Sri Lanka: pro-democracy defenders and three media workers assaulted for covering ongoing unrest, their media outlet visitedEvent
- Sri Lanka
- Initial Date
- Jul 22, 2022
- Event Description
On the early morning of July 22, Sri Lankan security forces assaulted at least four members of the press, including three journalists with the privately owned digital news platform Xposure News, covering a military raid on a protest site and subsequent demonstration in Colombo, the capital, according to those journalists, who spoke with CPJ by phone.
Separately, police arrived at the Xposure News office on Wednesday, July 27, seeking three journalists who had covered protests for the outlet, those journalists said.
Protests have broken out throughout Sri Lanka amid an ongoing political and economic crisis; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country on July 13 and resigned the next day, and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the new president on July 21.
“The repeated attacks on journalists covering political unrest in Sri Lanka must come to an immediate end. The government must order security forces to cease detaining and harassing journalists covering the country’s political and economic crisis,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, in Madrid. “Authorities must thoroughly investigate these attacks, hold the perpetrators to account, and cease harassing the staff of Xposure News.”
At about 1:20 a.m. on July 22, Sri Lankan Army officers attacked Jareen Samuel, a camera operator and video editor with BBC News, while he was covering security forces’ raid on a protest camp in the Galle Face area of Colombo, according to multiple reports by the BBC and Samuel, who spoke to CPJ by phone.
Samuel told CPJ that he and members of his reporting team showed their press IDs and foreign accreditation cards to the officers, who then repeatedly slapped Samuel, pushed him to the ground, and kicked him several times in the abdomen. He said an officer also confiscated his phone, deleted videos from it, and then returned it.
Samuel was treated at a local hospital for an injury to his abdomen, he told CPJ.
Also early that morning, officers with the Sri Lankan Air Force attacked three journalists with Xposure News while they covered a protest in the Kollupitiya area of Colombo, according to a video of the incident published by Xposure News and the three journalists, who spoke to CPJ by phone.
Shortly before 3 a.m., officers first attacked Chaturanga Pradeep Kumara, a videographer, video editor, and researcher with the outlet, according to the journalist and that video. Kumara said an officer beat him on the legs with a baton, knocking him to the ground; when he could not get up, officers dragged him to a dark area nearby as he repeatedly identified himself as a journalist.
At that location, air force and army officers confiscated his phone and his personal and press ID cards, Kumara said. Officers deleted several videos from Kumara’s phone and ordered him to contort his body into positions used as punishment among members of the Sri Lankan Army; when the journalist was unable to put himself in those positions, he said the officers beat him with batons and then lined him up with other detainees and repeatedly slapped them across their ears.
After about three hours, officers returned Kumara’s phone and identification cards and released him, the journalist told CPJ, saying he received painkillers for a muscle injury to his leg at a local hospital.
Shortly after officers detained Kumara, Xposure News digital head Rasika Gunawardana and Shabeer Mohammed, a freelance journalist reporting for the outlet, were filming security forces allegedly attacking civilians when a group of air force officers surrounded them, ordered them to stop filming, and threw Mohammed’s phone to the ground, according that video of the incident and the two journalists. Gunawardena said that an officer then struck him on the head from behind with a baton, and Mohammed said officers hit him from behind on his neck.
Gunawardena and Mohammed received treatment at a local hospital for their injuries and were prescribed painkillers, they said.
The three Xposure News journalists told CPJ that they were unable to identify the officers who attacked them because they were not wearing badges and their faces were covered.
On July 27, two police officers visited Xposure News’ office in Colombo, and showed the building’s security guard photos of Kumara, Gunawardana, and Mohammed, according to the three journalists and a tweet by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, a local press freedom group. The officers asked whether the journalists worked there, and also asked the security guard to provide access to CCTV footage of the building, the three journalists told CPJ, adding that the guard refused their requests.
