Muffled media

Published : Sep 21, 2007 00:00 IST

A fact-finding missions report highlights the poor state of press freedom in Sri Lanka, especially in the Jaffna peninsula.

in Colombo

IT was a gathering of over 250 journalists in a five-star hotel in Colombo on the evening of August 19, on the platform of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) representing all the eight countries of South Asia. They were animatedly discussing the draft of a resolution on Media, Peace and Poverty Alleviation. A delegate from Jaffna was not only baffled but amused at the concern of his colleagues for the order of punctuation marks and the nuances of some of the words used in the resolution.

Later, he confided to a group of Indian journalists in the hall that the whole exercise had little relevance. His colleagues in the battle zones of the east and the north of the island were confronted with so many grave problems that such resolutions, however well intended, made little sense to them.

He went on to add, to the disbelief of the Indian group, that the delegates from Jaffna had arrived on travel permits issued by the military, after getting the green signal from several agencies that they do not pose a threat to the security of the state. The permits were valid for a period of 10 days and were to be surrendered to the military authorities concerned in Jaffna on their return. It took the journalist over a week to get the clearance from the defence authorities though he was in possession of a national identity card, Government of Sri Lanka press accreditation tag and a separate identity issued by the local military authorities in Jaffna.

The situation could not have been more ironic, particularly in the context of the SAFMA conference. In contrast to the travails of the Jaffna delegate, most of his counterparts from the other seven countries had the benefit of availing themselves of the visa on arrival facility at the Colombo international airport. In fact, this benefit extends to citizens of several countries.

Was the journalist exaggerating the situation by projecting the extra caution taken by the military, in view of the war-like conditions in the north and the east, as proof of the perils faced by the media in the island? Certainly not, at least going by the fact-finding mission report of the International Press Freedom Mission to Sri Lanka released in August. It leaves little doubt that the disclosure of the Jaffna journalist was the tip of the iceberg.

Representatives of Reporters Without Borders and International Media Support, who visited Jaffna on June 20 and 21, assert in their report:

Since fighting resumed in 2006 between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil-populated Jaffna peninsula has become a nightmare for journalists, human rights activists and the civilian population in general.

Murders, kidnappings, threats and censorship have made Jaffna one of the worlds most dangerous places for journalists to work.

The mission report, titled Jaffnas media in the grip of terror, says at least seven media workers, including two journalists, have been killed in the peninsula since May 2006. One journalist is missing and at least three media outlets have been physically attacked. Dozens of journalists have fled the area or abandoned the profession. It laments that none of these incidents have been seriously investigated despite government promises and the existence of suspects. The report notes that since the attack on May 2 last year on the offices of Uthayan, Jaffna districts largest circulated daily, local journalists have lived and worked in fear. One paper shut down after its editor was murdered; now only three dailies are being published.

Newspapers have lost 90 per cent of their staff in the past year as young journalists and other staff have fled the business, often under pressure from their families. The paper Valampuri now has only five correspondents in t he district, down from 75 in August last year, says the report.

The editor of the newspaper told the mission that his publication carried more national and international news than local reports because the staff were afraid. We all know that a life is worth more than a news story, the mission quoted the editor as saying. The staff of Uthayan, with a circulation of over 5,000, are now down to three senior journalists and one young reporter. One of the journalists has not left the office for 13 months for fear of being gunned down t he moment he steps outside.

National and international media correspondents are steadily leaving the district or the country after getting death threats by phone or text-message. While the fact-finding mission was in Jaffna, the last full-time foreign media correspondent got a text-message and a call from a sat-phone saying it was his last warning before he was killed. He left Jaffna the next day, the report says.

It further says: The current reign of terror makes proper coverage of military operations and the situation of Tamil civilians impossible. Journalists are caught in the crossfire between the security forces, the paramilitaries and the LTTE and live in fear of reprisals for any article, commentary, photo or cartoon they produce. A cartoon making fun of the leader of the paramilitary EPDP [Eelam Peoples Democratic Party] group, Douglas Devananda, who is also a Cabinet Minister, appeared to have led to the murder of two employees of Uthayan in May 2006. The Minister and his party have vehemently denied any involvement in the killings and dubbed the charges as scurrilous.

The mission further notes that the press in Jaffna was also hit by a serious shortage of newsprint and ink between August 2006 and May this year and this stifled three newspapers. In August 2006, after fighting resumed, the government shut down the A9 road between Colombo and Jaffna that passes through LTTE-controlled territory on the plea that the Tigers were earning substantial revenue through levies on vehicles and goods that passed through the highway. Since then, Jaffna district has had to get its food and other supplies by air or sea.

The military at first refused to classify newsprint and ink as items needed in Jaffna. The dailies Uthayan, Yarl Thinakural and Valampuri were forced to reduce drastically the number of pages from 12 or eight to f our between December 2006 and April this year. The ban on newsprint was lifted on May 1 following international pressure; supplies from Colombo arrived by sea a few days later.

Closure of the A9 road badly hit distribution of national and local Tamil, Sinhalese and English language papers. The few on sale at newsstands were very expensive, sometimes 50 times dearer than in Colombo. More than two-thirds of Jaffna towns Internet cafs have closed over the past year because of the economic crisis and curfew, making access to online news more and more difficult for local people, the report says.

Tamilnet, widely seen as a pro-LTTE website, was blocked by Internet service providers on June 15 this year upon official pressure. Radio stations help ease this dearth of news, and the BBC World Service, relayed by the SLBC [Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation] state radio, is very popular. Colombos FM stations are also listened to but have little detailed news about Jaffna, bemoans the report.

The fact-finding mission says that pressure from the LTTE is more subtle, though just as effective. The separatist movement takes criticism badly and is always quick to move against dissident voices in the Tamil community, including the media, which means pro-EPDP journalists are often targeted. Two have been murdered in the past four years.

Not every journalist can afford to travel out of the peninsula even if he/she is armed with a military permit. Since the closure of the A9 highway, bus services have stood suspended. At the moment, there is no passenger ship service between Jaffna and Colombo. It is not always easy to find a place on the ship that plies from the peninsula to Trincomalee in the east. The two-way air fare from Colombo to Jaffna is Sri Lanka Rs.19,000 (one United States dollar fetches roughly Sri Lanka Rs.110).

Urging the government to allow a United Nations mission to come to Sri Lanka to protect human rights, the fact-finding report calls on all sides involved in the fighting to end threats to, and harassment of media workers, stop trying to restrict editorial freedom, end the public abuse of media outlets and journalists, and amend the emergency and some other laws that do not meet international standards of freedom of expression.

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