winter day and it was snowing as I stepped out of the Wood Green tube station in North London. As I waited to meet the man who would tell me first-hand what journalists were facing in Sri Lanka, my thoughts drifted to all that I had read about the situation in various reports – how journalists were being threatened, abducted, killed, and some cases forced to flee the country. What was it like to work in such an environment?

Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, was a journalist for 21 years in his country before he fled Sri Lanka last January, after a well known journalist, the Editor of a prominent Colombo newspaper The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wikramatunge, who was a friend of his was gunned down by assailants on motorcycles when he was on his way to work. “Before that it had never struck me that I could be killed”, Uvindu told me later, even though he had received several threats prior to that. “After he was killed I felt insecure, if they could kill him, they could kill anyone”.

It was on the day of his friend’s funeral that he felt people came in a car to abduct him, but he was somehow able to hide and reach home safely. It was the last straw for Unvindu. After that he went into hiding and finally, with the help of a few friends and well wishers, managed to get onto a flight to the United Kingdom.

"No more totalitarian leaders" by Uvindu Kurukulasuriya.
Today, he lives in a small flat in North London in exile which he shares with six others who have also fled from different parts of the world faced with difficult circumstances. The tiny ten feet by ten feet room, that he now calls home, is cramped with books and a small television set. I spot a palette on the table and as I inspect the room when he goes out for a smoke I see a canvas. “It was an old interest of mine and now that I have little else to do in London I have taken it up to keep my sanity”, he says as he finds me looking at it when he enters. In exile, he is not allowed to legally work in the UK.

I go back to my questioning. What was it like to work in Sri Lanka? “They didn’t like us. All those of us who opposed war as a solution to problem in the North and advocated a political solution. People who came under fire were those critical of the government or those like me who had become activists and were advocating Press freedom”, he explained. “When we protested and held demonstrations against the killing of Lasantha, we were accused of violating ‘human rights’, violating the right of people to commute!”

While in Colombo, Uvindu, like many other journalists had learnt to live with danger. There was never any certainly about which form retribution might take. “It could be arrest, abduction or assault and could come at anytime, from anywhere”, he says adding that he had even stopped going out to restaurants and bars in the last three years while he was there. It was just work and home. “I also tried not to drive alone, lest they arrest me on any unwarranted charges.”

So does he feel relaxed and safer now that he is in London? “Not quite” he tells me, after all his family is still back home. “Despite all the pressure when in Sri Lanka I never shied away from speaking out and giving interviews. It was only after coming here that I denied an interview request from Al Jazeera on Lasantha’s death anniversary,” he says downcast. After all, his wife, who is still in Sri Lanka, had only been recently intimidated.

Danger was a constant problem, but what upsets Uvindu more was the attempt to denounce and demonise journalists who did not ‘fall in line’. “There was a hate campaign against us, we were called ‘Sinhala Tigers’, ‘agents of the West’, working for dollars’, ‘traitors’ and accused of dividing the country”, he says pointing out that there was a concerted attempt to generate public opinion against outspoken journalists.

Now that the war has been long ‘declared’ over and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) ‘defeated’, does he think he can safely return to his country? “The war may be over but the Emergency Regulations which were invoked and justified in wartime, have only recently been extended” he says ironically. Under these regulations people were picked up without a warrant or any apparent justification.
After his electoral ‘victory’ in the presidential election in January, many have asked the Sri Lankan President, Mahindra Rajapaksa, to call back journalists who left the country and assure them of safety. But there has been no response, so far.

Video: Sri Lankan Journalism under Threat - Al Jazeera English

(Image courtesy: Uvindu Kurukulasuriya)

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