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BBC Crew Forcibly Prevented From Speaking To Sri Lanka President

BBC’s James Robbins prevented from speaking to Rajapakse (Pic.BBC)

Freedom of the foreign media to cover events in Sri Lanka reached a new low on Wednesday. A BBC camera crew was physically restrainedby security personnel to prevent them getting close to the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, to ask him questions. The incident occurred at an event associated with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) which Sri Lanka is hosting between November 15 and 17. 

Heightened security appears to follow an incidenton Tuesday, when a journalist of UK’s Channel Four television asked Rajapakse a question as the latter was getting into his car after opening the Commonwealth Business Forum. Media culture in Sri Lanka discourages reporters questioning officials and politicians except at press conferences or with an appointment.
The occurrence reflects the growing culture of intolerance of criticism and impunity in Sri Lanka. The country is ranked 163rd among 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index with journalists killed, made to disappear, imprisoned and forced to flee overseas.
“Critical or opposition journalists continue to face intense intimidation in Sri Lanka. Our research shows that at least 26 journalists have gone into exilein the past five years, which is one of the highest rates in the world. And while work-related murders have declined since 2009, the slayings of nine journalists have gone unpunished over the past decade, which is one of the worst records of impunity in the world,” wrote Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urging Commonwealth leaders to press Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, to unshackle the media.
Meanwhile, on November 13, Channel Four journalists who were on their way to northern Sri Lanka where much of the fighting took place in 30-year civil war that ended in May 2009 were not allowed to enter the area to film. The train in which they were travelling was blocked by pro-government protestors.
“Hundreds surrounded the train and some boarded it, a witness said, adding that police made no attempt to clear the crowd. The Channel 4 television news team, which has previously reported on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, had to return to the capital Colombo…,” said Reutersquoting Channel Four and the local police.
Channel Four is particularly shunned by the Sri Lanka government for three documentaries it made on the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war known as ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ that show civilians caught up in savage combat between government troops and rebel LTTE fighters. Political and military leaders of the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE hierarchy are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The spotlight on Sri Lanka from CHOGM has also shone on Sri Lanka’s long history of suppressing media freedom. Among the victims is Prageeth Ekneligoda, a columnist and cartoonist who disappeared on the eve of the presidential election on January 26, 2010.
Prageeth’s wife Sandaya in a piece to The Independent UK wrote, “In Sri Lanka there is almost no independent media. What are journalists there allowed to write about? Peaceful elections, new initiatives to keep the streets clean, how well the government is doing and CHOGM.  When CHOGM comes to Sri Lanka there will only be positive stories for the visitors to read. Positive stories, smiling billboards and hidden secrets.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will raise human rights and media freedomissues with host Rajapakse. However Sri Lanka’s Media and Information Minister Kehiliya Rambukwella angrily dismissed the suggestion.
“The invitation to Prime Minister David Cameron was not based on that (raising human rights concerns).We are a sovereign nation. You think someone can just make a demand from Sri Lanka? We are not a colony. We are an independent state,” Rambukwella told the BBC.
However Cameron has said he would insist on taking up the issues with Rajapakse.
CHOGM that Colombo hoped would help its leaders consolidate their badly-eroding legitimacy at home has turned out to be PR nightmare both within Sri Lanka and overseas.

Media Watchdogs Urge CHOGM Leaders To Get Tough With Sri Lanka

Sandaya, wife disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda at protest

As Sri Lanka (ranked 162nd of 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders’ Media Freedom Index) prepares to hold the biennial Commonwealth Summit in capital Colombo, media freedom watchdogs are asking attending leaders to press the host government for answers for the country’s abysmal standards of media freedom including the murder and disappearance of journalists.

In a letter addressed to leaders of the Commonwealth, which is the 54-member group of Britain’s former colonies, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said, “We ask that in formal and private meetings with (Sri Lanka’s) President Rajapaksa, you urge him to ensure a credible, independent investigation into the cases of disappeared and murdered journalists, make the findings public, and efficiently prosecute the perpetrators in an effort to help reverse the pattern of impunity.”

