ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 2, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 14

The Iqbal story – speak now or hold your silence forever

By Anthony David

They called themselves campaigners for "real journalists" and last Monday staged a demonstration near the residence of Iqbal Athas, ‘The Sunday Times’ Consultant Editor and Defence Correspondent. But before they could put away the placards drafted by a top official, it became clear they were only masquerading as media personnel and were on a deadly mission - to provoke those in the neighbourhood to angrily retaliate.

Section of the journalists who protested against threats and intimidation against The Sunday Times Defence Correspondent Athas

Some of the placards read “Condemn Iqbal Athas’ media policy”, “Do not misuse media” “Iqbal Athas is only another media personnel”. The slogan shouting was more fiery. Though many could not pronounce Mr. Athas' name, they shouted epithets that he was a Tiger guerrilla accomplice and disclosed sensitive military information. All this after his personal security as well as the static guard outside his house were withdrawn in the aftermath of his disclosure of alleged corrupt practice in the MiG-27 procurement deal from Ukraine.

Defence Spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella declared the withdrawal of the security was done after "threat assessments were carried out."

Who was behind the new threats created for Mr. Athas by the noisy demonstrators? An investigation by The Sunday Times reveals an interesting story.

The main promoters were Upali Kodikara, a ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) member of the Western Provincial Council and his wife, Kanthi Kodikara, Chairman of the Maharagama Urban Council. Their supporters and a coterie of pro Government trade unionists from the Employees Trust Fund (ETF) at Narahenpita.

One of the women participants did not wish to be identified but agreed to speak to The Sunday Times on grounds of anonymity. Here is her story:

“…I and some others were informed there was going to be a meeting of the SLFP Kotte Women's League to be chaired by Mrs. Kodikara. It was to be held at their residence chaired by her. When we arrived there, we were bundled into a van and taken to the Wijerama Junction and told to take part in a protest.

SLFP’s trade union boss D.D. Kularatna posing as champions of "real journalists".

"At the Wijerama Junction some placards were given to us. We were told to hold them facing the road. We could not understand what it was all about. This is why some of us were unable to tell television interviewers why we were present and what we were doing. "

The popular ‘News First’ channel asked one of the participants what she was protesting about and she was heard asking another "what should I say, what should I say." She then replied "we are protesting against Althawoo..."

Minister’s statement untrue — Athas

The Sunday Times Consultant Editor and Defense Correspondent Iqbal Athas has denied claims by Non Cabinet rank Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena that he had refused to accept security provided by the government.

Mr. Abeywardena told two separate press conferences on Thursday and Friday that Mr. Athas had been offered instead of the STF security provided, but he had refused to accept the security.

Responding to the claim Mr. Athas said ‘at no stage has anyone offered me any security after my personal protection unit and the static guard outside my residence was withdrawn. This is another totally misleading statement’. Mr. Abeywardena said that anybody had right to protest at any location.

However last week university students protesting close to the Temple Trees were tear gassed and batton charged by the police.

A second person said they were protesting against "Althas" whilst a third added said it was a protest against Athawus. Some 15 persons had joined in from the ETF office. They included new recruits. EPF transport was provided to them.

Both Provincial Councillor Upali Kodikara and SLFP’s trade union boss at the ETF D.D. Kularatna denied they participated in the demonstration. But ‘The Sunday Times’ has obtained video footage showing Mr. Kularatna was present, posing together with others as champions of "real journalists".

Both Provincial Councillor Upali Kodikara and SLFP’s trade union boss at the ETF D.D. Kularatna denied they participated in the demonstration. But ‘The Sunday Times’ has obtained video footage showing Mr. Kularatna was present, posing together with others as champions of "real journalists".

Non Cabinet rank Media Minister and UNP pole vaulter, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, told a news conference that "anyone can protest anywhere, they can protest opposite the President's house or office...." He had probably forgotten that university students who staged a protest outside the University Grants Commission at Ward Place were tear- gassed and had water cannons fired at them.

Five local media organisations staged a 90 minute protest outside the Fort Railway Station on Thursday. The organisations were: the Free Media Movement (FMM), the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), the Muslim Media Forum (MMF) and the Federation of Media Employees Association (FMEA).

"what should I say, what should I say." this demonstrator asked when interviewed by MTV channel One

SLWJA National Organiser Ganasiri Koththigoda addressing the gathering said that the government had removed Mr. Athas’s security soon after he exposed corruption and this provided an opportunity for any person to harm him. He called on journalist to continue their campaign for the rights of journalists.

Mr. Sunanda Deshapriya representing the FMM said that it was questionable that Mr. Athas’s security had been removed at a time when he exposed the MiG deal. “The events are clear that investigative reporting on corruption is not being allowed”, he said.

Secretary of the FMEA Dharmasiri Lankapeli said that the crowd had gathered to oppose the threats posed to a reputed defense correspondent Mr. Athas and if the government was posing threats to journalists, all media personnel should rally round to bring pressure on the government.

