Amos Roberts | March 23, 2009
THE sign on the army spokesman’s wall rang the first alarm bells.
Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara had pinned his statement of faith to a map used to brief journalists visiting Sri Lanka: “It’s the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press,” it began. It went on to say the soldier, not politicians, “ensures our right to Life, Freedom and the Pursuit of Happiness”.
I was recently in Sri Lanka to report on the final stages of a civil war that has been raging for a quarter of a century.
As I write, 200,000 civilians are caught between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers.
Unfortunately, it became a story about the difficulty of reporting at all and, in the case of local journalists, about its perils.
For the foreign correspondent, everything in Sri Lanka begins and ends with the armed forces: where one can travel; what one can film; even to whom one can speak. And dealing with the military is like travelling through the looking glass, although a blunter analogy would be with George Orwell’s 1984.
They lie brazenly and the lies aren’t even credible.
The UN may tell you that at least 2000 civilians have been killed in fighting since January, but Sri Lanka’s Secretary of Defence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, says there are none.
Absolutely none. “If you want to believe me, believe me, no civilian casualties.
“We have taken all the precautions to avoid civilian casualties … The world has to appreciate this, if somebody doesn’t appreciate this — bad luck,” he told me.
When I arrived in Colombo I knew it would be impossible to access the battleground, but I hadn’t appreciated how much of the country had become a no-go zone for journalists.
Without special permission from the Ministry of Defence, you can’t even visit Vavuniya, a town in the north where civilians fleeing the conflict are being brought and which has never been in rebel hands.
The army also told me I couldn’t visit wounded civilians in the eastern town of Trincomalee, “because that’s the way we want it. Simple answer.” A visiting crew from Al Jazeera complained about travelling around Sri Lanka only to film soldiers putting their hands over the camera lens.
Eventually, the army invited about 50 frustrated reporters on a day trip to one of the “welfare villages” where displaced Tamil civilians are being settled outside Vavuniya.
Although it’s surrounded by razor wire and soldiers prevent anyone from entering or leaving, the army would have you believe that no one is actually being detained. We were told we could wander freely and speak to whomever we liked.
But soldiers wandered with us and some people said they’d been instructed not to speak to the foreigners.
I did get permission to travel to Jaffna after I told the Defence Secretary I wanted to interview a government minister there. In addition to a permit from the Ministry of Defence, I required authorisation for every piece of equipment I carried, right down to my AA batteries.
It takes a full day to get there — an hour’s flying time and a seven-hour security nightmare. Air force personnel search every passenger and tear apart every piece of luggage. They were particularly suspicious of my swimming goggles. I was interviewed and photographed by what appeared to be military intelligence. I arrived in Jaffna on a bus with curtains drawn across the windows — and was reprimanded for peeking.
But if it’s difficult to report in Sri Lanka as a foreigner, it can be deadly for the locals — especially if you’re brave enough to criticise, or even question the armed forces.
One of Sri Lanka’s best-known newspaper editors, Lasantha Wickrematunga (who had permanent residency in Australia), was gunned down on his way to work earlier this year. Before his assassination he wrote a remarkable editorial predicting his own death, “Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all these categories, and now especially the last.”
In Jaffna, I filmed two Tamil journalists who’ve lived in their newspaper’s office since armed gunmen attacked it in May, 2006. Two of their staff were killed.
They know their own lives are at risk if they venture out.
Jaffna itself, which is itself under strict military curfew, is described as an open prison; so, as one of the office-bound journalists explained: “We are within another prison.”
Their editor, Vithyatharan, is one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent Tamil journalists.
Nine of his staff have been killed in the past three years, but he does his best to protect those who remain. None of the articles in his newspapers carry a byline — if the police or army ask him who wrote a particular article he confesses: “I did. I wrote them all. I take full responsibility.”
When the boys delivering his papers were beaten up he hired old men in the hope that they would be safer.
But Vithyatharan himself was abducted in Colombo last month, just a day after I filmed him.
After being whisked away in a white van his family was relieved when he turned up alive and in police custody a few hours later.
But this respected journalist has now been accused of co-ordinating the recent plane attacks on the capital.
When I asked the Defence Secretary whether the army should be immune from criticism he explained, “Of course, why should you criticise when you’re engaged in a justifiable war that has popular support?”
Media freedom, he insisted, was an indulgence Sri Lanka could ill afford, “You have no love for this country … but Sri Lankan journalists … should act responsibly because it is our country.
Protecting the country is much more important, not these two words — ‘free media’.”
Amos Roberts is a reporter on SBS’s Dateline. His story from Sri Lanka can be found at www.sbs.com.au/dateline