UNITED NATIONS - Sri Lanka, which is fighting a longstanding insurgency against Tamil separatists, is fast gaining notoriety as "one of the world's worst places" both for journalists and humanitarian aid workers -- due primarily to a rising death toll and veiled threats from government and paramilitary forces in the country.
At least four international non-governmental organisations monitoring the media -- the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Press Institute, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) and the International Federation of Journalists -- have singled out Sri Lanka as "deadly" for journalists.
"Journalists have been victims of murders, threats, kidnappings and censorship," said RSF in a report released last week.
An RSF fact-finding team specifically zeroed in on "the isolated, Tamil-populated Jaffna peninsula" where there have been "grave press freedom violations".
In 2006, described as "the most savage year for journalists and news media workers", the most dangerous place was Iraq where 46 newsmen were killed, followed by the Philippines (10), Mexico (seven), Sri Lanka (five) and Pakistan (four).
Last week, the consulting editor at the Sri Lanka Sunday Times, Iqbal Athas, was threatened and harassed for a series of articles he wrote detailing a corruption-ridden multi-million-dollar government deal involving the purchase of fighter planes from Ukraine.
Recounting the latest incident, Athas told IPS that a person purporting to be a retired Air Force officer walked into the Wijeya Newspapers Ltd., the publishers of the Sunday Times and several other publications in the native language Sinhala, and threatened the staff.
The visitor met the English-to-Sinhala translator, W.D. Gunaratne, and warned him not to translate any of Athas's articles into the local language newspaper (which has a larger readership than English language newspapers in Sri Lanka).
"He warned Gunaratne he would have to face the consequences if that happened," said Athas, who is also a military correspondent for the London-based Jane's Defence Weekly.
The visitor also warned that if Athas "does not give up his job and leave Sri Lanka within three months", he would meet the same fate that befell Tamil journalists, most of whom were killed by "unknown gunmen".
The Committee to Protect Journalists' Abi Wright told IPS that her organisation "is alarmed by the grave threats facing veteran journalist Iqbal Athas, who has come under extraordinary pressures following his investigations into irregularities surrounding a 2006 deal to purchase MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine".
She said Athas has already told CPJ that over the past two weeks-- when his security detail was abruptly withdrawn by the government after the publication of his articles about the deal-- he has been harassed and followed by unknown persons. She said Athas fears for his life and for the safety of his family.
"CPJ calls on the Sri Lankan government to act immediately to provide adequate security and ensure the safety of Iqbal Athas," Wright added.
She said that Athas is well-known as the defence columnist for the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka and a frequent contributor to international media outlets, including Cable News Network, Jane's Defence Weekly and the Times of London. He also received CPJs International Press Freedom Award in 1994.
Wright said CPJ will be sending a letter of protest to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse later this week.
The Colombo-based Free Media Movement (FMM) has already expressed its "grave concern regarding the safety and security of senior English language journalist Mr. Iqbal Athas."
"As senior Defence columnist for the Sunday Times, in the past months, Mr. Athas has been responsible for a series of articles on the irregularities in procurement of MIG aircraft for the security forces, from a company based in Ukraine," FMM said in a statement released Monday.
Referring to the continued threats to Athas and his family, FMM said: "In a context in which there have been repeated attacks and harassment of journalists and media persons in Sri Lanka in the past months, the Free Media Movement is convinced that there is a very real basis for Mr. Athas fears regarding his security."
"We call on the president, as minister of defence, to take all steps necessary to provide Mr. Athas with adequate security immediately. Failure to do so will only provide yet another indication of the lack of concern on the part of the government for the safety and security of media personnel in Sri Lanka."
Meanwhile, after a recent visit to Sri Lanka, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs described the Indian Ocean island nation as "one of the most dangerous places" for aid workers, second only to Afghanistan.
Addressing a meeting of the Security Council in June, John Holmes said that in 2006, 24 aid workers were killed in Sri Lanka, including 17 from Action Contre Le Faim, "in a single horrifying act."
The perpetrators of these and similar attacks -- including the killing of two Red Cross workers in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and the murder of a Caritas International aid worker in Darfur, Sudan -- "are yet to be brought to account," Holmes said.
He said that civilians are too often deliberately targeted to create a climate of fear and to destabilise populations.
Holmes also pointed out that countries as far apart as Sri Lanka and Colombia were experiencing assassinations, disappearances and other violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law.
"In Sri Lanka, over 600,000 inhabitants of the Jaffna peninsula have faced shortages of basic necessities since August of last year when the government and the LTTE restricted access to the peninsula by road and by sea respectively," Holmes continued.
Implying Sri Lanka was virtually culpable of war crimes, he added: "Killing humanitarian staff and arbitrarily denying access violates international humanitarian law."
Ambassador John McNee of Canada placed Sri Lanka in the company of Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, northern Uganda, Lebanon and Somalia as countries that have failed to provide protection to civilians in war zones.
"Girls and boys are recruited as combatants; civilians become unwitting targets of suicide bombers; families are displaced from their homes; sexual violence is a deliberate weapon of war; and civilian infrastructure and economies are often shattered," McNee said.
The consequences of these actions play themselves out daily, he pointed out, in countries ranging from Sudan and Afghanistan to Somalia and Sri Lanka. (IPS/Thalif Deen)