Sri Lankan mob holds 3 journalists captive for 5 hours
New York, August 30, 2023—Sri Lankan authorities must investigate the recent harassment of freelance Tamil journalists Selvakumar Nilanthan, Valasingham Krishnakumar, and Antony Christopher Christiraj and hold the perpetrators responsible, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.
Around 12:30 p.m. on August 22, approximately 50 Sinhalese men led by a Buddhist monk surrounded vehicles holding the three journalists after they reported on alleged state-backed encroachments on Tamil cattle farmers’ land in the Mylathamadu area of the eastern district of Batticaloa, according to news reports, the rights group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, and the three journalists, who spoke to CPJ.
The men—some armed with knives and swords—moved the three journalists and around 17 others, including farmers and members of an accompanying interfaith group, to an open area and held them in the presence of officers from a local government development authority.
Although the interfaith group leaders immediately called the police, officers only arrived five hours later, after Tamil lawmakers raised the issue on the parliament floor.
As of August 30, police have not opened an investigation into the incident, the three journalists told CPJ. CPJ’s messages to the officer-in-charge of the Karadiyanaru Police Station, which oversees Mylathamadu, and Sri Lankan police spokesperson Nihal Thalduwa did not receive any replies.
“Sri Lankan authorities must thoroughly and impartially investigate the recent harassment of Selvakumar Nilanthan, Valasingham Krishnakumar, and Antony Christopher Christiraj by a mob in Batticaloa, and work to end the pattern of impunity relating to attacks on Tamil reporters,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director. “Tamil journalists have a right to report on issues affecting their community without interference or fear of reprisal.”
Ethnic tensions persist between the Sinhalese people, the country’s majority ethnic group, and Tamils following the country’s 26-year civil war that ended in 2009.
Nilanthan, secretary of the Batticaloa District Tamil Journalists Association, was wearing a press jacket and reporting for the privately owned U.K.-based broadcaster IBC Tamil. While he was held, several of the men forced him to delete photos and videos of farmers’ testimonies and the mob setting fire to the land.
He said they also forced him to sign two letters in Sinhala and Tamil stating that he would not report on the incident.
Christiraj, a freelance reporter, and Krishnakumar, a freelancer and the head of the Batticaloa District Tamil Journalists Association, were not wearing press jackets, hid their cameras, and did not inform the mob that they were reporters, they told CPJ.
When Christiraj and Krishnakumar later told police at the scene that they were members of the press, the Buddhist monk asked a police official to order all three journalists to delete their photos and videos, the reporters told CPJ, adding that the official did not comply with the request.
Members of the mob also pressured Krishnakumar to delete photos and videos after learning he was a journalist, which he refused to do, he said.
Although the mob assaulted a Hindu priest, the three journalists were not physically harmed, they told CPJ, adding that they felt traumatized and feared for their safety if they continued to report on the farmers’ plight.
In November 2020, police questioned Nilanthan at his home after reporting on Tamil farmers’ concerns following the growth of military-backed Sinhalese settlements in the district, including Mylathamadu.