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Monday 22 December  
Press is severely curtailed in Sri Lanka
International Justice Desk's picture
Jaffna, Netherlands
Jaffna, Netherlands

RNW team threatened in Sri Lanka

Published on : 21 July 2011 - 2:14pm | By International Justice Desk (Radio Netherlands)
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Sri Lanka’s reputation as an Indian Ocean paradise may hold true for determined holidaymakers, but for the sober-minded this image has been shattered in recent months.

First a damning UN report accused both sides in the country’s 30-year civil war of atrocities – a claim the current government refutes categorically.

Then in June British TV station Channel 4 broadcast a devastating account of the closing weeks of the conflict in 2009. At this time, the programme said, the Sri Lankan military systematically murdered thousands of civilians.

Colombo says the evidence is ‘fabricated’. Distinguishing truth from artifice is problematic in a country where the free press claims it is under constant threat. Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) sent a team to Sri Lanka to investigate.

Reporters with borders
In a new report the International Crisis Group says Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers "continue to repress the media and political opponents”. Other rights groups describe killings and disappearances of reporters alongside police impunity.

They also claim a widespread lack of press freedom, that the media does not tell it as it is, and that people are afraid to speak to reporters. Pressure is brought to bear on them with the use of armed men in white mini-vans, who kidnap or murder journalists. RNW’s team experienced that phenomenon first hand after a surprise roadside attack.

No visa
Few Western reporters have visited the former Tamil Tiger administered north and east of the country in the past year – journalist visas are not issued without months of bureaucratic delays.

Travelling from the relatively affluent capital Colombo, RNW’s two person team (who will remain anonymous for their safety, and that of the people they spoke to) saw how the further eastward one travels the poorer and more militarised the country becomes.

Entering on tourist visas to a former Tamil Tiger administered region, RNW spoke to locals on subjects as diverse as business, sport and the UN’s development role.

During one such conversation in a restaurant they were spied on and reported to the police, who later that night arrived at the hotel for a midnight interrogation. Ten police officers, including the Chief of Police, scared the team into leaving the region.

The following morning, on their way back to the well trodden tourist path, they were robbed and attacked at gunpoint by a gang in a white van.

Listen to their account of what happened. For security reasons, we have called them  'Olivia' and 'Philip'. They were speaking to RNW's Dheera Sujan. (Story continues below):


White van tactic
The intimidation of the ‘white van tactic' that Sri Lankan reporters had described now came sharply into focus.

“The police reaction is absurd, but it shows the fear of anything that, in their perception, might be connected to the Channel 4 programme or the UN investigation into war crimes”, Sanjana Hattotuwa from the independent Colombo-based media watchdog Groundviews told RNW.

“The government reaction is understandable because their stance has always been that there were no war crimes committed by their side – so they clamp down violently on anyone suggesting otherwise,” he added.

Leading the way
Raisa Wickrematunge from Sri Lanka’s most controversial newspaper, The Sunday Leader, believes the attack on Western journalists marks a new low.

"What is particularly shocking is the robbery that happened... Disappearances and things like this unfortunately still happen here. So in that sense it’s not really a first, but it’s quite shocking that they did this to foreign journalists, particularly the robbery."

Raisa is the niece of the Leader's outspoken and fearless former editor Lasantha Wickrematunge who was gunned down in 2009. The paper's Colombo newsroom is adorned with pictures of a smiling Wickrematunge, pen in hand.

Raisa joined the paper shortly after his murder, wanting to keep the memories and values of her uncle alive. "But after it happened, we decided we can't take that same hard line. Because the fact is that in the past people would attack us, now they would kill us."

Sri Lankan journalists self-censor to protect themselves. The current editor of the Sunday Leader Frederica Jansz explains why. "I don’t do this myself. I am willing to die for my job. But I understand that not everybody will do this."

Raisa says the fears are legitimate: "Many (reporters) … are taken in those white vans and they vanish. There are also cases documented where people were taken and abandoned later with their legs broken."

Mini-van, big trouble
The white van phenomenon is well-known to the Tamil diaspora. Donald Gnanakone, the president of pressure group Tamils for Justice, based in Los Angeles, told RNW: “You got white-vanned. This is a state-terrorist act’”.

Other reactions to the RNW experience confirm the likelihood of this being an example of state-sponsored press intimidation. A senior European diplomat working in Colombo, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “You can be sure this is the authorities sending you a message”.

Fear is the key
That a conversation can be overheard and misconstrued by informants, and then reported to the police is a story not commonly associated with South Asia.

