For 26 years Sri Lanka was embroiled in a bloody civil war that led to the death of 100,000 people. For 26 years the people of Sri Lanka lived in fear of forced disappearances, torture, and massacres. Human rights and civil liberties were tossed aside as the Tamil Tigers fought against the Sri Lankan government forces for an independent state. Human rights workers and journalists were attacked and harassed while the oppression and persecution of dissenters was severe.
Even today, four years after the Tamil Tigers were defeated, there has been little done in the name of justice, accountability, or the reestablishment of civil rights. According to Human Rights Watch, the government has continued to target civil society and restrict free speech despite constitutional guarantees and international pressure.
Because of the severe restrictions on speech and the press, and in light of the attacks on the media during the war, a large number of journalists fled the country, including a female television reporter named Rathimohan Lohini. Today, this young woman and 18 other reporters are facing expulsion from the United Arab Emirates, their resettlement country. The UN has granted these individuals refugee status and Human Rights Watch warns of the likelihood torture if they return to Sri Lanka, yet the deportations are still slated for this week.
Lohini was a reporter broadcasting from the Tamil held regions of Sri Lanka from 2006 to 2008. She fled to the UAE after one of her colleagues was murdered. The government has since begun a “smear campaign” against journalists and human rights activists, accusing them of supporting the rebel movement. Freedom House, a DC-based NGO which focuses on preserving the independence of institutions, condemns this initiative as media freedom remains restricted and journalists are still subjected to legal harassment and physical intimidation.
In states like ours where the right to free speech and the freedom of the press are guaranteed these liberties are often taken for granted. We live in a time where it is possible to tune into just about any opinion that we want, and a place where opinions we disagree with can be drowned out by those who yell louder and in more channels. Protecting the first amendment has become a cornerstone of the judiciary and the right to information is paramount in our interactions with each other, with society, and with our government.
These essential freedoms are even more important in countries like Sri Lanka in which uncertainty is rampant and knowledge is power. It is in these same countries where free speech and free press are most often suspended. The press of Sri Lanka, as with many other nations around the world, is “not free” by the standards of Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders. Without the freedom to understand their world, to hold dissenting opinions, and to express opposing viewpoints, neither are the Sri Lankan people.