Month: May 2015

Tamils in North & East Sri Lanka remember those killed despite intimidation and surveillance

First published at http://groundviews.org/2015/05/20/tamils-in-north-east-sri-lanka-remember-those-killed-despite-intimidation-and-surveillance/ on 20th May 2015

Several remembrances events were held across the North and East in Sri Lanka on 18th May 2015 (the day the war ended in Sri Lanka in 2009) by Tamils to remember those killed during the war[1]. They were organized by Tamil politicians, religious clergy, civil society and women’s groups. Many were religious events. Most appear to commemorate civilians killed or all those killed. None that I saw had attempted to commemorate the government military or LTTE cadres that have been killed. In contrast, the government’s commereation of the end of the war was a “War Heroes (Ranaviru) Day” presided over by President Sirisena on 19th May was focused on the military, despite references having made to remember all those killed during the war[2].

Since the end of the war, the Rajapakse government and it’s military and Police had aggressively obstructed commemorative and remembrance events by Tamils in relation those killed during the war[3]. Organizers and participants have been threatened, harassed and intimidated. Many Tamils in North have told me their fears to organize or attend such events. But this time around, there were more initiatives than before, as people felt an opening of space to remember their family members in a collective and public manner. In one of the events I attended near the Mullivaikkal beach, a Catholic Priest boldly declared that “we have a right to cry and in the past, that right has been obstructed”. People who had gathered for this event lay flowers at symbolic tombs and cried their heart out for their loved ones who had been killed during the war. Significantly, a flame of remembrance was lit by an elderly woman who cried a lot.

Unlike in previous years, I didn’t see, hear or read about uniformed military involvement in obstructing these events. The Police also appeared to have refrained from physically obstructing such events or explicitly threatening organizers of participants.

However, there was strong Police surveillance of all events. There were lots of persons in civil who appeared to photograph persons who had organized and were participating at these events. Most local people I spoke to told me that they were “intelligence” persons from the various Police and military units. One such person in civil who had been lurking around tried to question me, and produced a Police identity card when I asked for identification. He and another person started asking whether I was a journalist and tried to also ask me information about foreign participants and foreign media present. I politely refused to be an intermediary. As my colleagues and friends including Catholic clergy gathered around me, he retreated. However, Police in uniform as well as civil clothes questioned foreign participants, including a foreign journalist who was wearing a clearly visible media accreditation card issued by the Ministry of Media.

Christian clergy and Tamil politicians played a prominent role in organizing these events and thus, they had to face obstructions and intimidations. 7 bus drivers in Iranapalei had told Church leaders they had got calls not to transport people to a remembrance event in Mullivaikkal on 18th May and were unwilling to rent their buses. Christian clergy in Trincomalee had booked a venue from the Urban Council to have an event on 18th May afternoon, but Police had pressured members of the clergy, including the Catholic Bishop of Trincomalee to refrain from using that space for the event. In an interior village near Killinochchi, during the annual remembrance event for a Catholic Priest who died on 18th May and others who were killed, Police questioned the Catholic Priest from the host Church when the Holy Mass was going on.

On 15th May, Police had obtained a Court order to stop the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) and others from holding any processions in Mullivaikkal till 29th May. Later on, a senior Police officer had showed the same court order to leaders of a women’s group who wanted to have a remembrance and sharing event in Mullivaikkal on 18th May, and insisted that they should not have the event.

There were several other such incidents reported in the media. Police had taken details of participants at an event in Vakarai in Batticaloa district[4]. Increased numbers of “Intelligence officers:” were reported to have been present around the Jaffna university[5]. Those who travelled to the event in Mullivaikkal led by the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council were reported to have had their had their vehicles stopped by Police and questioned regarding their movements[6]. A Court order against an event was also issued in Mannar[7]. An event at the Eastern University in Batticaloa was also reported as banned by the Police[8].

The stage was set for these restrictions in the first week of May, when Northern Provincial Council member was questioned about a lamps he had lit at home on 27th November 2014, on Marveer day (Heroes day) celebrated by the LTTE[9].

Remembrances and commemorations are complex in a situation such as in Sri Lanka. They appear to be deeply ethicized. The events I joined and others appeared to be exclusively Tamil, although few of my Sinhalese friends also participated at the events I joined. There was one Muslim and one Buddhist member of clergy at the event I attended at Mullivaikkal, but I’m not sure to what extent they shared the grief of the Tamils who were there. I didn’t hear about any initiatives that focused on Muslims and Sinhalese from victim’s perspective. Most Sinhalese appear to be taken up with the government’s “War Heroes day” event.

