IFJ Condemns Vilification of Lawyers for Sri Lankan Newspaper

(July 14, 2009) The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is shocked at a recent article posted on the website of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence, branding as “traitors” five lawyers appearing in a case of contempt involving the Sunday Leader newspaper.

The article, titled “Traitors in Black Coats Flocked Together”, names five lawyers who appeared for the Sunday Leader at a hearing in the Mount Lavinia court near Colombo as having “a history of appearing for and defending” separatist guerillas of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The article features pictures of three of the lawyers.

“We have observed in recent times that this manner of public vilification of individuals for being supposed sympathisers of the LTTE has often provoked physical attacks on them by vigilante groups,” IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said.

“The IFJ calls upon the Sri Lankan President to publicly repudiate the sentiment expressed in the article and ensure that it is removed from the official website of the Defence Ministry.”

The Sunday Leader, edited by Lasantha Wickramatunge until his murder in January, has for long been locked in a defamation case brought by Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse.

After Wickramatunge’s murder, the newspaper agreed during a hearing of the case that it would not publish material similar to that which had brought the action against it.

The contempt case that the Sunday Leader now faces reportedly involves another report involving the Defence Secretary, though on a different subject.

“It is a principle of natural justice that the newspaper should be able to seek sound advice and be represented by competent legal counsel in this case,” White said.

The IFJ stands by the strong stand taken by its affiliate, the Free Media Movement (FMM), and other professional bodies in Sri Lanka on the matter.

“We urge Sri Lanka’s President to turn the page on the bitterness of the long civil war against the LTTE and actively seek to restore the freedoms that have deteriorated alarmingly in recent years.”
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