“Why are you taking my pictures and who you are to take my pictures?” Inspector Neomal Rangajeewa said as he grabbed Akila Jayawardane outside the courthouse in Colombo on 10 July, although the photographer works for the Ceylon Today daily and the Mawbima weekly and repeatedly showed him his press card.
Rangajeewa then forcibly took Jayawardane to a police post within the court building, where he deleted all of Jayawardane’s photos.
Rangajeewa’s violent behaviour has stunned many of Sri Lanka’s journalists, who regard him as being close to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and therefore fear that he shares in some of the impunity that the president enjoys.
When secretary of defence from 2005 to 2015, Rajapaksa became known as the “Terminator” and as the head of the “white van commando” – so-called because of the white vans reportedly used to abduct and murder at least 14 journalists during that ten-year period.
“Inspector Neomal Rangajeewa’s behaviour towards the photojournalist Akila Jayawardane is completely unacceptable,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “It speaks to the extraordinary contempt for the media among certain members of the security forces close to President Rajapaksa’s circle, who are a symbol of the ‘dark decade’ in which so many journalists were murdered. We call on the government to punish all violence by officials against Sri Lanka’s journalists.”
Inspector Rangajeewa went to the courthouse on 10 July to appear as one of the main defendants in the trial of those accused in connection with a massacre at Welikada prison, in a suburb of the capital, in November 2012.
When a police special task force led by Rangajeewa was sent to “to quash illegal activities within the prison walls,” they ended up killing a total 27 inmates and wounding 43 others – supposedly in the course of suppressing a mutiny. But it emerged seven years later that most of the victims were on “Gota’s list” – then defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s list – of government opponents marked out for elimination.
Sri Lanka is ranked 127th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.