Remembrances are deeply personal tragedies, but they are also about different communities and highly politicized. Although there has been a tradition of remembrance in Sri Lanka, there has also been a tradition of obstructing remembrances, which the Rajapakse government brought to be a new height after the end of the war. On 10th May, I participated in a seminar at the Jaffna Public Library on Right to Memory, where the rights of different communities to remember their family and community members killed due to violence and wars was discussed, including ideas of having multiple narratives and inclusive memorialisation. Issues related to commemorating those who had been part of groups that are responsible for abuses and tensions between private and public commemorations, personal and collective commemorations were also raised at this seminar[10]. This was a good beginning for broader debates on the subject of remembrance and memory and I hope it will continue.

As I was in the train returning to Colombo, I got a call that another community in the Vanni, who had been fearful to remember their dead collectively, were planning to commemorate their family and community members killed before the end of May, after seeing and hearing about the widespread events held over the North and East. Despite the intimidations and obstructions, the determination of organizers and participants of the events offers fresh hope for a new era where the all Sri Lankans could enjoy the “Rights to Cry and Remember”, a crucial element for reconciliation and moving on after the war.

18th May 2015 (10 of 101)18th May 2015 (14 of 101)18th May 2015 (30 of 101)18th May 2015 (36 of 101)18th May 2015 (40 of 101)18th May 2015 (42 of 101)18th May 2015 (51 of 101)18th May 2015 (52 of 101)18th May 2015 (87 of 101)18th May 2015 (90 of 101)18th May 2015 (92 of 101)

 

(Photos are from from two events in Mullivaikkal and Uruthirapuram on 18thMay 2015)

[1] I attended two events personally, heard about others from friends and colleagues and read about others. For comprehensive media coverage of events at different places, see http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=14776

[2] See for example excerpts from the President’s & the Prime Minister’s speeches at the official government news portal at http://news.lk/news/politics/item/7732-our-policy-is-that-of-development-and-reconciliation-president and http://news.lk/news/politics/item/7742-war-heroes-laid-foundation-to-build-national-unity-harmony-pm and the news on the event at the website of the Ministry of Defense, athttp://defence.lk/new.asp?fname=Nation_Commemorates_War_Heroes_20150519_02

[3] For example, see http://groundviews.org/2012/05/19/three-years-after-the-war-in-sri-lanka-to-celebrate-or-mourn/  andhttp://groundviews.org/2010/06/18/celebrating-war-victory-and-banning-commemoration-of-dead-civilians-this-is-%E2%80%9Chome-grown-indigenous%E2%80%9D-reconciliation-and-freedom-in-sri-lanka/

[4] http://tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=14791

[5] http://tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=14792

[6] http://tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=14793

[7] http://tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=14797

[8] http://www.pressreader.com/sri-lanka/daily-mirror-sri-lanka/20150519/281745562970036/TextView

[9] http://tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=14631

[10] See https://rukiiiii.wordpress.com/talks/2015-4/ for edited transcript of my talk at the event,  videos of all the talks are available athttp://tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=79&artid=37771

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Valalai (Jaffna): Re-militarisation of released villages with façade of resettlement

First published at http://groundviews.org/2015/05/17/valalai-jaffna-re-militarisation-of-released-villages-with-facade-of-resettlement/ on 17th May 2015

Valalai[1] is a Tamil village of about 233 acres[2] that was occupied by the military for nearly 25 years and before it was handed back to villagers in March 2015 by President Sirisena. Yet, more than 50 days after that handover, villagers don’t see hope for resettlement as almost nothing has been provided for them to resettle into. I met a few villagers who had already decided to stay there in makeshift tents and huts and few others who had visited for the day. I was told that only about 10 out of 155 families[3] are staying there and that a few others visit for the day.

A few people, including members of the Catholic Clergy, told me that they had seen several buildings that have been standing a few months ago when the area was under the military, but that these appear to have been demolished by the military just before the handing over of the land to people.

No permanent or temporary housing has been provided. Women I met expressed their fears to living in open tents and huts.