"Anyone can protest anywhere, they can protest opposite the President's house or office...." says Minister Abeywardene, but University students found they would be tear gassed

More than 200 journalists representing print and the electronic media staged an hour-long protest chanting slogans and displaying placards. “Ensure the safety of journalist Athas”, “Athas threatened for exposing MiG 27 deal”, “MiG 27 dealers threaten Athas”, “Dollars for MiG rogues and death threats to journalists”, “Ensure Athas’s right to report right to life” were some of the placards carried by the protestors.

A large number of local and foreign journalist organizations too have made statements condemning the action to withdraw the security of Mr. Athas. Meanwhile on Tuesday, a man walked into the office of our sister newspaper, Lankadeepa and met the journalist who translates Mr. Athas’s Situation Report into Sinhala.

Identifying himself as a serving Air Force Officer at the reception, he met with the Journalist. The Lankadeepa journalist maintains that the man made no death threat to him, but what was said unnerved him sufficiently to give that impression to his Editor, to whom he had telephoned soon after.

Clearly the visitor had wanted a message conveyed to Mr. Athas; “He should leave the country, otherwise untoward things may happen”.

CPJ demands adequate security for Athas

A statement titled “Sri Lankan journalist, still in jeopardy, says government never offered protection” the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ is an independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide) condemned the withdrawal of security provided to The Sunday Times Defence Correspondent Iqbal Athas following his exposure of corrupt practices in the MiG deal.

The statement reads:
New York, August 31, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists remains concerned about the safety of Sri Lankan journalist Iqbal Athas, who has come under threat after writing an August 12 article about alleged government misconduct in the procurement of MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine.

Athas said that he has been harassed and followed by unknown people since then and that he fears for his life and for the safety of his wife and daughter.

Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, the government’s Non-Cabinet Media Minister, told a news conference in Colombo on Thursday that the Defence Ministry had offered police security for Athas’ house. He said the journalist declined the offer, insisting on a security detail from a unit known as the Special Task Force.

Abeywardena’s comments were cited widely in Sri Lankan media, including the English-language Daily Mirror. The journalist, interviewed by CPJ in Colombo, said the government made no such offer.

“Abeywardena’s claims are not true,” Athas told CPJ. “There has been no offer of protection of any kind and I still feel in jeopardy—even more so after the unruly demonstration outside of my house on Monday.” A rowdy pro-government crowd protested outside Athas’s house, accusing him of anti-government activity.

“The government’s assertion about offering police protection is not correct. The fact that a top official resorted to such a distortion makes this situation more worrisome,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s Executive Director. “The government should accept responsibility for the safety of Iqbal Athas just as they would for any other citizen.”

Athas is an award-winning journalist who specializes in defence issues. His investigative work has drawn prior threats, prompting the government to provide police protection. That protection was withdrawn two weeks ago—just after publication of Athas’ August 12 story about irregularities surrounding a 2006 deal to purchase MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine.On Tuesday, CPJ sent a letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and other members of the government, calling for the immediate restoration of adequate security to ensure Athas’ safety and that of his family. Athas, well-known for his columns in The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka, is a frequent contributor to international media outlets such as CNN, Jane’s Defense Weekly, and The Times of London.


IFJ condemns threat to Iqbal

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said they are s alarmed to learn of several recent threats to the security of a defence journalist Iqbal Athas after his exposure of a major arms deal with the Ukrainian Government. The IFJ views these threats as blatant attempts to silence this respected investigative journalist and discourage reporting on Government affairs

According to IFJ affiliates, including the Free Media Movement (FMM), a demonstration attended by more than 50 protesters and conducted in front of Athas’ Colombo home in Nugeoda, was allegedly led by government politicians who accused Athas of abusing freedom of expression and exposing national security issues.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in a letter to the Sri Lankan President, reports that a provincial politician of the ruling Sri Lankan Freedom Party, Upali Kodikara, was identified at the demonstration and is believed to have been involved in organising the protest.

The FMM further reports that the Provincial Editor of Wijeya Newspapers Ltd, who publish The Sunday Times, and Athas were threatened by a person claiming to be a retired Air Force officer who visited the office on August 27. He warned Mr. W.J. Gunaratne to refrain from re-publishing Sinhala translations of Athas’ report and left a threatening message for Athas stating he should leave the country or face the same fate as murdered Tamil journalists.

These latest threats follow the removal of Athas’ police security after his reporting of alleged corruption in Government defence contracts, which the IFJ warn will only reinforce a culture of censorship and secrecy in Sri Lanka."When the Government links the security of journalists to their reporting of Government affairs, all journalists must worry about their security", IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said.

The IFJ has been working with media organisations in Sri Lanka to help create a strong culture of watchdog journalism that can report on corruption and hold authorities to account. The IFJ says that despite the government insisting the media is free to report, the daily reality for many journalists in Sri Lanka, where six journalists and media workers have been killed in the last year and numerous reports of beatings and detention of journalists have been recorded, is one of fear and self-censorship.

The IFJ joins international and local organisations in their call for the Government to provide security for Athas and supports the joint protest to be conducted by five local media organisations on Thursday August 30.“There must be an end to all forms of interference and threats to media”, Park said.

