By Johan Mikaelsson –
Sri Lanka is no longer regarded a black spot for press freedom, but all killings and disappearances during the dark years remain unsolved. April 28 2005, the most influential Tamil journalist, Dharmeratnam Sivaram, was abducted and shot dead.
His body was found in a high-security zone near the parliament building in Kotte. It had a discouraging effect on Tamils and colleagues and friends in the media. Several more journalists, and workers active in the chain of spreading news and information were to pay the ultimate price the years that followed. Their families and friends were left with grief and fear.
Many citizens, not all, took big leaps of joy in 2015, as the leader and his government was voted out of office. This reflects in the Paris-based media watch-dog Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, released a couple of weeks ago: Sri Lanka advances from place 165 to 141. It’s a serious situation, but things are moving in the right direction.
The relief was even visible in the faces of the journalists I met during my two visits to the island in 2015. Before the parliamentary elections on August 17, there were still some doubts. Some polls showed that a majority of Sinhalese still supported Mahinda Rajapaksa, who said he would come back as Prime Minister – to set things straight.
Dharmeratnam Sivaram – Photo Johan Mikaelsson
It didn’t happen. Voters consolidated the power shift that took place after the presidential elections on January 8, 2015. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pledged to continue the work for greater freedom of expression and press freedom. All the problems have clearly not been resolved.
Journalists in Sri Lanka are more relaxed today. Like everywhere else some are eager to contribute to society through their journalism, or at least try to let people know about a few things. Media companies are concerned about the economy; how young people get content on their screens most of the time without paying. Journalists try to keep optimistic about the future of their profession. They have their worries, but they do not have to fear for their lives. That said, self-censorship is still present and makes an obstacle to ‘truth-finding’, the close to sacred mission for journalists.
“It is a big challenge for the English-language newspapers to take up the armed forces’ sexual violence against Tamils in northern Sri Lanka”, one journalist told me.
The violence and threats have been the reality for so many years. The situation changed a little over a year ago. The change is remarkable. But journalists and media company owners are still hesitant to challenge people’s sentiments by investigating the wide-spread and systematic use of sexual violence committed by sections of the armed forces against young Tamil men and women, as it has been described in several reports (gruesome reading).
“It may be fine to refer to statements about reports or to publish texts from news agencies. But to go from that, to investigating and writing your own articles, to show that this is really happening in our country, is a long step.”
There is still a lot to do. A much awaited “Freedom of information bill” is still only a draft. And if war wounds are to be healed, the past can’t be ignored. Unresolved murders of journalists (most of them Tamils) can be interpreted as an acceptance of the fact that murderers can walk free.
Through a process of transitional justice, a new and just society is supposed to be built. For that to happen past crimes must be handled properly – even if it means that people are found guilty of having committed or ordered serious crimes. The expectations on the new rulers to show results are growing.
Back to Sivaram. “Siva” as his friends call him, wrote under the pseudonym “Taraki” in his column in Daily Mirror, Sunday Times and other English and Tamil media outlets. He was a founding Editor of TamilNet. He informed and influenced Tamils about the political and military situation and brought out the Tamil side of the story for readers all over the world with an interest in this very special island.
Of course, he met opposition from the government side and Sinhala nationalists. He was accused of “being an LTTE spy” and accordingly his home was searched several times by police. Hatred was instilled. It paved the way for the lethal attack.
The murder was carried out very deliberately. If the main motive was to silence the most prominent Tamil journalist in the country, another goal must have been to weaken the fairly united Tamil front behind the LTTE, which wanted liberation from a state they found oppressing. The killers succeeded with their task, together with the leaders that looked the other way before as well as after the murder. The failed trial in 2012 and the fact that the media has not been able to cast much new light on the case in 2015 and 2016 make realistic assessors pessimistic about seeing the crime being solved.
By dumping Sivarams’ body in a high security zone near the parliament building in Kotte that night in late April 2005, the message from the murderers was crystal clear: We are above the law, don’t challenge us! Until now, that’s the last of it.