No proper water service exists. There is one well with drinking water for the whole village. When I visited, I saw another well being cleaned by staff of the Halo Trust. A bus runs just twice a day. No dispensary, school or even pre-school is there. Before, children had attended nearby schools in Palali and Myliddy, about one and half and three kilometres away. But there is now no access to these due to the presence of military.

All the villagers I spoke to said they were compelled to leave their village on 13th June 1990. No rent has been provided for the land and other buildings occupied by the military illegally for nearly 25 years. A significant amount of land and buildings belong to the Catholic Church. These include a Church and residence for the Catholic Bishop and Catholic Clergy, and these have also been destroyed and not rebuilt. No compensation has been provided for livelihoods lost, particularly due to inability to engage in fishing and cultivation. the inability fish and cultivate. And still, no promises have been made to rectify these issues.

Mr. N. Vethanayahan, Govt. Agent and District Secretary, Jaffna is reported to have visited Valalai on 2nd April 2015 and held discussions with with the people regarding their needs,  after which it was promised that action would be taken to address the issues related to housing, drinking water and transport[4]. But no villager that I met knew what was being done.

A military barrier guarded by an armed uniformed soldier separated the land that has been released to the people and the land that remains occupied.

Several villagers told me that the military has insisted on registration with the military, in addition to the usual registration process by the civil authorities such as Grame Niladhari (Village Official), Divisional Secretariat and District Secretariat. The military has demanded copies of all family documents, as well as photographs of families. In some cases, the military has visited families to take such photographs themselves.

It is indeed positive that the new President has started a process to hand over some land occupied by the military to people. But many questions came to my mind about the resettlement process. Why were even the basic preparations, such as temporary shelter, water, transport, health, educational services not arranged before the resettlement? Will the people be compensated for the long time their lands and properties were occupied, the income lost and the cost of reconstruction of properties and getting back to normal life? And why is the military engaged in collecting information and photos of people coming back to reside?

Cleaning of well by Halo TrustClearing of jungleDestroyed churchDrawings on walls of damaged houses-2Drawings on walls of damaged housesElderly man who had erected a temporary homeFiles to be handed over to military for registrationMilitary barrierPeople trying to resettlePeople who visit the village for the dayTemporary shelter erected by people-2Temporary shelter erected by people

(All photos taken by the author on 13th May 2015, two months after land was officially handed over by President Sirisena)

###

[1] Valalai is Grama Niladari division J 284, situated in the Valikamam East (Kopay) Divisional Secretariat Division in the Jaffna district, in the Northern Province

[2] Villagers I spoke to said the village is 233 acres. But the Minister of Resettlement has been quoted in the media as saying the village is of 236 acres (http://srilankabrief.org/2015/03/pm-appoints-exploratory-committee-jaffna-hsz-land-release/).

[3] According to de-mining group Halo Trust, 283 families had come for registration to Valalai on 13th March (http://www.halotrust.org/media-centre/news-press-releases/halo-facilitates-return-almost-300-families)

[4] http://www.jaffna.dist.gov.lk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=168&Itemid=229&lang=en

 

Memory and Transitional Justice

Transcript of talk by Ruki Fernando at seminar on ‘The Right to Memory’ at the Jaffna Public Library, on 10th May 2015 (slightly edited for a written format with no changes to substance)
In my presentation I’m going to use a lot of photographs, but very few have been taken by me. Some have been taken by my friends, others by unknown photographers. I want to thank them all.

People try to remember in various ways, and family photographs are one simple way of preserving memory. These photographs are owned by two Tamil families in Vanni, in the North of Sri Lanka, and are their way to try to keep the memory of their family members who were killed in the last stage of the Sri Lankan Civil War. In the Northern province, I have seen such photographs in many of the houses I have visited.

When we talk of memory we are talking about very deeply personal tragedies, yet the topic has unfortunately become immensely political. This is why we have terms like ‘the politics of memory’, and why memory has also become the subject of academic research and discussions. Throughout all this, it is worth remembering that memory is essentially very, very personal.

It must be noted that the right to memory is just one component of the Transitional Justice process, when we look at it in perspective of rights to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-occurrence.

In this talk, I will share some experiences from Sri Lanka in general; experiences of obstructions in Sri Lanka in the recent past; some thoughts about tourism and memory; about whether we are commemorating heroes or villains, or whether there are blurred lines between the two; and some concluding remarks, reflections, and questions.