Raisa Wickrematunge is pessimistic for the prospects of free speech in Sri Lanka'. "I don’t think that [objective journalism] is possible in this country. There are so many things you can’t write about."

"Even if you call people and say that you’re from the Sunday Leader, there is immediately this sense of fear, people don’t want to talk to you. We have to be very careful what we write about."


w l p waruna 16 August 2011 - 6:50am / sri lanka

Did you report the incident to the police? What was the outcome? were you the only foreigners on the bus? what did the other people on the bus do?

I will call you an out right liar, this incident never happened, you made it up. Can you prove that it did happen?

Whether the law is followed, not followed, abused is one thing. but as Foreign journalists with a relatively free licence to do what they want in Sri Lanka, and the resources to do it, it is your responsibility to explore all legal avenues and find the culprits.without following the correct procedure unfortunately your credibility is questionable. Just because you are ignorant of the procedures does not mean that there are none, it just means you are ignorant

One other point, in the audio track you say that Tamil people want their civil rights, that they want to be treated the same way as the Sinhala people are treated in the country.

Which civil rights do they not yet have?

Have you ever visited a poor village in Sri lanka? a rural place in Anuradapura or moneragala, and seen if they are treated as well as the Tamil people in the North?

Silva 6 December 2011 - 8:17am / Sri Lanka

Dear brother, you may not know the current situation today of your holy country. You and I proud of eliminating the LTTE. But today we trapped with 3 brothers, this is almost same as early.

We have to find a way for democracy in our country. I well aware this incident took place as they said.

This is state terrorist.

Anonymous 1 August 2011 - 4:01pm / Canada

In Sri Lanka, if everything is normal then why so much restriction for local Journalist first of all. You have no idea how many Tamils are being killed on a daily basis or disappeared in different part of Tamil concentrated areas. You don't know how the SL Gov. damaging the enrich culture of Tamils and spreading drugs, blue films and wineshops, which were transported and run by Gov. through SL army. I will say that more well planned murders, lot of young widow women have been converted as prostitudes, young Tamil men exposed to drugs, most of the small shop businesses have been run by only Muslims and army in civil. The original many shop owners have been threatened and challenged by prices in Jaffna.
I can say in another 10 yr time period the whole Sri Lanka will be forced to mix with Sinhalese and only one race will be there in that country. The Gov. planning this very deplomatically, doing this by manupulating with few Tamil name sake leaders and formed a young Tamil boys group to work against Tamils. (Those boys always under the supervision of army at the back/ white van etc.)
I will say that more Tamils live in much fear than before 2008. Yes, of course the war fear exsisted before and now Tamils have no voice and forced to live like a refugees in their own homeland.
Now the Tamils need a solution to 52 years of unrest against Tamil population and just not an investigation. Its all now in the hands of the western countries.

AP 1 August 2011 - 3:22am / Sri Lanka

This is a very interesting story nobody knows and nobody reported in this country so far. It's a laughing matter, indeed. the story itself is not impartial, it seems. the writers of the story ONLY contacted anti-government (extreme) 'paparazzi' newspaper for comments. also they have interviewed some NGO personnel and Pro-Tamil tiger organization. so, their views are obviously against the government and against the real situation here in Sri Lanka.

My question to RNW is, if government hunting all the anti-government elements in Sri Lanka, how these newspapers, NGOs and Pro-Tamil tiger groups are still exist in this country? Dear Editor, the truth is, there are thousand of NGOs operating in this country purely depending on some foreign money. they do have different agendas like media do. as you know already, every where in this world, media has its own agenda towards political power battle. After the government forces completely wiped-out tamil tiger terrorism, there were some under current to over throw the Sri Lankan government from the power. war crime allegations, intimidation against journalists, human right issues are some of these topic widely discussed among NGOs and anti-government faction here in Sri Lanka and overseas as well. Britain's channel 4 creates a fake video on war crime allegations against government forces. as far as i know, there was a civilian casualties in the last stage of the war. both Tamil tigers and government forces were responsible for this. specially, tamil tigers used civilians as a human shield to protect from the attacks of the government forces. actually, as you already aware, the terrorists always fought a very unconventional war. they have killed large number of innocent people in last 30 years in this country. our friends, relatives and neighbors were witnessed of their bombs and barbaric guerrilla attacks in the public places. economically country was ruined and our normal life was taken by these barbarians. that's why all the people, including Tamils given a mandate to this government to start a war against the tamil tigers and they achieved the target. still this government is favorite amongst the majority of the people even though they have very poor economic management policy. BUT they wins the war and people thrilled and happy with that.

it seems western media is bit worry about the defeat of terrorism in Sri Lanka. they have started a unconventional media war against Sri Lanka in recent past. Channel 4 started this and RNW also on-board now. when I reads your story I can find that you have completely forget the basic fundamentals and ethics in journalism which we learned at the same building of RNW in sometime back. No credible information, no balance reporting. anonymous journalists.. etc etc.. Is this the new way of news reporting practiced by the RNW? don't Loose your credibility RNW.

