How I was barred from reporting Tamil Tiger conflict
Jeremy Page, South Asia Correspondent( Timesonline)
The Sri Lankan immigration officer’s eyes narrowed as soon as she swiped my passport at Colombo’s international airport last week.
“Come this way,” she said, leading me into a side room, where a colleague typed my details into a computer. A message flashed up on his screen: “DO NOT ALLOW TO ENTER THE COUNTRY”.
With that, my passport was confiscated, I was escorted to an airport detention room, locked up for the night, and deported the next day.
I can’t say I was surprised – although it was my first deportation in 12 years of reporting from China, the former Soviet Union and South Asia.
Despite multiple applications, I’ve been denied a journalist’s visa for Sri Lanka since August – making it impossible to report first-hand on the Government’s military campaign against the Tamil Tigers.
For almost two years, the Government has prevented most independent reporters from getting anywhere near the fighting, taking only a hand-picked few on day trips arranged by the army since January.
So I was trying to enter as a tourist (you can usually get a visa on arrival) to write about the 150,000 civilians the UN estimates are trapped in a no-fire zone with the remnants of the Tigers.
For the record, other countries where foreign journalists regularly have to pose as tourists include Zimbabwe, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Burma.
I know why I’m blacklisted: the Government thinks, or pretends to think, that I support the Tigers. That is nonsense. I have no personal connection to either side of this 26-year civil war.
I have repeatedly reported that the Tigers are banned in the EU, US and India as a terrorist group that uses civilians as human shields, forcibly recruits children and has killed thousands of innocent people.
But I have also reported criticism of the Government’s strategy and tactics from ethnic Tamils and Sinhalese – mostly MPs, academics, aid workers, and former government officials.
This is what journalists do in a democracy – and even in more authoritarian states.
I regularly interview members of the Taleban in Afghanistan. In Russia, I reported on both sides of the Chechen conflict. In China, I interviewed dissidents and Tibetan independence activists.
To do the equivalent in Sri Lanka, however, is not only forbidden: it is highly dangerous if you are a local reporter.
The last time I visited (on a tourist visa after another failed application for a journalist’s one), it was to write about Lasantha Wickrematunge, a Sri Lankan newspaper editor who was murdered in January.
He left behind a partly-written obituary in which he accused the Government of assassinating him because of his criticism of the war.
The Government denies this, but has yet to catch those who murdered him – or the 14 other media workers killed in Sri Lanka since 2006.
Another story that annoyed the Government was about its plan to keep all Tamils fleeing the fighting in camps run by the army and ringed by barbed wire for up to three years.
I sought reaction – as any reporter should – from representatives of the Tamil community (and one MEP with an interest in Sri Lanka), several of whom likened the plans to concentration camps.
The Government responded by denouncing me personally at a news conference (although it later toned down its plans following protests from the UN).
But the most surreal response came in a letter from Rajiva Wijesinha, the head of the Government’s Peace Secretariat, who accused me of sensationalising the use of barbed wire in the camps.
“Unfortunately, a man from a cold climate does not realize that, in the sub-continent, barbed wire is the most common material to establish secure boundaries, to permit ventilation as well as views,” he wrote.