Sri Lanka: The long road home for the exiled

First published at https://samsn.ifj.org/sri-lanka-the-long-road-home-for-the-exiled/ on 13th May 2015

On April 30, 2015, three Sri Lankan journalists and human rights defenders (HRDs) Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumuduni returned home after several years in exile in Nepal and short periods in India and the Maldives[1].

All three had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR in Nepal, but had renounced their refugee status and opportunity for permanent resettlement in a western country. Instead they decided to return home after the former Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was defeated at presidential elections on January 8 this year.

These Sri Lankans had previously faced death threats, arrests and detention and harassments due to their opposition to the authoritarian Rajapaksa, compelling them to flee their homeland. I had been in touch with them during the time they faced threats in Sri Lanka as well as during their exile, and I know they went only as a last resort and longed to return. But they found out that return was more difficult than being relocated. Numerous appeals made by them to Sri Lankan authorities and UNHCR didn’t yield results for more than 100 days. Appeals by Sri Lankan, Nepali and international media organizations also didn’t yield results.

As I tried to assist them in return, I found that there are very few international human rights and media freedom organizations are ready to assist journalists / HRDs to return home and continue their work, although many had come forward to assist those at risk to relocate. Only the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Frontline Defenders responded favourably to my appeals. Some didn’t reply for months and some claimed the nature of assistance required and generally the idea of assisting those in exile to return and continue work was not in their mandate. It literally took an earthquake to change the situation!

After the earthquake in Nepal, the Sri Lankan government rushed emergency assistance to Nepal and committed to bring back all Sri Lankans who were in Nepal. Sri Lankan colleagues, friends and organizations intensified their appeals and pressure on the Sri Lankan government to also get back Shantha, Jayampthi and Kumidini. Finally, they returned last week, during the early hours of April 30.

Exile is something close to my heart. I was also compelled to spend a few months in exile and when I returned, had to take complicated security precautions. I had often wondered about my complicity in assisting some of the most committed and courageous Sri Lankans to go into exile. In most of my overseas visits, I have met and spent time with those in exile and their families. I have also tried to keep in touch with families who had been left behind in Sri Lanka. In recent years, I found myself being called upon to assist exiled Pakistani HRDs coming to Sri Lanka. I often end up feeling frustrated, helpless and powerless to assist them in difficulties they face as exiles / refugees.

Hearing some wanting to return, especially friends and colleagues, has been extremely encouraging and empowering for me. But it is also frustrating to see that there is very little assistance available from the Sri Lankan government and the international community to that end. This should in no way undervalue the care, concern and support of some foreign governments, international media and human rights organizations and even individuals, who had come forward to offer protection and assistance to journalists and HRDs, including me, during very difficult and dangerous times.

Two exiled journalists / HRDs in Europe have also told me they have renounced their refugee status and are going to return to Sri Lanka in the coming months. Others have told me they may come later if the situation is conducive and safe for their return. Amongst those planning to return temporarily in the coming months is Poddala Jayantha, a well known journalist and press freedom activist who fled to India in the face of death threats. He returned to Sri Lanka and was then again compelled to leave for the US after a brutal assault and death threats as he was recovering. Poddala’s wife told me she is still very scared for his safety if he returns.

Many others do not want to return as yet, still unassured of their safety, including pending investigations or arrest warrants against them[2]. Some do not want to return for fear of further persecution or ill-health. Some don’t want to return due to having children who have now learnt languages and settled down in new countries and some want to return once they get permanent residency or citizenship in countries where they have got refugee status[3].

Of course, some may have left even when they didn’t face serious risks, and they are unlikely to return from what they may consider greener pastures. This is article is not about them.

Government invitation to return – going beyond the rhetoric

Immediately after the January 8 elections, the new government invited exiled HRDs and journalists to return.

However, an absolute pre-requisite for HRDs / journalists in exile to return is to ensure there are no continuing harassments and threats to HRDs and journalists. In this regard, some of the recent incidents reported in the media, some of which I mentioned in an article on World Press Freedom day[4], will further discourage exiled journalists and HRDs from returning home. A second factor is to indicate clear progress in ensuring justice and accountability for previous attacks, threats and violence against HRDs and journalists, including against some of those in exile who are considering return.

