Sri Lanka: attacks on free media put displaced civilians at risk

Attacks on journalists, relentless intimidation, and government-imposed restrictions on reporting threaten freedom of expression in Sri Lanka and jeopardize the safety and dignity of civilians displaced by war.

The Sri Lankan government actively obstructed reporting on the last stages of the recently concluded armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE – Tamil Tigers). Civilians were subjected to artillery attacks and both sides were accused of committing war crimes.

The government continues to deny journalists and media workers unrestricted access to hundreds and thousands of displaced people living in camps, hindering reporting on their war experiences and on conditions in the camps themselves.

At the same time, unprecedented levels of violence against media workers engaged in critical reporting has contributed to a climate of fear and self-censorship that has deprived the people of Sri Lanka of their right to information.

Sri Lankan press freedom advocates say that more than 30 people working for Sri Lankan media outlets have been killed since 2004. Many others have been abducted, assaulted or threatened for their war reporting. Newspapers have been seized and burned, newspaper offices have been vandalized and printing equipment destroyed.

Months after the war in Sri Lanka ended journalists and media workers are still facing murder, abduction, censorship and intimidation. The vast majority of victims were members of the minority Tamil community, but Sinhalese and Muslim journalists have also been killed. The perpetrators of many of these crimes have not been identified, let alone punished.

Sri Lankan journalist and human rights activist Sunanda Deshapriya says the government never recognized that journalists and media workers, (or through the media – the public) had a right to information, but for most of the conflict (which lasted from July 1983 until May 2009) journalists had “mechanisms” to get information.

However, pressure on Sri Lanka’s journalists escalated along with the intensity of the fighting, and during the last phase of war, said Mr. Deshapriya, from 2006 onwards, the government tightened restrictions, producing a number of statements saying that journalists were not even allowed to report casualty figures.

Journalists writing about the war without getting approval from the Media Centre for National Security put themselves at risk. “Killing journalists, threatening journalists, abductions, disappearances – all these things happened to journalists who would try and push the limits,” he said.

Threats and acts of harassment against journalists and the media have increased unabated in a prevailing culture of impunity, and have blunted reporting.

“If you read Sri Lankan newspapers, you still get the government version. Very rarely, you get a critical point of view,” said Sunanda Deshapriya.

“Everyone is self-censoring themselves  …some of them willingly because some of them really support the system – and some of them unwillingly. In Sri Lanka, there is no freedom of press.”

“Critical and dissenting voices are more or less silenced in Sri Lanka today.

“So even someone like me, who writes a column from abroad, I censor myself. I always see whether my column is going to offend the government, because they are going to attack me. You know, I have family back at home. So we all, to some extent, censor ourselves when writing about the situation.”

Sunanda Deshapriya  is a regular columnist for the weekly newspaper Ravaya. He has researched the media’s role in the Sri Lankan conflict and has presented papers at national and international media workshops. He has also written and lectured on the code of ethics for journalists in Sri Lanka.

But Sri Lankan journalists are not the only ones under pressure. Foreign correspondents have been denied visas or deported for stories that offended the government.

In July, Ravi Nessman, Sri Lanka Bureau Chief for the Associated Press was compelled to leave Sri Lanka after the government refused to renew his visa. Ravi Nessman reported extensively on civilian casualties in the government’s final assault against the LTTE.

He also broke the story of a government plan to detain hundreds of thousands of displaced people in camps for up to three years, and raised questions about the decision to block media access.

How has this restrictive media culture hurt civilians?

Sunanda Deshapriya recalls that not long ago, both the government and the Tamil Tigers were giving heavily distorted figures for the amount of people living in the war zone in areas under Tiger control:

“Access to information was blocked, and because of that what happened? Tigers said they have 400,000 people in Wanni.  That’s the Tiger number. Government said: there’s 120,000.

“And there was no independent verification, no journalists, no media was allowed. And government [was] asking people to come…they said ‘we are ready to welcome you.’ And, at the end, it turned out to be nearly 300,000 people.”

The government, said Mr Deshapriya, urged civilians from the war zone to flee into its territory, but its own agencies, relying on erroneous government figures, were unprepared for such vast numbers.

When the civilians arrived, “…there were no facilities. Still, after three months, after the war is over and people does not have even basic facilities [in the camps] because there was no freedom of information. Journalists could not report [on] how many people are there, what conditions they are living in,” he said.

This also meant that the international community could not effectively address the situation because there was no verification of facts.

With no independent verification, the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers were both able to use the world’s appetite for information as a means of promoting their own agendas.

The flow of information from the camps now consists mainly of information provided by relatives of those detained, of individual leaks from aid workers to journalists and of anonymous blog entries.

In almost all cases, those providing the information remain anonymous to avoid reprisals. As a result, the information finding its way out of the camps is often unreliable. This can only hurt the detained civilians.

“There has to be a system, there has to be free access,” said Sunanda Deshapriya.

Human rights violations

“Human rights violations of all types have the potential to be ignored by the authorities when access to the camps and their inhabitants is restricted,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka expert.

“Of particular concern is the potential for abuse against the most vulnerable people in the camps, those needing the most urgent protection such as unaccompanied minors, women, the elderly and people with disabilities.

“Exploitation of vulnerable individuals  by government forces has been a longstanding problem in conflict areas and among the displaced; social stigma and Sri Lanka’s pervasive culture of impunity further compound the problem.”