Gunmen opened fire and torched the office of the main Tamil newspaper in northern Sri Lanka on Saturday, police said, the latest in a string of attacks on the nation’s privately owned media.
Three men staged the pre-dawn arson attack on the Uthayan newspaper’s office and printing press in Jaffna, the main city in Sri Lanka’s former civil war zone in the north of the country, owner Eswarapatham Saravanapavan told AFP.
“Employees preparing to deliver the morning newspaper fled as the gunmen stormed in,” he said by telephone, adding there were no injuries but the printing press was destroyed.
Police said a senior officer was heading an investigation into the attack which occurred on the eve of the traditional Sinhala and Tamil New Year.
“The attackers opened fire and carried out the arson attack,” police spokesman Buddhika Siriwardena told AFP.
The newspaper owner, who is also an opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) legislator, said it was the second strike on the publication this month and added the assailants had to be from “either the government or para-militaries.
“Who else can carry firearms freely in Jaffna?” he asked.
Sri Lanka lifted emergency rule in 2011 after the military crushed Tamil separatists two years earlier following a decades-long ethnic civil war in the island nation of 20 million people.
But troops are still deployed in Jaffna, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Colombo, and other parts of the country to support the police.
There was no immediate comment from the government, but the military denied any involvement in the attack in a statement.
At the same time, military spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya also played down the damage caused to the printing press, saying it was “not excessive”.
The Uthayan strongly rejected the military’s assessment and released photographs of the fire damage.
The main opposition United National Party condemned the incident and said the government “must take full responsibility.”
“There must be freedom of expression in any civilised society,” the party added.
Another office of the Uthayan in Kilinochchi in the island’s north was torched last week (April 3) and “we asked for security from police”, Saravanapavan said.
The United States, which moved a censure motion against Sri Lanka at last month’s UN Human Rights Council over alleged rights abuses, said it was concerned by the attacks on the paper.
“We call upon the authorities to protect freedom of the media and conduct a credible investigation” to find the culprits, a US embassy spokesman said.
Some 17 journalists and media employees have been killed in Sri Lanka in the past decade and no-one has been brought to justice.
There is no formal press censorship but rights groups say journalists are selective of what they report in order to avoid attack.
Uthayan’s owner said five of his employees had died in attacks on the paper in the last eight years.
In February, a journalist for a privately owned weekly in the capital was shot and wounded by an unidentified gunman.
Saravanapavan said he now will make other printing arrangements for his paper serving Jaffna, which was once the cultural capital of the island’s ethnic Tamil minority and run as a de-facto separate state by the Tamil rebels.