Sri Lankan anti-govt media outlet torched in arson attack

COLOMBO Mon Jan 31, 2011 9:36am EST

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Unidentified people torched the Sri Lankan office of a British-based website that regularly criticises the Sri Lankan government, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa immediately ordered an investigation into the arson.

The attack on the office of www.lankaenews.com, which has links to an opposition politician who fell out with Rajapaksa several years ago, is the latest in a series of assaults on media outlets or personnel.

"It is well to note that under ... Rajapaksa regime, the free media had suffered most and sustained losses to persons and property on an unprecedented scale in the media history of Sri Lanka," the website said in its report on the attack.

Since the start of the final phase of a 25-year civil war in 2006, at least 14 journalists have been killed and many more attacked or threatened in the Indian Ocean island nation.

Sri Lanka has a long history of violence and intimidation against journalists, stretching back as far as 1971, when the first of three separate insurgencies broke out and ushered in an era of impunity.

One of the website's employees, cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, has been missing since January 2010. Eknaligoda had been accused of arranging his own disappearance in an earlier instance.

The Indian Ocean island nation is regularly criticised by press freedom groups for tolerating attacks against journalists and failing to find the perpetrators. Sri Lanka routinely ranks among the most dangerous places for journalists to work.

However, the government has pointed to many cases where journalists have blamed the government or orchestrated attacks as ploys to get political asylum in Western nations or funding from aid donors.

Critics accuse the government of using other means to control media including by manipulating ownership changes, the withholding of state advertising revenue and licensing.

(Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Bryson Hull and Robert Birsel)

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