Colombo: A group of unidentified men attacked the office of a Tamil newspaper in Sri Lanka's former war zone on Wednesday, injuring several staffers and damaging equipment at the publication known for its government criticism.
The attack is the latest in a series of assaults and threats on the staff of the Uthayan newspaper in recent years. The newspaper is published in the Tamil language spoken by the ethnic minority Tamils and is widely circulated in the island's northern region, which was the stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels who fought the government during the nation's 25-year civil war.
Publisher E. Saravanapavan said the masked attackers entered the Uthayan's office in Kilinochchi around 4:30 am on Wednesday. Using poles, they assaulted the manager and staff, including delivery boys. Saravanapavan said three workers were hospitalized and two others had minor injuries.
The paper is published in the northern town of Jaffna and has an office in Kilinochchi, which was the de-facto capital of the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, who were fighting for a separate state for Tamils. The civil war ended in 2009 with government forces crushing the rebels.
Saravanapavan said the attack was launched when the newspapers were brought to the office for distribution and the attackers damaged the office's computers and a vehicle and two motorbikes used to distribute the paper.
Saravanapavan said he believed the attack was connected to articles the newspaper published criticizing a former paramilitary group and government forces stationed in the former war zone. Uthayan's staff has repeatedly faced threats and violence, the most serious in 2006 when gunmen stormed its offices and killed two staffers.
In January, a man delivering the newspaper in Jaffna was attacked and his motorbike was set on fire, while a journalist in the city was also threatened. Free Media Movement, a local media rights group, condemned the attack and demanded the government conduct an impartial investigation and arrest the culprits.
The group's secretary Sunil Jayasekara called the incident "a part of a regrettable trend of attacking the media" in the former war zone. He said efforts should be made to restore the lives devastated by the prolonged war and also to promote reconciliation.
"Instead what's happening here is threatening and attacking the free media and suppressing the people's right to access to information. This should be stopped," he said.
He said the authorities have failed to arrest and punish those responsible for previous attacks on the newspaper. "If the authorities continue to fail in punishing those responsible for the attacks on media, we will be compelled to believe that there is a government hand behind those attacks," he said.
Government spokesmen could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday. According to Amnesty International, at least 14 journalists and staff at news outlets have been killed by suspected government paramilitaries and rebels since the beginning of 2006. Others have been detained, tortured or have disappeared and 20 more have fled the country because of death threats, it said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said Sri Lanka was the fourth most dangerous country for journalists in 2010.