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As Commonwealth Heads Meet, Journalists Continue to Suffer Human Rights Abuses in Sri Lanka

November 16, 2013
tags:#press freedom, #Sri Lanka
located:Sri Lanka
by:Jack Bicker
As the various Commonwealth heads of government arrive in Colombo for their biennial meeting, they will be arriving in a country where press freedoms remain a distant dream.

Little progress has been made in the fight to win press freedoms in this south Asian country, and very few journalists manage to overcome what is often terrifying state pressure and coercion.

Journalist Sandya Eknaligoda has direct experience of how dangerous it can be.

Sandya's husband, the journalist and cartoonist Prageeth, has already been missing for almost four years.

The last occasion that Sandya saw her husband was in January 2010, when he left home to take  part in a rally in support of the country's opposition party and its candidate for president.

As he left, Prageeth promised Sandya to help her with her insurance paper work, before bidding her goodbye. However Prageeth never made it home that night, and Sandya immediately feared the worst: Pragreeth had been targeted by the authorities before, and since that time the couple had agreed to always phone each other if even Pragreeth was going to arrive home after 9pm.

That night, the phone call never came.

"I felt that something had happened. I started to get scared. I went to see friends but was not able to find any information," Sandya told Amnesty International.

When Sandya reported her husband missing at the police station the next day, no investigation was started, and officers suggested his disappearance was nothing more than a publicity stunt.

After a whole week with no information, Sandya sought information from the local human rights commission, and an international campaign was initiated to put pressure on local authorities to reveal what they knew.

Yet four years later, Sandya still has no information and continues to search for her husband.

"Looking for Prageeth has become my religion. I will never leave this campaign until the day I find him or get justice for him. Sometimes you get scared, when you notice you are being followed or when people say you are being followed. But for me, the desire to find Prageeth is larger than any fears," Sandya told Amnesty International

Sandya believes that Pragreeth was targeted because of his persistent research into reports that the Sri Lankan army made use of chemical weapons in 2008, when attempting to quash a long running internal conflict.

The situation for journalists who criticise government action is grave, with punishments including torture, arrest, and murder. Over 80 journalists have fled to country over the last eight years, and a reported 15 have been killed since 2006.

As Sandya told the BBC, "Things will only change if heads of government who go to [CHOGM] raise these issues. They should put pressure on [Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda] Rajapaksa on human rights issues. If that doesn't happen and the heads of government who go there fail to address these issues and hand him the [Chair] of the Commonwealth, then the situation will not change".


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jack bicker
Jack Bicker
Sri Lanka