By: Mark Fitzgerald
Born in 1982, Selvarajah Rajivarnam didn’t live to see today, May 3, World Press Freedom Day 2007.
Instead, his family buried the young reporter for a Tamil-language newspaper April 30 on the beautiful and violent and appropriately tear-shaped island of Sri Lanka.
Rajivarnam died the way too many journalists die in Sri Lanka and Colombia and Pakistan and Mexico and other nations with warm climates and cold-hearted enemies of the press. Someone on a motorcycle passed by him, pausing only long enough to shoot him dead.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says on April 29 Rajivarnam was riding his bike in the northern city of Jaffna. He might have been on his way to work or just leaving. It’s not clear.
But when he was murdered, when the Doppler effect of the motorcycle arriving and departed was silent to the living like the dead, Rajivarnam was close to the offices of Uthayan, the daily that had employed him for the past six months.
So he missed this 14th anniversary of the proclamation of World Press Freedom Day by the United Nations General Assembly. Unesco, the UN agency that organizes the annual event, chose a particularly apt theme for 2007, which follows one of the bloodiest years for journalists in modern memory: “Press Freedom, Safety of Journalists, and Impunity.”
But Rajivarnam’s murder actually did fall on an anniversary — in fact, two anniversaries.
Selvarajah Rajivarnam was chosen to die to mark the first anniversary of the murder of two other Uthayan journalists. And he also fell dead from his bike on the second anniversary of the murder of Tamilnet.com editor Sivaram Dharmeratnam.
“The people who murder journalists in Sri Lanka feel so well protected that they carry out fresh murders to mark the anniversaries of their preceding ones,” RSF said.
Rajivarnam was killed in an area secured by the army. Jaffna journalists tell RSF they suspect the pro-government militia known as EPDP has struck against a journalist — again. EPDP’s beef against Uthayan is that it supports Tamil nationalism, RSF reports. If the suspicions are correct, Rajivarnam is the fourth Uthayan journalist assassinated by EPDP.
Censorship by murder is a global phenomenon, and an increasing one, free-press organizations agree. Their count of the dead might vary, their judgment of its effect does not. For the murder, the disappearances, the violence comes on top of efforts by even supposedly democratic governments to intimidate, co-opt, muzzle the press.
It works. Mexican reporters fear to write about the cocaine cartels. Russian reporters shy away from covering allegations of government human right abuses. Haitian journalists no longer report on partisan street gangs. And anything that can even vaguely be described as an independent news organization has disappeared from the Horn of Africa.
And those are just a few examples.
Earlier this week, Freedom House — estimating that just 18% of the people alive today live in a place with a free press — concluded liberty of the press is on the wane, and that it is not only we journalists who should mourn that doleful fact.
“The fact that press freedom is in retreat is a deeply troubling sign that democracy itself will come under further assault in critical parts of the world, ” Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor said.
As part of World Press Freedom Day, Unesco honors a courageous journalist with an award named for Guillermo Cano, the editor of the Bogota, Colombia newspaper El Espectador murdered on orders of the Medellin cocaine boss Pablo Escobar.
This year’s recipient is Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who kept reporting on human rights abuses in the war in Chechnya despite the ever-louder death threats and the near-complete climate of self-censorship in the nation’s media.
We don’t know — for sure, anyway — who killed Anna Politkovskaya last Oct. 7 outside her apartment door.
But we know why.
We know who killed Hrant Dink on an Istanbul street last January. And we know why. Like Selvarajah Rajivarnam, a Tamil in Sri Lanka, Dink wrote for a newspaper in a minority language, Armenian, in a nation suspicious of its biggest minority.
The global media reported that Dink was killed by an extremist individual, another lone nut, as we say here in America. And that’s true as far as it goes.
But Dink was also murdered in a country that accused him of breaking the law by “insulting Turkishness.”
“Other murders of journalists elsewhere have not attracted as much attention,” as Dink and Politskayava, International PEN notes dryly, “but they too serve to warn others against reporting on sensitive issues.”
In his short career, Selvarajah Rajivarnam witnessed first-hand — and then experienced — censorship by murder in all its horror.
Just before joining Uthayan, RSF tell us, he worked for the newspaper Namathu Eelanadu, another newspaper with a Tamil nationalist bent. Its managing editor, Sinnathamby Sivamaharajah, was murdered last August.
Before that, Rajivarnam wrote for the daily Yarl Thinakural. One of its journalists, Subramaniam Ramachandran, disappeared in February, and hasn’t been seen since.
Confronted with the murder of Selvarajah Rajivarnam and, by RSF’s count so far this year, the murder of a dozen other journalists and four of the “media assistants” so necessary to their work — interpreters, drivers, guides — an understandable feeling of helplessness paralyzes those of us in the relatively coddled nations with a free press.
What, really, can we do?
The answer is, say their names.
Tell the stories of their murders. Demand the capture of their killers, and especially of the evil men who ordered their killing. Protest impunity. Report. And raise hell like journalists always should.
But most important, say the names of the dead, the imprisoned, the threatened, the censored.
Print the names. Broadcast them. Post them.
Because that’s what they most fear, the enemies of the press: the death squads of the right and left, the dictators, the corrupt cops and bureaucrats, the drug cartels, the poachers, and the smugglers.
They fear truth. A light shone. Their sins told. THEIR names named.
That’s why they murder not only journalists who make a big noise in their countries, the ones we in the U.S. might actually hear about, like Anna Politkovskaya or Hrant Dink — but why they also assassinate that radio talk show host deep in the interior of Colombia who reports on a corruption in a municipality you’ve never heard of, and on a low -powered station listened to, so we might think, by nobody.
This profound dread is why a predator of the press ordered the murder of a 25-year-old riding his bike. A cub reporter, really. Someone, RSF tells us, who was still taking journalism classes at night.
His name was Selvarajah Rajivarnam.