As I tried to assist Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumudini in their struggle to come home, I felt that bringing home exiled journalists / HRDs home was not a priority to the new government, and that it was more a propaganda statement. However, the return of Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumudini gives me more hope, that there will be government and societal support for others in exile also to return. If the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, and his government are serious and genuine, they should establish a concrete program of action to assist exiled HRDs and journalists to return without further delay. Below are some ideas that could be considered;

  1. Appointment of a focal point in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or an appropriate Ministry. The person should be someone sensitive to the situation of exiled HRDs and journalists and with capacity to deal with complications and challenges that are bound to come up. The person’s name, phone, email, skype should be made available publicly for any exiled HRD, journalist or their family and colleagues to contact, in Sinhalese, Tamil or English.
  2. The focal point should clearly clarify whether there are any pending arrest warrants or investigations against anyone intending to return and, if so, indicate details, including steps that will be taken to guarantee that such process will be carried out strictly in line with due legal process, within a specified time period.
  3. Clear instructions must be given to Sri Lankan embassies and High Commissions overseas to extend all possible assistance, advice and information to exiled HRDs and journalists who want to return.
  4. The government should initiate, support and facilitate “come and see” visits for those who want to return temporarily before making a final decision to come back. This is particularly important for those who will have to make difficult decisions about bringing back school going children and those who still have fears for safety.
  5. Some of those in exile await justice for attacks and threats against them. They need to be given clear and detailed updates on progress made so far and plans on future investigations and prosecutions. Where fresh statements, testimony is needed, and victims are unable to be physically present in Sri Lanka, possibilities such as video / skype testimony, written submissions and legal representations could be considered.
  6. Ways of offering back jobs (especially in state institutions) to those who lost them due to their free expression and activism should be explored and updates provided.
  7. A trust fund could be set up to provide financial support to those who want to come back. A significant portion must come from the Sri Lankan government. Additional funding could be solicited from well wishers, including individuals, organizations and foreign governments. The fund should be handled in a transparent and independent manner, with representation from human rights and media freedom organizations. Costs of returning and interim resettlement allowance could be amongst the needs such a fund could contribute to. The financial situation of the person returning, varying needs and whether return is permanent or temporary could be factors taken into consideration.

International and regional organizations must be proactive and creative. They should review their mandates, if necessary, in order to contribute towards actual needs of HRDs and journalists who want to return home to continue their activism and journalistic profession. Foreign governments which have adopted policies and practices, including formal guidelines on human rights defenders and freedom of expression (such as the European Union, Norway and Switzerland) could consider support for those who want to return within the framework of these guidelines and policies, including financial support and diplomatic initiatives in relation to challenges such as ones faced by Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumudini in Nepal.

Most of HRDs and journalists who had gone into exile have suffered terribly – before they went and after being exiled[5]. Their families have suffered. They had to give up a lot. They deserve respect and understanding for their decisions to stay away or return. If and when they want to return, they should be supported morally, politically and financially, considering specific needs and whether the return is permanent or temporary.

The Sri Lankan government must take the lead role in this. Media institutions, media freedom and human rights organizations (local and international), foreign governments, donors and all others who value human rights and media freedom, especially Sri Lankan people, should support and contribute to such efforts.

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan writer and human rights / press freedom advocate. He has a court order restricting his freedom of expression in relation an ongoing investigation on anti-terror charges. His writings are available at www.rukiiiii.wordpress.com 

[1] For background, see http://groundviews.org/2015/04/29/sri-lankas-emergency-assistance-to-nepal-and-return-of-exiled-journalists/

[2] For example, see copy of arrest notice against writer, activist and academic Ratnajeevan Hoole at https://www.colombotelegraph.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Arrest-Order-Airport.pdf and https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/dilemma-of-those-in-exile-continues-frederica-jansz-speaks-out/

[3] See https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/dilemma-of-those-in-exile-continues-frederica-jansz-speaks-out/ and https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/on-behalf-of-returning-exiles/

[4] See http://groundviews.org/2015/05/03/world-press-freedom-day-2015-and-freedom-of-expression-in-sri-lanka/

[5] For more on reasons that led to exile and life in exile, and names of some journalists in exile (as of May 2013), see  http://www.ceylontoday.lk/59-31472-news-detail-exiled-from-journalism.html

Photo credit: Jayampathi Bulathsinhala for Jayampathi and Kumudu’s photos
http://www.salem-news.com/articles/july152012/shantha-wijesuriya.php for Shantha Wijesooriya’s photo

– See more at: https://samsn.ifj.org/sri-lanka-the-long-road-home-for-the-exiled/#sthash.HKC1JTET.dpuf

World Press Freedom day 2015 and Freedom of Expression in Sri Lanka

First published at http://groundviews.org/2015/05/03/world-press-freedom-day-2015-and-freedom-of-expression-in-sri-lanka/ on 3rd May 2015

“All must be free to express their concerns, their needs, their aspirations and their fears” Pope Francis, at the Katunayake International airport, on arrival to Sri Lanka on 13th January 2015.

