The threat was made in the form of leaflets found outside the Batticaloa press club and scattered in the city on 23 January. They showed a photo of the seven journalists with their heads circled and the chilling words: “Beware! These are the reporters who received money from the [Tamil] Tigers abroad to undermine the government. We will execute them.”
The photo was taken during a ceremony on 8 January to mark the 11th anniversary of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge’s high-profile murder in 2009, probably on the orders of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was defence secretary at the time (during his brother’s presidency) and was elected president himself last November.
In view of the gravity of the leaflet’s message, the seven journalists tried to file a complaint with the Batticaloa police and request police protection. The response from a police officer was a flat refusal.
“The extremely dismissive response from the police is all the more unacceptable because at least 14 journalists were murdered in connection with their work under Rajapkasa family rule from 2005 to 2015,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“We call on the government to review its security policies and to provide protection to journalists who receive death threats, failing which it will be held responsible for any violence against them.”
Two weeks before the discovery of the leaflets in Batticaloa, police in the central town of Mulleriyawa refused to register a complaint by Nimanthi Ranasinghe, a court reporter for the newspaper Lankadeepa who wanted to report that a death threat had been made against her.
Sri Lanka is ranked 126th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.