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* Attorney General offers protection to exiled Sri Lankan journalists
Thu, Mar 11, 2010, 01:01 pm SL Time, ColomboPage News Desk, Sri Lanka.

Mar 11, Colombo: Sri Lankan Attorney General Mohan Peiris has told a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Wednesday (10) that he was prepared to offer protection to any journalist who returns to the country from exile.

"Speaking for myself, and I'm fairly sure the government will back me up on this, there is no question that the government needs our journalists," Peiris told the delegation in his office.

"They must come back and work with us and help set up the structures so that we can work together and we can respect each other. We must work with these institutions because we need them. We know if they stay outside and attack the government that is not useful," he said.

When asked if the government would ensure their safety, Peiris said, "Of course, if they come back, there must be assurance on our part that they won't come to any harm." He stated to CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney and Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz.

The meeting came near the end of a series of discussions CPJ had with Sri Lankan journalists in Colombo and Jaffna to assess the situation for reporters following presidential elections in January and before April's parliamentary voting.

The January voting resulted in a landslide victory for incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Post-election disputes saw the arrest of the chief opposition candidate, former General Sarath Fonseka, who is being held as the government prepares charges against him and many of his supporters.

"The Attorney General's appeal to journalists to return from exile is just a first step," said Mahoney. "The government must go further by taking concrete action to address the climate of impunity and intimidation that prompted them to flee in the first place."

Sri Lankan journalists have told CPJ about growing harassment from the government. Sri Lankan journalism is noted for its high degree of partisanship, and most media sided clearly with either Rajapaksa or Fonseka. State media heavily favored the incumbent, and staff at some state-owned media protested the violation of neutrality. Independent media chose to back one candidate, with few remaining neutral.

"Many journalists with whom we met in Colombo are very open about their fears of retribution from the government after the presidential elections, and they worry about what will come after the parliamentary elections in April," Dietz said.

"Attacks, threats, and disappearances have led many of them to consider leaving the country, and many others already have. Attorney General Peiris should extend a promise of protection to those who are still in the country as well as those who are in exile," Dietz noted.

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