??? 1 August 2011 - 5:15pm

First of all I'd like to say, when thousands of civilians have died (who knows how many still are), it is no 'laughing matter'. Quite frankly, the only first hand opinion from Sri Lanka I ever hear about is the government and so I'm asking myself, 'Really? Is this it? Everyone is happy?'. Kudos to RNW for taking the initiative and revealing the other side of the story, a completely justifiable move. On another note during the war, there were evidently government run concentration camps. In which thousands of Tamil civilians died. Can you please explain to me how this serves as a 'human shield' to the Tamil Tigers? Moreover, the bombing, assasinations, and raping have all targeted Tamil civilians via military power. Under no means was this a 'human shield'. While the war may be over, the after math has substantial effects. Tons of people still mourn the death of their loved ones, and the injustice in their own country. Discrimination against the Tamil race, and language barriers are omnipresent and increasing in the country. This doesn't seem to fit the so called happy picture. On a final note, Channel 4 videos are undoubtely legitimate. A few months ago, a documentary was released, and has made its way to the international level.
In conclusion, Tamils will be targetted until the Tamil race vanishes in that country by each major Sinhalese political party.

Sujatha 29 July 2011 - 9:24am / Sri Lanka

This article seems to be a fabricated one to justify war-crime allegations against Sri Lanka and to promote anti-government forces. These so-called RNW journalists only interviews NGO based people and the anti-government newspaper in Sri Lanka. if press freedom is not there, how Sunday Leader newspaper itself functioning withing the territory of Sri Lanka. also. How Mr. Hattotuwa running his news website in Colombo. this is very poor quality journalism by RNW. biased and fabricated. I am a real fan of RNW website and didnt expect this kind of partial and biased reporting without facts. you will loose your credibilty. be vigilant

Anonymous 23 July 2011 - 4:34pm

Listening to the interview I got the impression that the lady is obviously too shaken by her experience and being inexperienced is biased while the gentleman had a more balanced view. It is obvious that the robbery would have been to take out any interview material, pictures or what ever than to rob or physically cause harm.

A few points. The LTTE carders now wouldn't mind at all an independent inquiry as their accountable leadership is all gone and only the govt. side could suffer any harmful consequences. To be reasonable the Northern and Eastern areas which were under the total control of the LTTE can not be just allowed to free wheel when you consider that there was no other leadership or social network after the LTTE destroyed every opposition to it. While it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi and a Sri Lankan President, nearly killed a second and many Sinhalese and Moslem leaders, it killed more Tamil leaders who opposed them. No government which had lost control and after all the sacrifices it also made could be expected to say "War is over and now control your areas."

Yes, the government has its fears of a resurgence of any violence. It is a fragile peace that exists right now as the island settles into normalcy. The Tamil Diaspora and many elements that supported the separate state feel humiliated in defeat and would like a distabilising of the situation towards gaining an independent state. They talk of Eritrea, Kosovo, E.Timor. The govt. is releasing rehabilitated former LTTE carders batch by batch depending on the level of involvement. Issues like the Ch 4 and other such only delay this process towards normalcy and becomes a distracter.

The Sinhalese and Moslems and the upcountry Tamils are firm that the islands has no place for a separate state. There are more Tamils living outside the North and East who live peacefully. The Tamils have sacrificed even basic needs in the areas in the 30 years that it was under LTTE control and the rest of the island terrible fear of attacks suicide and other. Most Sri Lankans even those who oppose the government are sick of Western double standards and ask why wasn't there any war crimes against Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan....?

What do we expect in just 2 years after 30 years of war? Allow it a little more time for fear and suspicion on both sides to ease. There are lots of people on both sides trying hard to build it and the government for its part is not by any means stalling things deliberately to keep these areas under tight military control for ever. After all just a month ago it even removed restrictions of free travel to the former conflict areas......

Birchmount 23 July 2011 - 4:11pm

How true .
Recently, one of the Sinhalese journalist in exile said 'Sri Lanka is a country built on the graveyards of my Tamil brothers and sisters.'

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