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Disappearances of Journalists in Sri Lanka:

Lessons Learned Sunanda Deshapriya

19/11/2015
( Struggle against disappearances need to stop abduction: in 2006 FMM led swift
action saved the life of journalist Nadaraja Guruparan)
Sri Lanka has seen decades of abductions and disappearances by state security agencies.
Campaigning against such repressive acts too has become part of our political culture.
Enforced and involuntary disappearance of persons has been a permanent feature in
Sri Lankan political culture over the last three decades. The second highest number of
unsolved disappearances reported to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced
and Involuntary Disappearances are reported from Sri Lanka.
As the editor of a weekly Sinhala language newspaper during 1990 2000, I came to
know and worked with many family members of the disappeared who were
campaigning for justice.

Dr. Manorani Saravanmuttu was one of them.


Her son, well known journalist and broadcaster Richard de Silva (32), was abducted
from home in front of his mothers eyes on 18th February 1990. The death squad
wanted him to disappear and dumped his body in to the sea hoping that the current
would wash away all traces. But his body washed up on the shore within 48 hours,
tortured and with bullet wounds. His mother Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu calling for
justice, took up the case of her sons abduction, and travelled the country and the
world. Thus Richard became the symbol of the fight against abductions and
disappearances in Sri Lanka.
In 1992 we, along with the newspaper I edited; Yukthiya (Justice), organised a mass
campaign calling for justice for Richard which also facilitated the downfall of then
repressive government.
Abduction is the first step of making persons disappear. Dividing line between them id
then. During the last phase of war (2006-2009) we, the press freedom community of
Sri Lanka, were able to save the lives of at least four journalists who were abducted by
state security agencies. On all four occasions the press freedom community led by
Free Media Movement (FMM) was able to mount swift action, nationally and
internationally within hours and thereby secure their lives.
For instance, when Nadaraja Guruparan, senior radio journalist, was abducted on
29thAugust 2006 early morning when he was on his way to work, within hours FMM
mobilised hundreds of journalists and political activists and staged a protest while
international press freedom movement issued alerts. He was released the very next
day.
On the other hand FMM coordinated safety training and safety fund to support
journalists in need, which complemented the agitations and advocacy.

Our experience shows that journalist unity, organisational capacity and networking with
International partners are pre-requisites to stopping abductions of journalists.
In the post war era abducted and disappeared journalist and cartoonist Prageeth
Eknaligoda became a symbol against repression of press freedom and enforced
disappearances in Sri Lanka.

I met Prageeth a few days before I left the country for an intervention at the United
Nations Human Rights Council and we discussed ways to combat media censorship
that prevailed at the time. He used to publish his cartoons in the newspaper I
edited, Yukthiya. Now it has come to light that his abductors questioned him on a
booklet he compiled to be used by the opposition presidential campaign in 2010.
Like Dr. Manorani in the early 1990s, Sandya Eknaligoda, the wife of Prageeth, has
been in the forefront of the struggle against the disappearances in the country since
her husbands disappearance. Prageeth was abducted on 24th January 2010. She
too has been a tireless campaigner for justice for her disappeared husband. The
campaign she led, calling for justice for Prageeth, has resonated in the highest justice
echelons in the world, including United Nations.
Sandya has been regularly visiting Geneva, where I live in exile, to campaign for her

disappeared husband. Working with her over the years doing advocacy in Geneva and
London, I have witnessed how quickly she became an experienced campaigner with
convincing facts, figures and arguments.
When Prageeth was abducted there was no active movement for media freedom in
the country. As a part of the war strategy, the press freedom movement had been
trashed; almost all leading journalists in the movement had been forced to flee the
country.
At least 3 more media workers/ journalists remain missing in Sri Lanka.
Journalist Subramaniam Ramachandran (37) was reportedly detained at a military
check point on 15thFebruary 2007. He remains disappeared since then. Appeals by
his ageing parents to authorities have been to no avail. Vadivel Nimalarajah (31) of
Jaffna was abducted on 17th November 2007. He was a proof reader for Uthayan
daily and was on his way home when he was reportedly abducted. Anthonypillai
Sherin Sithranjan (36), newspaper distributor of Yarl Thinakkural in Jaffna, went
missing on 5th November 2007.
Jaffna was under military rule when all three disappearances took place and there was
no space to protest or campaign for their release. Even after the wars end there
hasnt been any visible campaign on their disappearances. An article here and a press
conference there have not been able to generate an ongoing campaign.
On the contrary, supported by local and international press freedom and human rights
groups, the campaign calling for truth and justice for Prageeth has continued. As a
result, the investigation into his abduction was re-launched under the new
government and it seems to have achieved considerable progress. The case against
abduction and murder of journalist Prageeth will be filed in the near future, according
to informed sources.

Fighting against the abductions and disappearances [of journalists] needs unity and
consistency among the media community. Swift action, including mobilisation,
advocacy and alerts at home and abroad could provide relief in the short term and
long term. Training and support too will be necessary.
In Sinhala we have a saying: tattu karananta dora hare; the door only opens to the
one who knocks. The lesson is to fight and not give up!
On November 16, the IFJ Asia Pacific launched Without A Trace: Missing Media
Workers in the Asia Pacific, to list the cases of ten missing journalists in the Asia
Pacific. The IFJ Asia Pacific also launched a petition calling for governments to sign
and ratify the UN Convention for All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.
Sunanda Deshapriya is a Sri Lanka journalist, who lived in exile during the Rajapaksa
government. In 2015 he returned to Sri Lanka.
This article was first published at SAMSN DIGITAL HUB
Posted by Thavam