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Sri Lanka rights group says TV being militarised

COLOMBO (Reuters) - The appointment of a retired general to help run a Sri Lankan state television station is a sign of media militarisation not seen for decades, rights watchdogs said on Thursday.

The government, engaged in a long-running war with Tamil Tiger rebels in the north of the island, called the accusation a “fabricated lie” and said former army major-general Sunil Silva would help cure chronic management weaknesses at the station.

Silva was named deputy director-general of Rupavahini, or SLRC, just days after the army sealed off the station to 200 staff threatening to strike over alleged government intimidation.

“For the last 20 years we haven’t seen any military officer in a station or running administration,” Free Media Movement spokesman Sunanda Deshapriya told Reuters.

“This is part of the general militarisation of the country. I would say that is part of the preparation by the government so that will have SLRC under their control under any situation.”

Sri Lanka has intermittently censored media reports of the civil war since it erupted in 1973, and it has restricted access to Tamil Tiger-held areas in what some see as a bid to avoid rebel propaganda being spread.

Silva was appointed to the specially-created position after a December furore over the pelting of a Sri Lankan minister with stones and urine by station staff after he stormed the newsroom to complain about coverage, attacking its news director.

Staff at SLRC had planned to strike on Monday over a series of assaults since then on five workers by suspected hired thugs. The army and police sealed off the SLRC building, forcing staff to protest outside.

HUMAN RIGHTS CHARGES

An international media freedoms watchdog demanded an explanation for the intervention of the security forces.

“The head of state should immediately order the army to withdraw from the station,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

Station employees said security forces had withdrawn by Thursday.

President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government has been accused of taking an increasingly heavy-handed approach towards critics of its military policy both at home and abroad.

A European Union delegation on Tuesday raised serious concerns about mounting human rights violations on all sides, while the International Committee of the Red Cross on Wednesday chided the government over its rights record.

Rights watchdogs have reported hundreds of abductions, disappearances and killings by both government security forces and Tiger separatists since the civil war, in which 70,000 people have died since 1983, resumed in 2006.

Deshapriya said it was the first time the military had taken control of a television station in the two decades since an insurrection by anti-government marxists in Sri Lanka’s south.

Amnesty International in February said threats against Sri Lanka’s media were creating a culture of silence and lack of debate at time when it was most needed.

Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa said charges that the TV station was being militarised were a “fabricated lie”.

“How can you militarise a media organisation? Though he is an ex-army man, he is a good administrator. Even the ministry will help them to strengthen the administration,” Yapa told Reuters.

Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez

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