Media bashing in a peninsula – Jaffna

August 31, 2007

Uthayan Office
Uthayan Office

“Jaffna has become one of the most dangerous geographical areas for those involved in the media to work, due to killings, abductions, threats and censorship. At least 07 in the media sector including 02 journalists have been killed in Jaffna, since 2006 May. While 01 journalist has gone missing, 03 media institutes have been attacked. Many journalists have either left their profession or left the area. Although suspects have been named and the government has promised investigations, no serious investigations into these incidents have been yet initiated.”

That is a quote from the observation report released by the Joint International Committee constituted by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the International Media Solidarity (IMS) that was in Sri Lanka to investigate into media freedom. We decided a long time before that report was out to respect our responsibility of looking into the plight of the media personnel in the North, which is also a part of this “Unitary” State.

Vincent Jeyan is a good friend of ours. A media colleague too. He has an eye for investigations, a strength for a journalist. He was thus turning into a very good investigative journalist. He was awarded the best journalist, working in a difficult environment by the Editors’ Guild.

We remember he told us, way back in 2004,

“I like to marry a Sinhala girl. A teacher would be ideal”

“Why is that ?”  we asked.

“Then I can also learn Sinhala well” he said.

He was one who aspired for ethnic camaraderie. We could not work towards achieving it. Recently he had brought a Tamil girl home as his wife. Yet, in a city of danger, he could not enjoy the bliss of wedded life. Recently we met him in Colombo.

“Got to pass over hundred barriers to get to a single news. To go through barriers you have to show some friendship. Got to throw some smile. Then the other side gets jittery. So you are labeled differently. We get bashed from both sides.”

Jeyan’s media life has been temporarily suspended. Not only that. There is no investigative journalist in the Jaffna peninsula who could fill the void created by Nimalarajan’s demise. There is no Maheswaran, no Jenaheswaran, no Thawaselvam, no Thayaparan in Jaffna. There is therefore no investigative journalist in the Jaffna peninsula.

Veluthanjan is a dissenting voice. He is a freelance journalist now, after serving many news papers. He is a critic of those journalists who leave Jaffna.

“Now there are no journalists. They are actors. They are playing a fake role as journalists, with other agendas. They leave to Colombo on those reasons and then work to migrate. Our parents and children live here in Jaffna. We don’t have to fabricate reasons to leave Jaffna.”

What ever Veluthanjan’s criticism is, investigating the dangers of Jaffna is a responsibility. That is reason why, M. V. Kanamylnathan the chief editor of the leading news paper published in Jaffna, the “Uthayan” has to be given an ear.

“The young don’t come for journalism. They are afraid. That is a justifiable fear. Most try to find other jobs. Every one is trying to find a way out of Jaffna. Life is that difficult now in Jaffna.”

The “Uthayan” editor escaped death by a whisker, when attacked by an unidentified para military group on 23 June, 2001. Yet he continues publication of the “Uthayan” news paper amidst great difficulty.

On 06 May, 2001 Manager of “Uthayan” news paper, K. Nanthakumar was gunned down. On 24 January, 2006 “Uthayan” Trincomalee staff reporter S. Sudeer Rajan was also gunned down. On 03 May 2006, while the government was commemorating the Media Freedom day in Colombo, the “Uthayan” news paper office in Jaffna was treated to a bomb attack. This attack killed its Circulation Manager Bastian George, better known as Suresh and an employee in the same division, Ranjit Kumar Rajarathnam. All computers in the computer division were totally damaged on purpose.

Again on 23 July 2006, Kumaradas, their Sub Editor was arrested and detained. On 15 August 2006, S. Baskaran the permanent driver of “Uthayan” was assassinated and on 18 August, their stores in Raas Street, Kopay was burnt down.

The latest in the string of attacks against “Uthayan” was on 30 April, when at about 10.00 in the morning, journalist Selvarajah Rajeevarman was shot dead at the Navalar junction by gunmen traveling on a motor bicycle.

“So now, all news editors and sub editors are me. Our editor and I have not gone home even once since March last year.” says S. Kugathasan, the News Editor.

They are the only 02 full time journalists still working with the “Uthyan” news paper that had 04 Sub editors and 08 staff reporters working full time previously.

“Now we have to satisfy ourselves with what we receive here. We are restricted to letters, statements and phone calls that we receive in office. Got to use notices to fill the pages. Due to security reasons, even local reporters aren’t working.” added Kugathasan.

