07/03/2009, 00.00
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Staff at Jaffna’s main newspaper receive death threats

by Melani Manel Perera
An unknown group calling itself the Tamil United Force to Safeguard the Country tells the Northern Province’s main newspaper to close down. The newspaper has been critical of the main Tamil parties backing President Rajapaksa.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Journalists and staff at Uthayan, the largest Tamil language paper published in the Jaffna Peninsula (northern Sri Lanka), have received death threats. A hitherto unknown group calling itself the Tamil United Force to Safeguard the Country sent the newspaper a warning demanding that all its employees resign by 30 June or they “will be subjected to the death penalty.”

At present Uthayan is operating under military protection but ““more than half of our staff have not come to work because of these threats,” managing director E. Saravanapavan said.

What happened to this newspaper is just another example of the working conditions under which journalists have to operate, with death threats a frequent experience across the country.

Freedom of the press is not the only issue that is making Uthayan’s predicament a topic of discussions and controversy among Sri Lankans.

The daily is the main paper to have survived in the Northern Province after the long years of civil war and has the widest circulation.

For many observers the paper has come to be the voice of the people of the north, whilst criticising Tamil parties that back President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government.

AsiaNews spoke to a number of people to vet the local opinion. Their names have been withheld to protect their identity since they are afraid of what might happen to them if their opinions became public. In some cases people even chose not to tell us their name.

“The Uthayan case is really disturbing,” said one, “because elections have been scheduled for Jaffna and Vavunyia and people need to know the various points of view. We have a democratic system and there should not be any differences between the north and the south.”

Threats to the newspapers and the pending elections in the Northern Province are major themes in what people have to say.

“It is all political games,” a man in Colombo said. “We should not forget the incident when the Jaffna Library was set on fire in 1981 (preceded and followed by Tamil-Sinhalese clashes which heralded the civil war two years later). We all know what happened to the country’s peace after that incident. We had to live with terror for more than 30 years. We should learn from it. Now we Sinhalese and the government should fully protect the rights of those who live in the north.”

For someone else “press freedom is under attack in our country. There are many associations, media organisations, politicians, journalists, human rights activists based in Colombo who can organise rallies, pickets and engage Satyagraha (in non-violence), but when something directly happens Tamils they do not want to come forward immediately. Today is the 2nd of July and no action has been taken yet on the ‘Uthayan’ issue. It is a great pity!”

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