President Gotabaya Rajapaksa‘s Government is intensifying its witch hunt against journalists just two months after assuming power in a presidential election.
Sri Lanka Foreign Service officer Gihan Indragupta who is the spouse of New York Times Colombo reporter and former Sunday Observer Editor Dharisha Bastians has been summarily recalled to Colombo on the orders of President Rajapaksa. Colombo Telegraph learns that the Government is hoping the recall will bring the journalist and her family back to Colombo where her name has been dragged into a major criminal investigation. President Rajapaksa and his top defence officials have repeatedly criticised the New York Times for having exposed the alleged abduction of Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Barrister Francis.
The government has criticised the New York Times article as “fake news”, and detectives have said that an alleged telephone conversation long before the incident between the alleged victim and Bastians is proof that they conspired to fabricate a story about the Swiss embassy employee being abducted and interrogated about how a detective in their crosshairs fled to Switzerland with his family. The CID has sought to frame Bastians and others for faking the abduction of a Swiss Embassy local staff member on 25 November 2019.
When the case last came up on 21 January the CID told media personnel outside the court house that Indragupta had assisted to get CID CI Nishantha Silva to flee to Switzerland after the presidential election. Detectives were careful not to make these false claims in open court, where they could be liable to perjury charges, but instead to promote the story through media outlets affiliated with the Government including the two giant private broadcasters Hiru TV and Derana. Indragupta was posted to the Sri Lanka Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva in September 2019.
The government is at loggerheads with the Swiss government over the abduction saga, with the Swiss government insisting their employee was abducted and interrogated about her diplomatic work, while the Sri Lankan government has insisted that there was no abduction and that the story was fabricated by Francis, New York Times writer Bastians, former CID Director Shani Abeysekara and former Lake House Chairman Krishantha Cooray. No evidence has been presented by the authorities to corroborate these allegations. Instead, the investigation, and this “hunch” has been used by the CID as a basis to obtain and inspect the telephone call records of several journalists including Bastians, Agence France Presse (AFP) writer Lakna Paranammana and Sunday Observer Senior News Editor Anuragi Singh.
Colombo Telegraph learns that CID officers at the Katunayake airport have been ordered to detain and search the baggage of Indragupta and Bastians upon their return to Sri Lanka, to seize all electronic devices, and to await instructions from the Defence Ministry on whether to arrest or detain them thereafter.
Singh and Paranammana have already been interrogated by the CID. Singh was summoned and questioned on Monday February 10th 2020. She was questioned at length about her telephone calls to contacts, sources and other journalists.
The interrogation comes only days after a political trade union affiliated to the ruling SLPP lodged a complaint with the CID that Singh was in possession of Bastians’ laptop computer and demanded the device be seized and investigated by the CID. The CID was quick to move on the complaint. The complaint filed by the SLPP trade union and its president Chandana Bandara accuses Bastians and Singh of concealing evidence pertaining to the Swiss abduction conspiracy.
Last month the CID grilled its former director Shani Abeysekera without any evidence of wrongdoing by him. Abeysekera’s visit to the CID, led to a purge within the building. Former CID director who has not been charged with or suspected of any crime was greeted by his former officers when he arrived at the CID, and one senior officer ASP Kalanasiri, a senior detective with a number of narcotics and human smuggling crackdowns under his belt, was thrown out of the CID overnight on the charge of assisting Abeysekera to leave the CID through a separate exit in order to avoid harassment by pro-Government media. Despite the CID having extended this same courtesy to any military or police officer or former public official who was questioned during Abeysekera’s tenure as Director CID, including former Defence Secretary and current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. IGP Chandra Wickremaratne, CID Director SSP Tilakeratne and de facto CID boss ASP Meryl Ranjan Lamahewa, have made it clear to CID officers that Abeysekera is the “enemy”.
Colombo Telegraph learns that the CID has obtained the phone records of several journalists including Bastians and Singh and also Cooray and SSP Abeysekera. No court orders have been obtained to scrutinise these mobile telephone records, which appear to have been obtained in an effort to identify police officers and others in the public sources who have provided information to journalists reporting on investigations connected to the abductions, murders and disappearances of journalists and Tamil youth during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure as Defence Secretary. Worse still the CID has leaked information regarding the phone logs to media networks that have splashed the data on their news broadcasts in graphic format.
The moves to expose call logs of journalists who are not charged with any crimes, were a heavy blow to media freedom in the country and could compromise the journalists’ other sources and information, putting lives at risk, media activists warned.
Sources close to the investigation told Colombo Telegraph that the CID has been tasked with framing Abeysekera, journalists, and former Lake House Chairman Krishantha Cooray with having faked the abduction of Garnier Francis, expecting that such a pressure campaign will deter them from becoming vocal critics of the new administration.
Since Rajapaksa – the former defence secretary – was elected president the Government has been engaged in insidious efforts to silence critical voices in Sri Lanka.
After the President’s men leaked phone calls between BBC Sinhala correspondent Azzam Ameen and actor politician Ranjan Ramanayake, Ameen was summarily sacked by the UK broadcaster. The removal was so swift Ameen was never even permitted an inquiry or a chance to explain himself.
Several media outlets were raided and journalists called in for questioning at the CID since Rajapaksa assumed office in November. The raids and witch hunts are sending chilling messages to media practitioners in Gotabaya’s new Sri Lanka.
“Every voice that might become a critical one when this government begins to get unpopular in a few years is being shut down. The threat to media freedom is much more sophisticated under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency. As Defence Secretary he commanded military intelligence death squads to go after journalists, abduct and kill them when necessary – this time it is a very different approach,” said a media rights activist in Colombo who did not wish to be named.
“By telling the people through their preferred partisan media organs that dominate the public airwaves and drive their propaganda all over the country that these journalists have questionable links and trying to frame them for criminal conspiracies, they are ensuring that these journalists’ careers are killed in the local media space” the activist said, adding that at this time out of fear local media watchdogs were unable and unwilling to issue statements of solidarity and support to journalists on the Government hit-list. “In fact some media is going out of its way to make sure the journalists are widely discredited. The future is going to be very dark,” the activist concluded. ((By Janakie Mediwake)