Iqbal Athas

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Iqbal Athas
Born c. 1944
Nationality Sri Lankan
Occupation journalist
Organization Sunday Times
Jane's Defence Weekly
CNN
Known for reporting on armed forces
Awards International Press Freedom Award (1994)

Iqbal Athas (born c. 1944[1]) is a Sri Lankan journalist. He is a defence columnist for the Sunday Times, and he also contributes to Jane's Defence Weekly, CNN, and the Times of London.[2] He was threatened for his investigative reporting which uncovered scandals in the purchase of the arms by Sri Lankan Defence personnel, particularly the Sri Lankan Airforce.[3][4] He has won several international journalism awards for his work, and in 2000, the New York Times described him as "the country's leading military correspondent."[1]

1998 attack[edit]

In 1997 and '98, Athas wrote a series of articles for the Sunday Times detailing the disappearance of 70,000 mortar shells purchased by the Sri Lankan government from Zimbabwe Defense Industries. The shells first appeared to have been hijacked by the rebel group Tamil Tigers, but experts later concluded the communique allegedly from the Tigers had been faked. For his reporting, Athas was "erbally and physically attacked by both Government officials and thugs".[5]

In 1998, Athas wrote another series of articles on irregularities in aircraft purchases by the Air Force. That year, a group of armed men entered his home, threatened Athas's wife and seven-year-old daughter, and held an automatic pistol to Athas's head.[1][6] The government then ordered protective security placed around Athas's home, which would remain until 2007.[7]

In 2002, two Air Force officers were convicted of having participated in the attack, and were sentenced to nine years' imprisonment apiece. The judge stated, "'In a democratic country like Sri Lanka, newspapers have a right to expose the corruption of anyone. If crime is used to suppress it, then stern action should be taken."[6] Athas praised the verdict, but also called for investigations into unsolved attacks on other journalists.[8]

2005 Official Secrets Act threat[edit]

On 26 July 2005, President Chandrika Kumaratunga told a meeting of 1,000 military officials that he was considering charging Athas under the Official Secrets Act after Athas wrote a column describing the purchase of a British logistics landing craft as a waste of money. The law carried a maximum charge of fourteen years' imprisonment. The Committee to Protect Journalists protested the remark, stating, "We're appalled by these threatening remarks against our colleague Iqbal Athas who is being targeted for doing his job as a journalist by promoting debate on matters of public interest."[9]

Reporting on MiG purchase[edit]

In two articles in August 2007, Athas reported on the purchase of second-hand MiG-27 jet fighters from Ukraine, suggesting that the deal had been corrupt. The first, on 12 August, was titled "MiGs loaded with millions in mega frauds; The Sunday Times investigation reveals shocking double-deals and wheeler-dealings; While Lanka remains hush-hush, Ukraine Govt. orders full probe".[10] Athas traced the purchase to "Belimissa Holdings", a company ostensibly based in the UK but not listed in the UK Company Register.[11]

After the report, his security was withdrawn by the government,[10][12] leading Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists to issue statements of concern for his safety.[7][2] A protest was held outside Athas' house on 27 August by government supporters, which RSF described as a "parody of a demonstration, clearly organised by the authorities and putting Athas in serious danger."[7] The Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association criticised it as "systematic intimidation".[11] W. G. Gunaratne, a journalist who translated Athas's articles into Sinhala for the newspaper Lankadeepa, also reportedly received a death threat from an Air Force officer.[7]

The Parliament of Sri Lanka later launched a probe into the purchase.[11] Athas went briefly into hiding before resurfacing and promising not to write again about the issue.[13]

Awards[edit]

In 1994, Athas was awarded the International Press Freedom Award of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which recognises journalists who show courage in defending press freedom despite facing attacks, threats, or imprisonment.[14] In 2007, he received the Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award for his work with a CNN team covering the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.[15]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Celia W. Dugger (11 May 2000). "Joining Sri Lanka's Sword: Might of Censor's Pen". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012. 
  2. ^ a b "Sri Lankan journalist, still in jeopardy, says government never offered protection". The Committee to Protect Journalists. 31 August 2007. Archived from the original on 19 August 2012. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  3. ^ "Sri Lanka journalist threatened". BBC News. 18 February 1998. [dead link]
  4. ^ "Iqbal Athas threatened to be killed at Wijaya Newspapers". Lanka enews. 28 August 2007. Archived from the original on 19 August 2012. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  5. ^ Raymond Bonner (23 August 2012). "Tamil Guerrillas in Sri Lanka: Deadly and Armed to the Teeth". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012. 
  6. ^ a b Celia W. Dugger (8 February 2002). "Sentence For Threat To Newsman". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c d "Life of Journalist Iqbal Athas in Danger After His Revelations About Purchase of Ukrainian MIGs". Reporters Without Borders. 29 August 2007. Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012. 
  8. ^ "Sri Lankan air force officers jailed". BBC News. 7 February 2002. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  9. ^ "CPJ alarmed by Sri Lankan president's comments against senior journalist". The Committee to Protect Journalists. 3 August 2005. Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012. 
  10. ^ a b "Concern over journalist's safety". The Hindu. 30 August 2007. Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012. 
  11. ^ a b c "'Restore' Iqbal Athas' security". BBC News. 28 August 2007. Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012. 
  12. ^ Iqbal Athas (19 August 2007). "MiG deal: More twists, turns and threats". The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 19 August 2012. Retrieved 19 August 2012. 
  13. ^ Nanda Wickramasinghe (8 October 2007). "Sri Lankan government silences journalist over defence corruption scandal". wsws.org. Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012. 
  14. ^ "Journalists Receive 1996 Press Freedom Awards". Committee to Protect Journalists. Archived from the original on 11 August 2012. Retrieved 11 August 2012. 
  15. ^ "Athas wins prestigious award". The Sunday Times. 19 August 2007. Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012.