“We applaud and support the solidarity and courage of Sri Lankan journalists who refuse to accept this kind of intimidation of media and political”, she said.


President and brother will be held responsible

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed concern about the safety The Sunday Times Defence Correspondent Iqbal Athas and urged European and US embassies to do their utmost to protect Athas.

"President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, will be held personally responsible by the journalist community for anything that happens to Iqbal Athas and his colleagues of the press group that publishes ‘The Sunday Times’ and ‘Lankadeepa’," the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

"This senior defence specialist has been the victim of several previous attacks and death threats and now finds himself again the target of some members of the government and the army. The head of state should order the speedy restoration of Iqbal Athas's security and an investigation should be launched to identify those behind latest threats against him and some of his colleagues," it said.

"The fact that the journalist has already stopped writing his defence column is already a setback for press freedom in Sri Lanka" it concluded.


FIJF — the world is watching…

The Fund for Independence of Journalism in a letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa states: “The Fund for Independence in Journalism is deeply concerned about the personal safety of distinguished journalist Iqbal Athas who is one of the world’s most respected reporters.

“He has been attacked and threatened in recent years, and properly under personal security protection. But following his investigative story into a 2006 deal to purchase fighter jets from Ukraine, the government removed this protection two weeks ago. And the threats, warnings and organized demonstrations against him and his newspaper have worsened in recent days”.

“As an organisation created to foster high quality investigative journalism in the United States and around the world, the Fund for Independence in Journalism believes - with the Committee to protect Journalists and others - that Iqbal Athas must be protected, his and his family’s safety safeguarded immediately. And there should be a credible investigation into the threats and intimidation.

“Threats and actual acts of violence against journalists are a sign to the world of the fragility of human rights and the general lack of civility, circumstances inhospitable to men and women of reason throughout the world.

“This situation and how the government of Sri Lanka is responding to it is being watched throughout the world, not just by journalists, but by governments, lending agencies, investors, travellers and others”.

In a separate letter to the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington Bernard Goonetilleke the FIFJ president said that they would appreciate if the police guard of The Sunday Times defence correspondent Iqbal Athas be reinstated as an immediate need.

In that letter the President of the Fund for Independence Journalism Charles Lewis says that the Fund was created to foster high quality investigative journalism in the U.S. and the world, and Iqbal Athas represents the highest ideals and traditions of free expression and serious journalism.

“He has written recently about irregularities surrounding a fighter jet deal with Ukraine, and very soon afterwards, his security detail was withdrawn by the Sri Lankan government. Serious threats to him and his employer have ensued in the days since then”, Lewis says in the letter. Further elaborating, the letter reads that many governments, multilateral institutions, investors and journalists throughout the world would see any kind of violence against Mr. Athas as a sign of deterioration and disregard for human rights in Sri Lanka


Once more, Athas fears for his life

The Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has written to President Mahinda Rajapaksa expressing concern about the threats to Mr. Athas. The letter signed by William Buzenberg Executive Director of the organization said;

“The Center for Public Integrity is deeply concerned about the grave threats made against veteran journalist Iqbal Athas, a highly respected member of the Center’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. ICIJ is the world’s foremost network of investigative reporters, with 100 members in 50 countries.

On Saturday August 18, 2007, Atha’s government-assigned security was abruptly removed after the Sunday Times published stories he authored about an arms deal between the governments of Sri Lanka and Ukraine. In addition, Athas says he has been followed and harassed by unknown individuals. On Monday, 50 people staged a protest outside of his home accusing Athas of endangering national security.

Also on Monday, a man who identified himself as a retired Air Force officer reportedly told journalists at the Sinhala-language newspaper Lankadeepa, which is published by the same group that owns The Sunday Times, not to translate Athas’s columns into Sinhala or face the consequences. He went on to say that if Athas didn’t stop writing and leave the country, he may face the fate of Tamil journalists killed by unknown gunmen.

This is not the first time that Athas has been threatened for his thorough and courageous investigative articles. In 1998, he and his 7-year-old daughter were held at gunpoint by Sri Lankan Air Force personnel who forcibly entered his home. In 2005, the government assigned Athas security guards after intelligence reports showed that he could be targeted by members of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Today, once more, Athas fears for his life and the safety of his family. As an organization created to foster high quality investigative journalism in the United States and around the world, the Center for Public Integrity joins many other groups in the United States and around the world to request that Iqbal Athas be protected, his and his family’s safety safeguarded immediately. We believe there should be an independent and credible investigation into the threats and intimidation he has endured in the past few days.

A free press is a symbol of a mature and robust government, one that doesn’t need to silence dissenting voices and hide uncomfortable truths in order to rule. It is our strongly held belief that Iqbal Athas and all other local and foreign journalists in Sri Lanka should be able to do their work in an environment of tolerance and respect, without fearing that they or their families be targeted in retaliation for what they have written.

Thank you for your attention to this very serious matter. Be assured that the international community, including governments, organizations and journalists, is looking carefully at Athas’s safety in your country.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.