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be held from November 15 to 17. Human rights violations have a long history in Sri Lanka. However they reached unprecedented heights in the final six months of a civil war fought between successive governments dominated by ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The six-month period that ended in May 2009 with the military defeat of the LTTE saw between 40,000 and 70,000 (some figures put it as high as 146,000) people killed. Responsibility for those deaths lie with government troops and the LTTE, both accused of perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The government of President Mahinda Rajapakse has not only refused to hold an independent investigation into the alleged war crimes, but is accused of continuing rights violations, including media freedom. This has led to strong protests being voiced against holding CHOGM in Colombo for basically three reasons: 1) it would be legitimising a leadership accused of war crimes; 2) it would be a grave violation of the Commonwealth principles; 3) Sri Lanka could use its position as the Chair of the Commonwealth in the next two years, to fend off an international investigation into war crimes. 
“Critical or opposition journalists continue to face intense intimidation in Sri Lanka. Our research shows that at least 26 journalists have gone into exilein the past five years, which is one of the highest rates in the world. And while work-related murders have declined since 2009, the slayings of nine journalists have gone unpunished over the past decade, which is one of the worst records of impunity in the world. […] At least one journalist has simply disappeared,” says CPJ.
Meanwhile in Britain, the controversy over the Royal Charter that would give Parliament some regulatory control over the media took a new turn in late October. The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) wrote to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth asking her not to sign the Royal Charter because it would affect Britain’s standing in the world as a liberal democracy and in the Commonwealth.
“If the UK moves to control the press through the force of law then it will have a terrifying knock-on effect throughout the Commonwealth and much of the developing world where Britain has a key leadership role.
“At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next month in Sri Lanka, the British Government – with The Prince of Wales as your representative – should be campaigning for the protection and expansion of free expression throughout the Commonwealth, not least in countries like Rwanda, Singapore and Sri Lanka itself, which persistently lag at the bottom of world press freedom indices alongside Syria and North Korea. Further, the British Government, which decriminalised defamation in 2009, should also take strong steps encouraging Commonwealth countries to repeal criminal defamation laws. But Britain will be in no position to do that if you have signed a Royal Charter which will be seized on by enemies of free speech everywhere eager to impose similar controls,” the letter said.
Despite uproar on media repression, Sri Lanka seemed in no mood to let up on controlling the media’s access to information during CHOGM. Although it demurring earlier, Sri Lankan authorities agreed to grant press accreditation to visiting journalists covering CHOGM, while reserving the right to deny visas. But while they agreed to allow journalists from Britain’s Channel Four, that produced three documentaries on war crimes in Sri Lanka known as ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,’ the government has denied visas to the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI). IBAHRI has jointly organised a meeting with Sri Lanka’s Bar Association on November 13 on the Commonwealth and the independence of the legal profession.
“By denying entry to the IBAHRI delegation the Government of Sri Lanka is demonstrating to the world its determination to block freedom of speech and independent discussion in the country, leaving the Commonwealth Heads cocooned and isolated. If the Commonwealth is to have any relevance in today’s world, it must act swiftly and decisively to ensure that Sri Lanka engages meaningfully with human rights,” said IBAHRI’sco-chair, Sternford Moyo.
In August this year UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai visited Sri Lanka. Coinciding with her visit, RSF and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), a group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, wrote an open letter to the High Commissioner highlighting deteriorating media freedom conditions in the country.
“As long as crimes against the media and its workforce go unpunished, while perpetrators feel safe with the implicit assurance of impunity, media freedom in Sri Lanka is facing a grave threat. We urge Navi Pillay to remind Sri Lanka’s leaders of their accountability in delivering justice,” said the RSF-JDSletter.

After Sri Lanka’s Detention of IFJ Activists, Fears of Bigger Crackdown on Journalists

Jacqui Park Jane Worthington (Pic RSF)

Two directors of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) were detained for entering Sri Lanka illegally as the country’s minister of information and the media accused them of “anti-government activity.” Meanwhile, IFJ’s affiliate in Sri Lanka, the Free Media Movement (FMM), used the incident to highlight media repression in the country and urge leaders of the Commonwealth who are due to hold its biannual Summit in Colombo in mid-November, to boycott the event because the Government’s suppression of the media violated Commonwealth principles.

IFJ’s Asia-Pacific Director Jacqui Park and Deputy Director Jane Worthington who were attending a media workshop jointly organised by FMM and IFJ were detained against their will on Tuesday, October 29 and not allowed to take their scheduled flight back to Australia, the next afternoon. They were however released later without charges and flew out on Friday, November 1.
“The IFJ believes this move by Sri Lankan officials is an attempt to intimidate and harass journalists inside and outside Sri Lanka to prevent reporting on the realities of life in Sri Lanka in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, CHOGM, which begins in Colombo on November 15,” the media watchdog said in statement.
The Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) said the two media freedom activists were “subjected to harassment by means of lengthy interrogation by defence and immigration officials and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for three days. Although they were accused of violating the visa regulations, the authorities have released them to fly out of the country without any charges.”
The CID officers had claimed that the two media freedom activists had violated immigration laws by arriving in Sri Lanka on tourist visas although they had attended the workshop. However, “a careful look at the detailed descriptions provided on the website of the SL Department of Immigration, would reveal that there is no special visa category for journalists. But if anyone travels to Sri Lanka as a reporter, they should obtain press accreditation, which has nothing to do with any particular visa category,” said RSF.
The Sidney Morning Herald reported “Any journalist coming to Sri Lanka has to obtain accreditation and these two had not done that,” said Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, “There are clear guidelines and those have not been followed so our authorities have the right to take action.” He also accused Park and Worthington of Anti-government activity, said the newspaper.
IFJ insisted, “According to the Sri Lankan Government-operated Electronic Travel Authorisation system website, attending workshops is not prohibited under the conditions of the Sri Lankan tourist visa. The IFJ is adamant that no breaches of visa conditions have occurred.”
The contents of Park’s laptop were apparently downloaded by sleuths said statements by both RSF and IFJ. Park was also shown a copy of a dossier of her 17 visits to Sri Lanka during over the past 15 years.
IFJ’s statement also highlighted its concern for the Sri Lankan media that has long been subject to media repression that places Sri Lanka in 162nd position of 179 countries in RSF’s Press Freedom Index 2013. It said, “The IFJ has grave concerns about the safety of media personnel inside Sri Lanka arising from this incident. The IFJ is also deeply concerned about the safety of media personnel in Sri Lanka over the long term, most immediately once international leaders leave the country after the CHOGM meeting ends on November 17.”
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) echoed IFJ’s concern of Sri Lankan journalists. “People close to the FMM say that surveillance has been stepped up, and its members are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward how best to protect themselves now and in the long term,” said Bob Dietz, coordinator of CPJ’s Asia Programme.
The CPJ statement goes on to say “The FMM might be harassed, but that hasn’t stopped them today from issuing an Open appeal to CHGOM :‘The FMM earnestly hope that delegates representing democratic traditions will raise the issue of freedom of expression rights in Sri Lanka in the appropriate forums and discussions during upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting…'”
Commonwealth leaders have come under pressure, much before the detention of Park and Worthington to boycott the Summit because of the country’s abysmal human rights record including allegations of war crimes in the civil war that ended in May 2009. As of the time of writing the only Commonwealth leader who has stated his intentions not to attend is Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper.