Careless talk warning issued in Sri Lanka, Friday 15 May 2009 23.39 BST

International staff working in Sri Lanka have been warned to avoid careless talk amid concern that the government in Colombo is going to extraordinary lengths to suppress dissent.

Staff received a notice from the European Union this week telling them to be careful when discussing the country’s conflict because the government had set up a hotline for the public to call if they heard people criticising the government or the security forces.

The warning followed the detention last week of three members of a Channel 4 News team, including the Asia correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, after a report contained allegations about the treatment of civilians in internment camps.

The notice, issued through the EU-Alert network, warned: “All staff, spouses and affiliated individuals should be aware that a local radio station issued a telephone number this morning for the general public to report any foreigners who are seen or heard criticising the government and/or security forces.

“Please be aware of your surroundings and who you are speaking to if discussing such subjects, even in the workplace but especially in hotels, restaurants, taxis, tuktuks and any other public place.”

The Sri Lankan government last night denied any knowledge of the hotline.

Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said he was unaware of the appeal and said people were free to say or write what they wanted. “Our prime aim is to rescue people,” he said. “What we are saying is that we are doing the right job to get people out of the area [the no-fire zone].”

The Channel 4 team was detained in police custody for nearly 10 hours before being deported. The three were asked to sign statements written for them by Sri Lankan authorities, but they refused.

The Sri Lankan Media Centre for National Security said the team had admitted they had “done something wrong”, an allegation denied by the news organisation.

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