Sri Lanka: Risking Lives for Information Exchange

Maura R. O'Connor, for the Pulitzer Center

The other morning I went to a local church in Batticaloa to meet with a priest who has been involved in human rights work for several decades. We drank cold orange juice in an attempt to fight the heat, already sticky and oppressive at 10 a.m., next to a yard with clucking chickens and cages of parakeets. A few meters away was a coconut grove and then the shore of the lagoon, where earlier in the morning my translator had given me detailed instructions on how to bait and kill a crocodile. "How big are they?" I asked him. He pointed to a 14' foot long fishing canoe nearby and said, "Like that." Sri Lankan journalist victim of violence Then he told me how the Sri Lankan government's Special Task Forces (STF) in the area are not allowed to kill the crocodiles. Why? Because, he said, they're a deterrent for Tiger cadres who might be thinking of crossing the lagoon. Then we just stood there and I'm pretty sure both imagined a platoon of anti-terrorist crocodiles employed by the STF lurking under the surface of the water.

One thing I've noticed over and over again in Sri Lanka is how valued information and the exchange of information is. When I talk to someone, they're not only eager to relay recent events, facts, hearsay, history, opinions, and sources, they want to check everything against what you think and know. Maybe the great value placed on this exchange is directly related to the extent to which the media has been compromised in the country, over a long period of time but especially in the last six months. Without a trusted, independent source for information, people act as aggregators charged with the task of determining accuracy and spreading news themselves.

Information regarding disappearances and violence is treated with special care. In some cases, people have not reported the incidents to the police, the Human Rights Commission, or an INGO for fear of becoming targets themselves. This shroud of secrecy and quiet is part of what preserves the impunity of the government, STF, and paramilitaries who are the most accused of perpetrating these crimes. For people in the community, knowing a lot about an incident can be a big risk and sharing such information with the wrong people an even bigger risk.

The priest had a litany of recent events to tell me about but one thing especially stood out. On Wednesday evening, he said, a Muslim journalist had been physically attacked in his office and was currently at a hospital in Batticaloa. Beyond that, he couldn't say much more.

That afternoon I made my way through the crowded accident ward in Batticaloa Teaching Hospital (a lot easier to sneak into than if you're a New York Post reporter trying to sneak into St. Vincent's). Patients, mostly men and of those mostly farmers it seemed, were spread out on floor mats while more severely injured ones inhabited narrow hospital beds. Even among the many patients, it wasn't hard to pick out the journalist. The extent of his injuries didn't look like an accident. One arm was broken and wrapped from shoulder to hand in gauze and his bandaged head looked painfully swollen. A deep purple bruise was visible on his face. At least 15 family members crowded around his bed and spoke in hushed voices. After listening for a few seconds while my translator explained who I was, he agreed to speak to me with a lack of hesitation I found surprising and even courageous considering the circumstances.

54-year-old M.I. Rahmathulla was a newspaper correspondent in the east for over twenty years until he decided to launch his own weekly, eight-page paper called Vaara Ukrail three years ago. The paper focused on exposing corruption among politicians, various committees, and the Municipal Council in Kaathaankuddi, a predominately Muslim town within Batticaloa District. Published in Tamil, it was selling 2,000 copies a week and, Rahmathulla told me, included stories about mis-used development funds. In one case, he wrote about money that was given to the area from the US Government to create a drainage system, but how the project was never begun and the money disappeared.

On Wednesday evening, he said he was putting the finishing touches on the 112th edition, which included a piece about ten homes that were built by the Sri Lankan government for local fisherman and how the homes were never handed over. While at his computer, a masked man came from behind and covered his mouth. Four others destroyed his office and then they beat him with a cricket bat. According to Rahmathulla, this is the third time he's been attacked since he launched Vaara Ukrail. The first time, his arm was broken in three places and the second time his house was burnt down.

Here's a translation of what he said next:

"When I am ok, I am going to continue the paper. I am not scared because I want to show the outside what is happening. Until I die, I am going to do this job. When I re-start the paper this will happen again but I cannot stop. Politicians are afraid of the media in Kaathaankuddi, otherwise there would be even more corruption. When you write this for your newspaper, the truth will come out. I am old but you are young. It is good you are doing this."

When we left the hospital, my translator and I were silent. Finally I said, "What do you think?"

"He's a very good man," he said.

The problem with spreading information by word of mouth is that it can quickly become a rumor mill. The next day, I heard from someone that MHM Hisbullah, a Muslim politician in the Eastern Province, was behind the attack. Supposedly, Rahmathulla had run against Hisbullah in a general election in 2000 and gotten 900 votes, costing Hisbullah a seat and there was a long-standing animosity as a result. I was also hearing rumors that the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (alias; Pilliyan), an ex-LTTE cadre whose political party called the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) is now aligned with the Sri Lankan Government, must have been funding the paper in order to destabilize the Muslim community. How else, people asked me, could Rahmathulla afford to print Vaara Ukrail??

The history of the Eastern Province is rife with examples of hostilities between Tamils and Muslims that have at times exploded into massacres, abductions, and political killings. Muslims especially feel trapped between a government that does not represent their interests on issues like land rights, and Tamils who fear, resent, and sometimes kill them. In recent years, there have been rumors that Muslim militias were being created in the East as a response to the situation. Just a few days before I visited the Batticaloa hospital, a government civil servant told me with confidence of a "well-disciplined," 300-strong army of young men controlled by Hisbullah but kept largely secret from anyone outside the Muslim community. "This is sensitive," they said when I asked what the name of the militia was. "Why do you want to know this?" They wouldn't tell me.

One of the big questions in people's minds right now is whether or not Muslims and Tamils will finally work together to create a powerful voting block in the east, rather than remaining divided and allowing the central government unlimited control of the region's security and development. If the rumors swirling around Vaara Ukrail are to be believed, this hasn't fully happened yet.

For me, standing in front of Rahmathulla, seeing the brutality of his injuries and listening to his conviction that he would keep writing, it was extremely hard to believe he was merely a pawn in a cynical political game. Then again, politics in this country are about as dirty as it gets.

For a closer look at the current situation facing journalists in Sri Lanka: and