Another popular news paper, “Namathu Eelanaadu” has closed shop, due to such harassments and attacks. Its Managing Director Sinnathamby Mahasivarasa was killed at his residence in Thelipillai. That resulted in the closure of the news paper.

There are now only 02 other news papers published in Jaffna, besides “Uthayan”. Those are “Yaal Thinakkural” and “Vaalampuri”. It’s the same common denominator for them too, as the “Uthayan”.  “Vaalampuri” that had over 80 local correspondents now has less than 10 operating. By now, the news paper does not have any provincial news in it’s issues. It is now compelled to carry popular national news and other such international news.

“life is more important than any news” says a young journalist working with “Vaalampuri”.

“The media accreditation card today is a death warrant. There is absolutely no recognition for that. Security men at barricades look at journalists as if they are looking at a Tiger.”

That’s Jaffna. This is from a horse’s mouth. From the editor of the “Yaal Thinakkural” news paper, S. Vamadevan.

“Motor bykes and white vans trail us. We get threatening text messages (SMS) and phone calls. We are searched. The office alone had been rounded up 06 times for search.”

Although a news paper Editor, he still uses a push bicycle for traveling. That simple is their lives. Can an unarmed cyclist avoid motor bykes and white vans ?

“We can not do anything without the permission of the military. Can’t even photograph anything for news. It is difficult to write a balance news report with all sides covered. There is some side that would interfere.”

Even in “Yaal Thinakkural” there are only 04 full time journalists. There main local correspondent, Subramaniam Ramachandran disappeared while in Vadamaarachchi area. There after others who served as provincial reporters, moved out of work.

Another repression on the Jaffna media is the restriction on news print for publishing.

“Yet even after a ban on news print, we had guts to publish 02 page news papers. But now there is news print coming with restrictions. That’s not enough. So, we publish less numbers with less pages” said, Uthayan” editor Kanamylnathan.

Earlier the “Uthayan” paper had around 16 to 20 pages. Now it has only about 08, or 10 the most. So is “Yaal Thinakkural”. It had 14 to 16 pages previously and now runs with only 06 or 08 pages.

“The Jaffna people have a feeling of being ‘left out’. They think they have been cast aside. This is a common feeling amongst the journalists too.” explains the “Uthayan” editor. “No one knows what would happen the next moment. But we have to be with the people. We have to work for them”

The North Lanka Journalists Association (NLJA) has discussed all these issues with the Army Commander in charge of North. He had promised to inform all his officers to accept the media accreditation card. But journalists in Jaffna claim, they have not seen any positive change.

The President of NLJA is the deputy editor of “Yaal Thinakkural”, M. Kathirgamarthamby. He has almost 45 years of service as a journalist, starting his career with the Lake House published Daily News in 1962. Even a senior journalist of such caliber can not lead a decent professional life.

“During the cease fire period, we initiated the North – South Journalists’ Association, supported by the Peace Council of Jehan Perera. Its President was Stanley Samarasignhe. I was the Secretary. We thought that would create solidarity among journalists in North and South. But that remains a dream.” says Kathirgamarthamby. “Only the Free Media Movement was concerned about us. They also facilitated allowances for our journalists who lost their job.”

Finally, he made an appeal to the journalists in the South.

“We make this appeal most passionately to those journalists in the South. We are also journalists in this same country. Don’t leave us as outcasts.”

While their appeal is so painful, the media culture here in the South does not even consider killings in the North for reporting. When a student, Sahadevan Neelakshan of the Media Research and Technology Institute attached to the Jaffna University was assassinated last July, for some journalists in the South he was no media personnel. Most refused to acknowledge that he was the editor of the magazine “Saaralam”, published by the university students’ association.

This isolation is a reality in the Jaffna peninsula. No youth who has some affinity, some love or a need to be in journalism would have any direct connections with the media. We discussed this issue with a student of journalism.

“Where would you think, you would work ?”

“I’m just studying because I like it. Don’t have any idea of working”.

“Then, what would you do ?”

“I will do farming”.

We asked him, his reasons for that. His short reply left us muted.

“From what is cultivated on the ground, one can live a few days, at least. From what is cultivated in the media, one can die in a few days, for sure.”

Manjula wediwardena
Athula Withanage