Successful resolution of Sri Lankan crisis requires unrestricted coverage of protests

After the unacceptable deliberate police violence against eight News First TV channel employees during last weekend’s extraordinary protests in the capital, Colombo, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Sri Lankan authorities to allow journalists to work with complete independence because their reporting is needed to ensure that the island’s democracy functions properly at this sensitive time.

The video of reporters being clubbed by police and arriving at Colombo National Hospital on stretchers with head injuries, which TV viewers were able to follow live, have testified to the erratic nature of respect for press freedom in Sri Lanka in the run-up to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s announced resignation today (13 July).

At a time when the entire country is holding its breath, it is absolutely vital that journalists are able to work safely and independently in order to safeguard media pluralism, which is crucial at this historic moment for Sri Lanka,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “We call on home affairs minister Dinesh Gunawardena to ensure that the police refrain from any further violence against reporters who are covering what is happening. This is essential for a successful resolution of the crisis.”

When protesters invaded and set fire to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s home on 9 July, a crew from News First, one of Sri Lanka’s leading TV channels, rushed to the scene after notifying the authorities that they were coming. But, when they began broadcasting live, reporter Sarasi Peiris and her colleague Judin Sinthujan, cameraman Warun Sampath and website reporter Janitha Mendis were all aggressed and jostled by members of the paramilitary Special Task Force (STF) wearing helmets and armed with batons.

Journalists beaten on the ground

As seen in video filmed at the time, STF commander Romesh Liyanage ordered a specific assault on the TV crew. A paramilitary can be clearly seen clubbing Sampath although he was already on the ground, still holding his camera. A separate sequence shows Sampath fall to the ground, surrounded by about ten men who are attacking him.

Another four-member News First crew located nearby rushed to help their colleagues, but news anchor Imesh Sutherland, local correspondent Banidu Lokuruge and assistants Kalimuttu Chandran and Chanuka Weerakoon were unable to do anything because teargas was fired at them and they were subjected to a second police charge. In all, four First News journalists were hospitalised on the night of 9 July.

In a statement seen by RSF, Sri Lankan police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa announced that the Inspector General of Police had ordered an investigation into STF commander Liyanage’s conduct. Liyanage was suspended with immediate effect on 11 July.

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