Amidst killings, disappearances, assaults, threats, intimidations, harassments and restrictions on journalists, widespread self-censorship and exile of journalists critical of the government, surveillance and blocking of websites, and absolute impunity, there was very little to celebrate World Press Freedom day in Sri Lanka last few years. Perhaps the only thing to celebrate was the resilience of few who dared to express their views at grave risk to themselves, colleagues, families and institutions.

But this year, things are different. The last 4 months has given something to celebrate for free expression in Sri Lanka. Websites that were blocked were unblocked. State media has stopped discrediting those critical of the government in power. Some of us were invited for talk shows and asked for interviews by the very same state media that had previously branded as traitors and terrorist supporters. Though not perfect, a Right to Information Act is expected to be enacted in the coming weeks, after the drafts have been circulated in all three languages and several consultations. A stream of foreign journalists have visited Sri Lanka and many who met me have told it was much easier for them to obtain journalistic visas. Traveling around the highly militarized North appears to be slightly easier, and unlike before, I have encountered less obstructions and intimidations and others have expressed similar sentiments. Foreign nationals are no longer required to obtain special permission from the Ministry of Defense to visit the North.

I have not come across new guidelines, instructions restricting freedom of expression by the new government. But the formal circular issued by the NGO secretariat restricting the issuing of press releases, conducting of press conferences and issuing of training for journalists has not been for formally withdrawn. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) continues to pose grave threats to freedom of expression and even freedom after expression. The investigation against me under the PTA for charges of supporting terrorism, including “sending information abroad” continues to date, and the court order restricting my freedom of expression is still in place, despite efforts of my lawyers to have these concluded. For more than two months, there has been no inquiry by the National Human Rights Commission on a complaint lodged by me against an incident related to the restriction of freedom of expression by the Police within court premises.

Impunity
Like last years, and probably for foreseeable future, World Press Freedom day in Sri Lanka will be commemorated in the dark shadows of killing of well known Tamil journalist Sivaram (Taraki) on 29th April 2005 and the deadly attack on Tamil daily Uthayan press in Jaffna on 2nd May 2006. The only way this dark shadow will be removed is by holding perpetrators accountable. The new government has announced investigations into few high profile cases such as murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramathunga and disappearance of Cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda. But progress made in last 4 months even on these cases is not clear. According to Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of Prageeth, there has not been any marked difference about the slow and lethargic court proceedings. Most importantly, there are hundreds of incidents against free expression, for which we await justice.

Continuing attacks and threats to free expression under the new government
April was probably the worst month for free expression under this new government. On 2nd May, a journalist was reported as having being attacked by a local politician due to his efforts to report problems in a local health clinic. A prominent political commentator and university academic was hospitalized after being attacked on 1st May, as he was observing a May Day rally in Colombo by political forces loyal to the former President. Earlier in March, several persons dubbing a film related to the militarization were arrested by the Police in Colombo, and equipment of the studio confiscated. In the Eastern province, it was reported that harassment and intimidation of family of a Muslim women activist continued to date, after she had expressed her opinions about legalization of sex work, back in 2012.

From the North, an alarming number of threats to free expression has been reported against Tamil journalists. One was prevented from covering a discussion related to pollution of water. Another Tamil was reported as detained in Jaffna on 23rd April. Four Tamil journalists based in the northern cities of Mannar and Vavuniya were summoned for questioning by the Police in Colombo on 28th April. Another journalist had received a similar summons that resulted in him being charged with publishing false information on 26th April. Police in the northern city of Jaffna had arrested N. Logathayalan, a freelance journalist working for the newspaper Uthayan, on 8 th April because of an article about police violence on a school girl. On 7th April, three Tamil journalists were harassed and threatened by Police officers in Jaffna, after they went to report about a protest against oil pollution. Also in April, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna had refused permission for a discussion about a book written by a University academic, about the end of the war. Few weeks after the election of the new President, it was reported that the Sri Lankan military had threatened displaced residents from Valikamam North in Jaffna, not to share their experiences and views with the Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister, Hugo Swire, during his visit to Jaffna.

