In early March 2010, a Sri Lankan government document was leaked, which as reported by Amnesty International, contained a list of 35 of the foremost journalists and NGO officers who were under surveillance by the Sri Lankan secret service. Each name was followed by a grade, denoting those with the highest significance to the secret service.
Amnesty International fears for the safety of the activists named on the list. Ranking at the top of the list and of chief concern to Amnesty International are Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), and J.C. Weliamuna, Director of Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL). Both CPA and TISL monitored the January 2010 presidential elections in Sri Lanka, and both reported on the misuse of resources and on electoral violations.
When news of the list reached the two executive directors in March 2010, they wrote a joint letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, protesting the list’s necessity. The activists were not completely caught off guard, however, as both have endured numerous threats to their safety in the two years prior. In September 2008, a grenade was launched at Mr. Weliamuna’s property, but no one was injured; the investigation that followed the incident was inadequate. More recently, in February 2010, a Sri Lankan newspaper reported that President Rajapaksa stated “something must be done” about Mr. Weliamuna during a meeting with Freedom Party lawyers. Likewise, in August 2009, Mr. Saravanamuttu received an anonymous death threat, which was not investigated.
Amnesty International has also voiced concern for 56 Sri Lankan journalists who are thought to face threats. According to Amnesty International, since 2006, journalists have been killed, detained, tortured, and forced to leave the country after receiving death threats. None of the allegations have been thoroughly investigated.
The “hit-list” is the latest in a wave of anti-journalist and activist actions by the government since the January 2010 elections. An ongoing media campaign strives to disrepute NGOs with claims that the organizations are attempting to undermine Sri Lankan democracy. The government stated that it has begun investigating and is seeking to take legal action against NGOs. Additionally, four reporters who were in hiding since the January elections were arrested in early March by the Terrorism Investigation Division, due to their connection to opposition leader General Sarath Fonseka.
After allegations of the hit-list came out, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, the Asian Human Rights Commission, the International Federation of Journalists, the Asian Legal Resource Center and Reporters Without Borders all called for a halt of the persecution of journalists, NGOs, and activists in Sri Lanka. Transparency International has asked the government to ensure the safety of Transparency International staff and reaffirm freedom of expression. In a letter to President Rajapaksa, the International Federation of Journalists expressed its concern over the list’s purpose and protection for those listed.
Despite the outcry from international and Sri Lankan organizations over the hit-list, the Sri Lankan government denies, and some media outlets remain unconvinced, of its existence. The government accused Amnesty International of bias, challenging the organization to prove the document’s existence. News of the list reportedly appeared on a Sri Lankan website, Lanka News Web, whose editor was also named. According to the International Federation of Journalists, the list is also being held by diplomatic missions in Sri Lanka, giving the list’s existence more credibility. Nevertheless, the Sri Lankan government assured civil society and its critics that there was no reason to fear for their physical safety.
If these allegations are confirmed, they may further tarnish the Sri Lankan government’s reputation as a democratic. The United Nations Convention against Corruption obligates States Parties to promote NGO and civil society involvement in raising public awareness of governmental corruption. Threats to the safety of activists and journalists severely undermine this goal. Sri Lanka has signed and ratified the Convention, which entered into force in March of 2004. The continuing state of emergency in Sri Lanka, declared after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, assists the government by providing it with an excuse to ignore its international obligations and continue the trend of silencing those who speak out.