In a portrait of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a leading press freedom organization Reporters without Borders calls ‘Gotabaya as Predator.’
PRESIDENT OF THE DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST REPUBLIC OF SRI LANKA SINCE 18 NOVEMBER 2019,
DEFENCE MINISTER FROM 2005 TO 2015,
PREDATOR SINCE 2005.
Sri Lanka, 127th/180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
PREDATORY METHOD: DEATH SQUADS
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election as president in November 2019 returned Sri Lanka to the darkest hours of its recent history. A retired army lieutenant-colonel, “Gota” was defence minister while his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was president from 2005 to 2015, the so-called “dark decade” during which the military finally crushed the Tamil armed separatists by dint of a great deal of bloodshed, ending the decades-old civil war in 2009.
It was during his time as defence minister that Gota acquired another surname – “Terminator.” He owes this distinction to his role as overseer of a death squad known as the “white van commando” because of the vehicles it used to kidnap and torture journalists, and in some cases execute them, on his orders.
As was to be expected, his accession to the presidency re-awakened old demons, especially as he reappointed himself as defence minister and appointed his brother, the former president, as prime minister. Warrants for the arrest of journalists have been issued, media outlets have been raided and searched, ploys have been used to disinform, and death threats have been made. Much of the Sri Lankan press is now censoring itself, either because of what Gota did in the past or what he is doing now as president
FAVOURITE TARGETS: JOURNALISTS WHO DARE TO DO THEIR JOB, THOSE COVERING SENSITIVE SUBJECTS
Many Sri Lankan journalists now face a terrible dilemma. Do they do their job or do they avoid putting their lives in danger? They have to live with the ghosts of so many colleagues who were murdered while, at the same time, the impunity for crimes of violence against journalists committed on Gota’s orders continues to be total. According to RSF’s tally, at least 14 journalists were murdered or went missing while he was defence minister. Around 20 others fled the country after being tortured or receiving death threats.
Against this background, investigative reporting on such sensitive issues as the plight of the Tamil minority or Sri Lanka’s Muslim community seems extremely dangerous. Those who dare are exposed to two dangers. One is judicial, the probability that the police will come with warrants for their arrest. The other is physical, the probability that they will receive death threats, which the police will refuse to register if they try to file a complaint. Either way, terror is back.
OFFICIAL DISCOURSE: CALLS FOR MURDER, AND TO FORGET
“You pig that eats shit! You shit shit dirty fucking journalists! People will kill you!” (In an interview in July 2012).
“Do not dwell in the past. I want to become Sri Lanka’s future president. So, it’s better that you focus on the future.” (During the presidential election campaign in October 2019).