Sri Lankan TV Journalists Attacked

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) -- Workers at Sri Lanka's state television channel fear they are being hunted. In the past two months, staff members have been stabbed, threatened and beaten up.

The violence has grown so bad that the president had to give employees at the station, Rupavahini Corp., a personal promise of protection to prevent a walkout that would have likely forced it off the air.

Employees say the attacks may be connected to a feud with a government minister. Media watchdog groups say they are part of a wave of intimidation against journalists that has grown as the civil war between Sri Lankan government forces and ethnic Tamil rebels escalated over the past two years.

Senior government officials publicly criticize journalists as unpatriotic, police repeatedly detain and arrest reporters, and senior military officials bar reporters from the conflict zone and call for strict censorship of all war reporting.

"It's very clear, the government wants to control the media and journalists," said Sunanda Deshapriya of the Free Media Movement.

Presidential spokesman Chandrapala Liyanage denied the allegations. "We have not imposed any censorship, and we don't want to control the media," he said.

The incidents were largely ignored until Labor Minister Mervyn Silva and his bodyguards walked into Rupavahini's offices Dec. 27 and reportedly attacked news director T.M.G. Chandrasekara for not covering one of Silva's speeches.

In a ruckus televised live by TV stations across the nation, the staff fought back, trapping Silva and his bodyguards in an office until police brokered their release - a deal that included a humiliating apology from the minister. As the men were led out under police escort, the workers hooted and jeered at Silva and stoned his car.

A month later, attacks began against employees of the state television station, which is considered more of a government mouthpiece than a critic.

Reporter Lal Hemantha Mawalage was attacked by two men on a motorbike after work on Jan. 25. Four days later, two armed men broke into another employee's house and threatened his mother, according to watchdog groups and station employees.

A group of men tried to stab journalist Priyal Ranjith Perera on Feb. 27, and the TV station's librarian, Ranjani Aluthge, was repeatedly slashed with a razor blade as she took a bus home from work March 5.

On Friday, two men attacked station official Arunasiri Hettige with a metal pipe at a bus stop, beating him so badly he had to be hospitalized.

Police are investigating, but no one has been charged, police spokesman N.K. Ilangakoon said.

Employees of the station fear for their lives, said one staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted.

Reporters at other television stations who covered the Dec. 27 incident said they also had been threatened and attacked. Susil Kindelpitiya, director of news at the private Sirasa television station, said he was chased as he drove through Colombo and has seen suspicious people with guns near his house.

"I believe that those threats are linked to what happened at Rupavahini," said Kindelpitiya.

"Definitely, all the attacks started after the Dec. 27 incident," said Kanchana Marasinghe, a Rupavahini employee and union activist.

Silva, who has been accused of repeatedly threatening journalists, denied any link to the violence. "I also condemn these attacks. No one has a right to assault or threaten others," he said.

The climate of fear grew so strong at the station that President Mahinda Rajapaksa called an emergency meeting Monday with station officials, Silva, and his top police and military officials to address the problem.

The president ordered his security team to protect the employees and quickly complete investigations into the attacks, said Liyanage, his spokesman.

Marasinghe, the Rupavahini employee and union activist, said he was hopeful things would improve, "but you can't say what will happen in the future. We are waiting to see what's next."

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