Sri Lanka’s fallen president and the press

Nearly two weeks ago, protesters in Sri Lanka—which is in the thick of a brutal economic and humanitarian crisis—stormed the palatial residence of the country’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, lying on his bed, jumping into his pool, and watching news footage of their exploits on his TV. Images of the occupation quickly spread around the world. Later the same day, protesters also marched on the private residence of the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, which was set alight. As News 1st, a Sri Lankan network, broadcast live from the latter scene, a police chief could be heard ordering officers to attack four of the channel’s journalists. Police then tear-gassed four more News 1st staffers who had rushed to their colleagues’ aid. Four of the eight journalists sustained “serious injuries” according to News 1st, which rolled footage showing them being taken to a hospital. The chief who instigated the attack was suspended, pending an investigation. Wickremesinghe, the prime minister whose home had been torched, condemned the attack. “Freedom of media is paramount to democracy in Sri Lanka,” he said.

Violence against members of the press is nothing new in Sri Lanka—and investigations into its perpetrators have often gone nowhere. As Reporters Without Borders—which ranks Sri Lanka 146th on its World Press Freedom Index, out of a hundred and eighty countries and territories worldwide—notes, threats to press freedom in the country have historically been “closely tied to the civil war that ravaged the island until 2009,” when the government put down a Tamil-separatist insurgency. Per RSF, forty-four media professionals have been killed in Sri Lanka in the past two decades, with Tamil journalists disproportionately targeted, and, though the most recent killing confirmed by RSF was in 2015, impunity for older murders has remained a live issue. Last year, RSF worked with the Committee to Protect Journalists and Free Press Unlimited to found a “People’s Tribunal”—a “grassroots justice” initiative that uses prosecutorial methods to pile pressure on countries that tend not to punish the killers of journalists—and “indicted” three governments including that of Sri Lanka, citing the case of Lasantha Wickrematunge, a prominent newspaper editor who was killed in 2009, as the civil war neared its end, after men on motorbikes beat him up at the side of the road. Wickrematunge, who had received threats over his work, predicted his death before it happened, penning a “Letter from the Grave” that his paper published posthumously.

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Wickrematunge, who was not himself Tamil, had criticized the government’s prosecution of the war and alleged corruption on the part of the then-defense minister: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president whose residence was occupied last week, who served, in 2009, under the presidency of his brother Mahinda. At the time of his death, Wickrematunge had been sued for defamation by Gotabaya Rajapaksa and was set to testify in court. It has since repeatedly been alleged that Rajapaksa was complicit in Wickrematunge’s killing, and that he controlled elite units that carried out attacks on other journalists and dissidents, including by kidnapping them in white vans. In 2015, the Rajapaksas fell from power and hopes for accountability grew. An investigation was opened into the killing of Wickrematunge; police investigators eventually implicated Gotabaya Rajapaksa in running the death squad that killed Wickrematunge, and arrested other officials. In 2019, Wickrematunge’s daughter filed a civil suit against Rajapaksa, who was then a dual US citizen, in California. (Rajapaksa has always denied wrongdoing.)

In October 2019, however, a judge threw the suit out, ruling that Rajapaksa enjoyed immunity under US law because he was a foreign official at the time of his alleged crimes. Accountability efforts inside Sri Lanka had, by that point, also ground to a halt—and a month later, Rajapaksa returned to government, this time as president. A lead detective investigating Wickrematunge’s killing soon fled the country (he finally broke his public silence in May, at a hearing organized by the People’s Tribunal); meanwhile, threats to the press—which had not gone away between Rajapaksa’s spells in governmentquickly intensified. Some journalists self-censored or went into exile, while others were subjected to beatings, raids, detention, and interrogation. Dharisha Bastians, a Sri Lankan journalist, wrote for The Guardian last year that where “once there were white vans and guns; now there are warrants, seizures and disinformation campaigns, which erode public trust in critics and the news media.” In December, soldiers beat a Tamil journalist covering a civil-war memorial. In late March, as protests against Rajapaksa’s government swelled, at least six journalists were arrested and nine injured while covering them. The authorities also briefly shut off the internet.

Generally, the situation has only escalated since then. In May, as protests continued, Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda, by now the prime minister, was forced out; Wickremesinghe replaced him and began negotiating a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Rajapaksa stayed put as president, leading to the occupation of his residence. After that, he fled the country and communicated that he would resign by last Wednesday; when he didn’t, protesters stormed the state broadcaster, forcing it off the air. The next day, Rajapaksa did resign, over email. If the fin de regime tone of international media coverage around his ouster has often centered his and his family’s disastrous management of Sri Lanka’s economy, his human-rights and press-freedom records seem to have occasioned somewhat less scrutiny, though they remain a vital part of his legacy. Summing up that legacy in an interview with Al Jazeera, Rohan Pethiyagoda, a prominent Sri Lankan scientist, lambasted him on both economic and public-relations grounds. “He didn’t hold a single press conference, relying instead on delivering poorly scripted speeches to a teleprompter,” Pethiyagoda said. “All this, haunted by the ghosts of journalists murdered on his watch.”

