President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa was bestowed an ignominious honour today (5) when he officially entered a worldwide ranking of ‘Press Freedom Predators’ compiled by the international media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The global list is a “who’s who” gallery of political leaders who have “cracked down massively” on press freedom, with accompanying portraits of their predatory methods against journalists, their favourite targets and incendiary quotes justifying their conduct.
Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected President in November 2019, has joined the list of 37 heads of state and government published in 2021. RSF last compiled the index in 2016.
“Terror is back,” RSF announced under its portrait of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan President who led military intelligence killing squads under his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005-2015 presidency. RSF however erroneously refers to Gotabaya Rajapaksa as “Defence Minister” in 2005-2015. In fact, Gotabaya served as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence while his President brother Mahinda held office as Minister of Defence for the entirety of his presidency.
RSF said the Gotabaya Presidency makes investigative reporting on such sensitive issues as the plight of the Tamil minority or Sri Lanka’s Muslim community seem extremely dangerous.
“Those who dare are exposed to two dangers. One is judicial, the probability that the police will come with warrants for their arrest. The other is physical, the probability that they will receive death threats, which the police will refuse to register if they try to file a complaint,” the media rights group noted.
In his portrait, RSF says his election returned Sri Lanka to the “darkest hours” of its recent history. Gotabaya acquired the moniker “Terminator” when he served as Defence Minister of Sri Lanka, the media rights organisation says, because of his role as overseer of a death squad known as the white van commando. The vehicles were used to kidnap and torture journalists, and in some cases execute them, RSF said.
In fact, the Terminator moniker was ascribed to Gotabaya Rajapaksa by his brother Basil just ahead of the 2019 presidential election. But there was little doubt that when his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa ruled as President, “Gota” who served as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, came to be known as the regime’s chief executioner. Based on RSF’s own tally, 14 journalists were killed or went missing when Gotabaya served as Defence Secretary, and at least 20 were forced into exile after being tortured or threatened.
Gotabaya’s accession to the Presidency has “reawakened old demons” for journalists, says RSF.
“Many Sri Lankan journalists now face a terrible dilemma. Do they do their job or do they avoid putting their lives in danger? They have to live with the ghosts of so many colleagues who were murdered while, at the same time, the impunity for crimes of violence against journalists committed on Gota’s orders continues to be total,” the Sri Lankan president’s page says.
Since his election, warrants for the arrest of journalists have been issued, media outlets have been raided and searched, ploys have been used to disinform, and death threats have been made, said RSF. “Much of the Sri Lankan press is now censoring itself, either because of what Gota did in the past or what he is doing now as president,” the media rights group noted.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s “favourite targets” were “Journalists who dare to do their job, those covering sensitive subjects” and his “official discourse” includes “Calls for Murder and to Forget”, RSF’s profile said.