Newspapers are attacked, printing presses burned. As Sri Lanka prepares to controversially host the Commonwealth summit The Telegraph visits the country to discover the state of its media.
The journalists of “Uthayan” newspaper in northern Sri Lanka are wearily accustomed to death threats, harassment and sometimes assault. When three gunmen broke into the head office at 5.30 one morning, however, they tried a more direct method of shutting down the independent daily.
The attackers, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, made their way to the printing press, fired two rounds through its control panel and then doused the machinery with diesel before setting it alight. For good measure, they also put a bullet through the roof.
The men duly wrecked the printing press, inflicting what the newspaper called “irreparable loss with the aim of stopping the publication of ‘Uthayan’ completely”.
But Premananth Thevanayagam, the editor, saw the opportunity for a gesture of defiance. An obsolete press lay forgotten in a shed behind the office. He brought this machine back to life, ensuring that “Uthayan” hit the streets the day after the attack without missing a single issue. “This is a fight for freedom of speech, so we thought the paper must appear,” he said. “We gave a message: we will not bow down for you.”
Fires burn on a printer at the Uthayan printing press. (AFP)
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That incident on April 13 might have been the first recorded destruction of a printing press in Sri Lanka, but journalists here are routinely threatened and attacked. The annual press freedom index compiled by Reporters without Borders, a campaign group, places Sri Lanka 162nd out of 179 countries, ranking below Burma, Russia and Iraq.
When David Cameron and the Prince of Wales join the leaders of 50 other countries for the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka next month, they will be meeting in a nation where journalists work in a climate of fear.
“Uthayan”, based in the northern city of Jaffna and serving the Tamil minority, has suffered more incidents than any other newspaper. Ten days before the sabotage of the printing press, seven masked men had broken into a regional office, beating up the manager and three delivery workers.
In January, another “Uthayan” delivery worker was attacked by a mob carrying iron bars wrapped with barbed wire. In all, 10 serious assaults on staff have taken place since 2011.
“Every day, our people face risk,” said Mr Thevanayagam. “And not only our journalists: all our staff are facing this kind of threat.”
Last week, a female receptionist was followed home by a man on a motorbike who told her: “I’m always watching you. I’m always watching when you are coming to work and going home.”
One result is that “Uthayan” does not have a single journalist over the age of 40. Whenever staff get married, they come under family pressure to find a safer job. “When they marry, the families will not allow them to work here,” said Mr Thevanayagam, 35. “They are scared about them doing this job: their families want them to live.”
All the incidents are reported to the police, but no action is ever taken. As for who is responsible, the editor blamed the state. In particular, only the regime had a motive to burn the printing press and the ability to send armed men to do the job. “Without government support, nobody can do it,” said Mr Thevanayagam.
The campaign against “Uthayan” verged on the farcical last month when a fake issue of the paper appeared in time for local council elections. The aim was to spread a false story that a Tamil party was boycotting the contest.
But readers quickly spotted something unusual: the forged “Uthayan” was handed out for nothing. “That was their big mistake – we never give anything away for free,” said the editor.
Yet all the pressure has been damaging. “Uthayan” is one of the rare newspapers that can sell as many copies as it prints. Before the destruction of the press, Mr Thevanayagam could run off 40,000 copies every day; now, the old machine manages fewer than 25,000.
The Sri Lankan regime is often accused of using commercial means to subdue the media. Government advertising is directed towards favoured newspapers, while wealthy allies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa have bought up independent titles.
“It’s a far more nuanced form of censorship,” said Sanjana Hattotuwa, the founder and editor of Groundviews, a website for citizen journalism. “What the government has discovered since the war is you don’t really need to kill outright. You just need to create a climate of fear.”
Mr Hattotuwa added: “The risks are ever-present. One negotiates it constantly. You never really know when you cross the line and so you’re always very fearful. There are extremely high levels of self-censorship.”
This combination of hidden and direct pressure has allowed the regime to create a tamed media. “That’s pretty much what they’ve got,” said Mr Hattotuwa. “Every single thing they have done as regards the media has reeked of control, of containment and of censorship.”