Return of exiled journalists
Few days before World Press Freedom days his year, 3 exiled journalists / human rights defenders (HRDs) returned to Sri Lanka. The struggle to come home was a long and frustrating struggle with very little action from the Sri Lankan government and the Embassy. Several other journalists / HRDs are considering returning. At least two in Europe have told me they have renounced their refugee status and were going to return to Sri Lanka in the coming months. Others have told me they may come later if the situation is conducive and safe for their return. Amongst those planning to return temporarily in coming months is Poddala Jayantha, a well known journalist and press freedom activist who had fled to India in the face of death threats, returned to Sri Lanka, and then again was compelled to leave for US after a brutal assault and death threats as he was recovering. Poddala’s wife told me she is still very scared for his safety if he returns. Recent incidents I have mentioned above will not encourage exiled journalists to return. So many do not want to return as yet, as they fear persecution and are not assured of safety, including pending investigations or arrest warrants against them. Some do not want to return due ill-health, situation of children who have learnt languages and settled down in new countries and some want to return when they get permanent residency or citizenship in countries they have got refugee status. Some may have left even when they didn’t face serious risks, and they are unlikely to return from what they may considered to be greener pastures.

Immediately after the 8th January elections, the new government invited exiled HRDs and journalists to return. Despite some belated efforts to get down the three journalists I mentioned above, 100 days down the line, this appears to be hollow, rhetorical statement. If the new President and his government are serious and genuine, they should establish a concrete program of action to assist exiled HRDs and journalists to return, without further delay. Such actions could include the appointment of focal point with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or any other relevant Ministry, instructions to all Sri Lankan embassies to extend full cooperation for exiled journalists to return, clarifying about any pending arrest warrants or investigations against any journalist in exile, facilitating “come and see visits”, updating them on status of investigations related to attacks and threats against them, opportunities to reclaim jobs lost due to exile and setting up a voluntary trust fund to assist those who need financial assistance. Most of HRDs and journalists who had gone into exile have suffered terribly – before they went and after being exiled. Their families have suffered. They had to give up a lot. They deserve respect and understanding for their decisions to stay away or return. If and when they want to return, they should be supported morally, politically and financially, considering specific needs and whether the return is permanent or temporary. The Sri Lankan government must take the lead role in this. Media institutions, media freedom and human rights organizations (local and international), foreign governments, donors and all others who value human rights and media freedom, especially Sri Lankan people, should support and contribute to such efforts.

Recent concerns by local and international groups
Immediately after the election of the new President in January, Pope Francis visited the country, and in his opening remarks on arrival at the airport, he stressed the importance of everyone being free to express themselves freely. In March, the International Media Mission to Sri Lanka reported about continuing self-censorship due to uncertainty about the political future of the country, restrictions on access to information and continuing surveillance and monitoring of journalists. Reporters without Borders, the International Federation of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists have expressed concern about some of the recent incidents against freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. In April, a Tamil news editor in Jaffna was reported to have told that his journalists “do not feel terribly free”, and that Police and other security institutions are still not willing to give them the space they need to do their job as reporters. The Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka continued to express concern about continuing attacks on free expression and impunity in the last few months, including in a statement issued about recent incidents on eve of World Press Freedom day, on 2nd May.

Prospects and challenges
Converting state media from being propaganda organs of the government in power to Public Services, building effective self regulation and strong legal and institutional frameworks that could act as a buffer against authoritarian governments will be key challenges in this relatively more positive atmosphere for freedom of expression. A major challenge now will be for journalists, media institutions and media freedom organizations to engage in self reflections, about our own political, ethnic and other biases, self-censorships, particularly about subjects considered taboo such as accountability for allegations of war crimes during last phase of the war, charges of genocide, political solution to the ethnic conflict, caste, sexuality and gender etc. Throughout the dark and dangerous years under the Rajapakses, the courage, commitment and creativity of few committed to free expression, kept alive hopes for democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka and the struggle must continue without too much complacency.