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Sri Lanka Pressures Asian Countries Against Screening No Fire Zone

October 7, 2013
No Fire Zone

As it confronts mounting international criticism against perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Sri Lanka government is pressuring Asian countries against screening a British documentary that human rights activists say includes footage providing evidence for the crimes. Channel Four’s ‘No Fire Zone,’ has become an embarrassment to Colombo as it prepares to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November and tries to thwart moves that could establish an international investigation to probe war crimes through a UN Human Rights Council vote in Mach 2014.

On October 3, organisers of the film festival and competition, Film South Asia (FSA), complained that Nepali authorities acting on Sri Lanka’s instigation had banned the screening of ‘No Fire Zone,’ and two other films – ‘Broken’ and ‘Story of One’ – at the festival. On July 3, again acting at the behest of Colombo, Malaysian government officials broke up a private screening of ‘No Fire Zone’ and arrested three members of the human rights organisation KOMAS.
No Fire Zone, the latest of the ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ trilogy directed by Callum McRae for the British television broadcaster Channel Four, relates the horrors of the final few months of the civil war in Sri Lanka that ended in May 2009 with the military defeat of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It cost 70,000 lives. The three documentaries includes some of footage allegedly taken by Sri Lankan government soldiers on camera phones as they executed prisoners in cold blood and of piles of dead bodies, including women that show signs of sexual abuse. They also contain material of harrowing scenes of civilians targeted by shelling and aerial bombardment, as well as of refugees that includes the 12-year-old younger son of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran lying dead, apparently shot at close range.
Reporting the action taken by Nepali authorities to prevent screening of the three films, the Indian news website Business Standard said, “According to Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati of FSA, the organisers received the orders from Nepal’s ministry of information to stop the screening, but no reasons were given for the move.”
These sentiments were echoed by a story in the Hindustan Times: “‘FSA protests this unwarranted intrusion into the cultural sphere, an action that goes against the freedom of expression and the right of documentary filmmakers to exhibit their work,’ stated Kanak Mani Dixit, chair of Film Southasia in a release.”
The Hindustan Times also quoted the documentary’ director McRae saying, “Once again the Sri Lankan government has shown its true colours.”
The Business Standard said however that the three films would be screened before a private audience on Saturday, September 5 and would remain in the competition. The report goes on to say “FSA is a biennial film festival that has been taking place in Kathmandu since 2007 with a goal to popularise documentaries so that they entertain, inform and changes live.”
While FSA screening the three banned films on Saturday for private audiences went on without incident, the same arrangements in Kuala Lampur did not help the organisers of No Fire Zone’s screening. They are being charged in a court of law for contravening the Film Censorship Act.
On July 3, a private screening before an invited audience of No Fire Zone was co-organised by Pusat KOMAS, the Malaysian human rights NGO and KL & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Civil Right Committee. Before the event the organisers received a fax from the Sri Lankan High Commission in Kuala Lampur asking it not be screened and accusing the organisers of supporting terrorism, said a Malaysian news website FMT.
The screening was disrupted midway by Malaysian officials of the home ministry and the police. Although they were persuaded to let the film continue, all members of the audience leaving the hall had their identity papers scrutinised. KOMAS, says in a press release, “This is a clear abuse of power as it was not necessary for them to harass the audience who had just come to watch the movie.”
Three KOMAS representatives: Anna Har, on the NGO’s board of directors, Arul Prakkash, the executive director, and Lena Hendry, KOMAS’ programme officer, were taken later that evening to a police station to have their statement recorded and subjected to a gruelling interrogation. It was only midway during the interrogation were they informed they were under arrest. “We believe the manner in which our arrests were made is also against police procedures which require the police to inform a person if he/she is being arrested,” KOMAS said.
The three were finally released on bail at 2.00 a.m. the next morning after being charged under the Film Censorship Act, which prohibits screening films without prior approval by the censors. However KOMAS stated that although officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs had called on July 1 requesting the film not be screened, Lena Hendry had clarified the position of the NGO that, “the screening is a private screening and invitation was by invitation only.”
Although told to appear in court on August 6, the appearance was postponed to September 19.  On the 19th Hendry was charged under Film Censorship Act but it unclear whether others were too.  “[to] ridiculously proceed with this travesty of justice by the charging of Lena Hendry is evident of the KDN and the AG Chambers’ bully tactics and total disregard of universal human rights principles and worse of all, the Malaysian Constitution,” reported MSN.
Due to rising protests by human rights activists and the public, No Fire Zone was rescreened on July 25, this time organised by the Lawyers for Liberty. The screening was private with invitations to LfL’s members posted on Facebook.
The screening in Kuala Lampur was part of a global tour by McRae to promote No Fire Zone sponsored by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
Malaysian NGOs condemned the action by the Home Ministry and the police.
“We would like to ask the Malaysian government especially the Ministry of Home Affairs, who is actually in charge of our country? The Sri Lankan government?” scoffs KOMAS in its press release. 
Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.