Sri Lanka police spokesperson Nihal Thalduwa did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment sent via messaging app. CPJ emailed Nalin Herat, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense, which oversees the army and air force, but did not receive any reply.
In the early hours on Friday, a massive joint operation by the military, police and special forces forcefully removed protestors sleeping in tents at a peaceful protest site established in Colombo in April this year. Protestors were beaten and assaulted. The area was blocked, preventing access to media, lawyers and activists. According to reports, more than 50 were injured and 9 people have been arrested.
At around 01:00 local time (19:30 GMT Thursday), the military and police armed with riot gear violently descended on the protest camps, indiscriminately beating and assaulting everyone and everything in their way, dismantling the tents in which protestors had been sleeping for over three months.
All access points to the protest site were blocked ahead of the raid. Eyewitness accounts and media reports say that the military attacked many protesters, especially those trying to film the developments. Soldiers broke apart ‘one tent after the other’ in the stretch leading to Presidential Secretariat and dismantled the protest site.
An eyewitness interviewed by Amnesty International early morning of Friday at the attack site recounted, “There were about 200-300 demonstrators at that time, I would say. Suddenly (the forces) came out from (behind) the barricades and totally destroyed and broke down the tents. There were enough police and military to swamp the area. The police and especially the army beat up peaceful protesters.”
“(The military) did these acts in anger. We saw some of the demonstrators engaged in (the protest) had brought their guitars. We saw them take those and smash it on iron fences. We saw them beat up people… The crackdown was brutal.” Video footage shared by media also show unarmed individuals/protesters being assaulted by security forces.
Eyewitness accounts suggest that the attack on protestors and their tents came as a complete surprise, even though there had been some rumours that there may be an attack. Protesters had been caught off-guard as they could not understand the reasons behind such an attack. There was no warning given to vacate the area by the military and police personnel before the use of brute force against the protestors.
Another female eyewitness, who had been asleep at the protest site when it was raided, told Amnesty International, “At around 1.30 a.m. there was shouting (from other protestors) saying ‘they have surrounded us, they have surrounded us, get up, get up.’ When I went outside, I saw a large group of army people coming towards us. Some of them had covered their faces so I don’t know who they are… There was no announcement… They hadn’t told (us) to move out. Suddenly, they had started hitting the tents around us. They hit the youth the same way they hit the tents.”
The newspaper The Hindu reported that around 3.00 a.m. as news of the attack spread, media and activists reached the spot but were denied access as raids were ongoing. A security personnel stationed on Galle Road leading to the protest site reportedly said, “No one can go. Not even the media or lawyers.”
A BBC video journalist was reportedly beaten by the military and his phone snatched by a solider and videos deleted.
Lawyers who sought to intervene in their professional capacity were also reportedly prevented from doing so by security forces. At least two were reportedly assaulted.
The security personnel aggressively dismantled protesters’ tents put up at the demonstration site, including those of the deaf and mute community and soldiers with disabilities who had been part of the peaceful protests since April.
‘I saw them hitting people on both sides and coming towards us. We ran the other way since they were chasing us… The deaf and mute demonstrators’ group had a very young translator with them. That group is usually in that area. No one knows what happened to them… no one could find them. At the ‘war heroes’ tent there was a small group of soldiers with disabilities, there were some monks in front as well… they had hit them also,” recounted an eyewitness to Amnesty International.
- Impact of Event
- Gender of HRD
- Other (e.g. undefined, organisation, community)
- Intimidation and Threats
- Violence (physical)
- Wounds and Injuries
- Rights Concerned
- Freedom of assembly
- Freedom of expression
- Right to healthy and safe environment
- Right to Protest
- Media Worker
- Pro-democracy defender
- Monitoring Status
- Event Location
- Event Location
- Summary for Publications
On 22 July 2022, a number of pro-democracy defenders and three media workers of the media outlet Xposure News were physically assaulted by the police while taking part in and covering the ongoing repression of the anti-government protests, and days after the media outlet was visited by the police in Colombo, Sri Lanka.