With its palm-lined beaches, colonial tea estates, and plenty of world heritage sites, Sri Lanka is a tourist paradise. The Lonely Planet guide ranked the island the number one travel destination in the world for 2013.
But four years after the end of a bloody civil war that pitted the Sri Lankan army against Tamil separatists, there are periodic reminders of threats to democratic liberties.
One came last weekend, when armed men stormed the press of Uthayan, a Tamil newspaper that had recently been critical of the army taking over land in the country’s Tamil-majority north. It’s unclear who was behind the attack. The military has denied any role.
“We condemn the attack. It’s the latest in a series of attacks against Uthayan and against the media in general,” a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Colombo told India Real Time, “We remain concerned about threats to freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.”
Mohan Samaranayake, a spokesman for Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, said the attack is being investigated. “The government is committed to press freedom and freedom of expression,” he said.
Uthayan has been targeted as many as 37 times, according to Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, including a brutal assault on an editor two years ago.
Uthayan isn’t alone.
In 2009, leading Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge was ambushed by four masked gunmen and shot dead. Mr. Wickrematunge, the former editor of the weekly Sunday Leader, was one of the most vocal critics of restrictions on press freedom in Sri Lanka.
“Much of the media has been bought, or cajoled and bullied into silence. Dozens of journalists are dead and others have been incarcerated without trial for months,” said Mr. Wickrematunge, who was also a freelance reporter for TIME magazine.
More recently, in February, Sunday Leader reporter Faraz Shauketaly was shot by unidentified men near his home in Colombo, the BBC reported. He survived.
The attack on Mr. Shauketaly, who holds dual Sri Lankan-British citizenship, prompted strong reactions from London.
“There has been a range of attacks in Sri Lanka on journalists, civil society organizations and others in recent years. To date, too many incidents have had little investigation and no resolution,” U.K. Foreign Office Minister Alastair Burt said in a statement.
The attacks and the failure to bring perpetrators to justice has over time bred self-censorship, say observers in Sri Lanka and abroad.
“If you attack a journalist, you are likely going to get away with it – that’s the message,” said Fred Carver, director of Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, a London-based rights group.
“While there is little outright censorship, there’s a real climate of fear that makes it very difficult to be critical of the government,” added Mr. Carver, who says the Tamil press has been especially targeted.
Since the Sri Lankan army defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009, there’s been slow progress toward reconciliation between the country’s Sinhalese majority and its Tamil minority.
Last month, the U.S. backed a harsh United Nations resolution on Sri Lanka that called on the government “to conduct an independent and credible investigation” of alleged crimes that have targeted Tamils. The resolution singled out recurring reports of media intimidation.
In March, the BBC’s World Service suspended BBC broadcasts on the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation, alleging “targeted interferences” in their Tamil-language programming.
For some, press intimidation is part of a broader erosion of democratic freedoms. “There is a feeling that our liberties have been reduced these days,” a Sri Lanka-based lawyer said. “There is a lot of fear here,” he added.
Sri Lanka consistently ranks close to the bottom of the press freedom index, compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit group.
In 2013, Sri Lanka was 162nd out of 179 countries on the index, one place above Saudi Arabia and significantly lower than any other country in South Asia, including Afghanistan (128), India (140), Bangladesh (144) and Pakistan (159.)
Follow Margherita Stancati and India Real Time @margheritavs and @indiarealtime.