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Yesterday, Wickremesinghe, who became acting president after Rajapaksa fled, won the job permanently after lawmakers voted in a secret ballot. (He beat out Dullas Alahapperuma, a former journalist and media minister under Rajapaksa who had won opposition backing.) Wickremesinghe was sworn in today in a ceremony that was supposed to be broadcast live, but was reportedly interrupted by a power outage. A veteran politician, Wickremesinghe previously served as prime minister on six occasions, including his recent stint and also in the years between the Rajapaksas’ spells in power. Back then, Wickremesinghe talked the talk on press freedom, as he did recently after the News 1st journalists were attacked outside his home, but that government ultimately failed to walk the walk, and Wickremesinghe has already worried press-freedom advocates in his new job as president, instituting a state of emergency and promising to crack down on protests. He has also suggested that he’s amenable to reforms that protesters are demanding, but many of those protesters see him as a Rajapaksa stooge. Yesterday, a reporter from Britain’s Sky News asked Wickremesinghe how he can credibly bring about change given that he has long been a friend of the Rajapaksas. Wickremesinghe responded that he has never been a friend of the Rajapaksas, adding, “Don’t ask questions like this.”

Demonstrations continued today, with protesters suggesting to international media that they intend to keep up the pressure on Sri Lanka’s entire political establishment, and not just the Rajapaksa dynasty. Some government critics seem to fear that despite its recent fall from power, even the dynasty might not be finished; indeed, it came back once before. “The Rajapaksas are known to play the long game, so I couldn’t say for sure if this will be the end of them,” a Sri Lankan lawmaker told The Guardian recently before pointing to the example of the Philippines, where the son of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos came to power last month decades after his father was swept from power. As I wrote recently, that looked like bad news for press freedom in that country. The same would surely be true of any Rajapaksa revival in Sri Lanka. Even absent that, the future for the press looks uncertain. And the ghosts of the past have still not seen justice.

Below, more on Sri Lanka and press freedom around the world:

  • Wut?: Rhea Bhatnagar, of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, reports that right-wing commentators in the US have seized on the role that Rajapaksa’s decision to ban chemical fertilizers has played in Sri Lanka’s economic crisis—which, in reality, is complexto peddle an alarmist agenda about the threat of green policies at home. On Fox, Tucker Carlson claimed that “woke Western liberals” destroyed Sri Lanka and that the country had collapsed “because of the Green New Deal.”
  • Net blocks: In April 2019, after terrorists killed hundreds of people at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, Kelsey Ables, who previously worked in the country, wrote for CJR about the government’s decision to subsequently impose a social-media blackout, and some Western commentators’ praise of the decision. “Digital platforms give a space for journalists that doesn’t exist in Sri Lanka’s traditional media,” Ables wrote. “Western media should not blindly praise what could very well be overreach by the Sri Lankan government; instead, we should double down on our criticism and demands of the platforms.” (I also covered the social-media blackout in this newsletter.)
  • Afghanistan: This week, Lynne O’Donnell, a writer for Foreign Policy and other outlets, returned to Afghanistan, which she has covered extensively. O’Donnell was detained soon after her arrival by Taliban officials, who, she writes, “abused and threatened me and forced me to issue a barely literate retraction of reports that they said had broken their laws and offended Afghan culture.” O’Donnell has since left the country, and says that she can’t go back. A new United Nations report, meanwhile, found that in the ten months after the Taliban took power last August, 173 media workers faced human-rights violations.
  • DRC: Last week, authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo arrested Nicolas Niarchos, a US freelance journalist who has previously written about mining in the country for The New Yorker, and Joseph Kazadi Kamuanga, a local journalist known for his coverage of the mining sector. Niarchos was freed on Monday, but Kazadi remained in jail as of last night, according to CPJ. Niarchos said that the pair were detained while setting up an interview related to alleged ties between mining interests and separatists.


Other notable stories: 

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: A protester, carrying national flag, stands with others on top of the building of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's office, demanding he resign after president Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country amid economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, July 13, 2022. Rajapaksa fled on a military jet on Wednesday after angry protesters seized his home and office, and appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president while he is overseas. Wickremesinghe quickly declared a nationwide state of emergency to counter swelling protests over the country's economic and political collapse. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)