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Sri Lankan media under fire, entangled in politics

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s media is paying a heavy price after getting entangled in a political struggle between President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition and an opposition with few means to challenge his leadership.

People buy newspapers at a vendor in Colombo January 8, 2009. REUTERS/Buddhika Weerasinghe

Events in Sri Lanka have grabbed more world headlines than usual so far this year.

First, for a string of military victories over the Tamil Tiger separatists that have raised the prospect of an end to the island’s 25-year war and brought Rajapaksa a popularity windfall.

Then, when gunmen trashed a studio of the largest private broadcaster, MBC, and assassins gunned down Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga while he was driving to work.

The attacks on the media prompted international outrage and renewed criticism of Sri Lanka’s long history of violence and harassment of journalists. The government rebuffed its critics, saying they were too quick to blame it.

Behind the black-and-white picture of press freedom and a government blamed by critics for stifling it, however, there is a more complicated tale of politics, war and the culture of impunity it created, journalists and diplomats say.

Wickramatunga’s funeral, attended by thousands and at which an effigy of Rajapaksa was burned, turned into a political pedestal for the main opposition United National Party (UNP).

“His brand of journalism was blatantly partisan. He was a UNP politician, simply put, though he did not participate in UNP electoral politics,” Lakbima News editor Rajpal Abeynayake, a regular government critic, wrote on Sunday.

The UNP charges that the government has mismanaged the economy, whose strong growth has been curbed by a weakening rupee , high debt-servicing costs, depleted foreign exchange reserves and high government spending.

But opposition officials privately concede that they have an uphill battle against a president who is enjoying strong popularity as a result of victories on the war front and may exploit it by calling an early election.

‘HIGHLY STUPID’

Last week, opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appeared on CNN and other news outlets, sharply criticising the government over press freedom and charging that the government runs a death squad that killed Wickramatunga.

The government rejected the accusations.

Rajapaksa said journalists have nothing to fear from the government and vowed to find Wickramatunga’s killers. Indeed, both the slain editor, in a posthumous article, and the president have said they were friends for two decades.

Rajapaksa’s allies say the government had nothing to gain from the killing of an editor who had many enemies in politics and business because of his relentless exposes of corruption.

“Anyone in office would know that the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga would be the most destructive blow possible to a government now widely perceived as immensely successful,” state peace secretariat head Rajiva Wijesinhe, wrote last week.

A close adviser to the president, who asked not to be named, said: “We would be highly stupid to do that.”

Lakbima News’s Abeynayake said the state had not done enough to answer critics, or undo a history of impunity for killings of journalists since the war started in 1983 and predated Rajapaksa’s ascent to power three years ago.

“The government is wittingly or unwittingly pointing the finger at itself by not -- as in previous instances -- tracking down the killers,” he wrote.

Few can argue that Sri Lankan journalists operate in a dangerous environment.

The Committee To Protect Journalists says eight have been killed since 2007; the government says three should be taken off the list because they worked for the Tamil Tigers’ “Voice of the Tigers” station and were killed in an air raid.

Others have been kidnapped, harassed and beaten; some have been imprisoned under wartime government emergency regulations. Powerful officials and the state-run media have been aggressive in attacking journalists by name in print and on air.

Sri Lankan reporters say they self-censor for fear of angering the government. Many worry the Tigers’ designation this month as a banned terrorist group may mean they could be arrested for talking to Tiger spokesmen or viewing their websites.

Last week, MBC executive Chevaan Daniel went into hiding, two people familiar with his situation told Reuters on condition of anonymity. He drew official criticism for asking in a CNN interview why a government fighting a successful war could not catch his studio’s attackers.

On Monday, police spokesman Senior Superintendent of Police Ranjith Gunasekara said detectives had arrested three suspects in the MBC case, including a UNP councillor, who were due in court.

In both cases, politically charged accusations are flying, but the question for many is whether the culprits will be found -- unlike so many times in the past.

“It’s a fool’s game to allocate responsibility in terms of who did it or why,” a Western diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “What is for sure is the government is responsible for law and order so they have to show they are doing something.”

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