Sri Lanka's assault on dissent

April 30, 2013

Sri Lanka's assault on dissent

Advocates for the human rights of women and minorities (including Tamils and Muslims), student leaders and university lecturers, clergy, trade unionists and other advocates for workers' rights, political party activists, judges and lawyers, and journalists, as well as the staff of Sri Lankan policy and human rights organizations have been subjected to intimidation, vilification, and physical attacks for their comments or actions deemed critical of the government. Aid workers providing care and support to victims of the armed conflict or collecting data on their experiences risk retaliation for their work.

Pressure on critics was acute in early 2012 as the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) negotiated and then adopted Resolution 19/2 calling on Sri Lanka to ensure accountability for alleged violations under international law. Participants in UN meetings and Sri Lankan journalists covering the events were verbally attacked repeatedly in Sri Lankan government media and even physically threatened. A similar intensification of pressure began in the lead-up to the 22nd Session of the HRC which adopted follow-up Resolution 22/1 on Sri Lanka on 21 March 2013. Sri Lankans with a track record of international advocacy again found themselves the targets of vilification, rumour campaigns and slurs. On 21 January 2013, the Sri Lanka-based Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) condemned a disinformation campaign against one of its senior researchers, which it said was "active over various online fora including blogs, Facebook and Twitter as well as via email." It noted that "such attempts to vilify the institution and its staff are not new. In pursuing its organisational mandate within a charged context, CPA is likely to face repeated attempts to broadcast spurious allegations."

In Sri Lanka's north and east, where much of the armed conflict played out and where large concentrations of Tamils live, the army remains vigilant against even minor acts of dissent. Human rights defenders there report heavy police surveillance and repeated interrogation about their activities, international contacts and donors. Many victims of this new repression are not prominent activists engaged in advocacy at the international level, but local community workers providing assistance to people struggling to recover from decades of armed conflict.

Journalists continue to suffer intimidation, threats, and attacks for critical reporting; since 2006, at least 15 have been killed (according to media freedom groups, nine of the killings can be definitively identified as a direct consequence of the journalist's reporting) and more than 25 have fled the country since 2001. Access from within Sri Lanka to Tamilnet, a news website that has often taken a pro-LTTE stance, has been blocked since June 2007; in 2011 the government blocked Sri Lankan access to five other websites which had been publishing content critical of the authorities.

Since then Amnesty International has received reports that websites with articles criticizing the government have been plagued by repeated "denial of service" attacks; their offices have been raided by police and burned by unknown arsonists; their staff have been assaulted, arrested and some have felt they had no choice but to flee the country. When such measures failed to silence them, the state imposed new regulations aimed at closing websites with news content unacceptable to the authorities. There have been, in the course of the conflict and its aftermath, many instances of official censorship of reporting, but the years of repression have also led many journalists to self-censor. According to Swami Natharajan of the BBC, threats and denial of access to places and information has resulted in the media not reporting certain events. In interviews with 20 Sri Lankan journalists, Natharajan was told by 12 journalists that their safety had not improved since the war.

Opposition political activists and less prominent community activists organizing locally have reportedly been subjected to threats and intimidation, physical attacks, arrest, repeated interrogations and enforced disappearance. Such attacks have been carried out with impunity: there have been no effective investigations and no prosecution of suspected perpetrators.