For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
By Namini Wijedasa
It is true that Sri Lanka has rarely been a model of transparency. Still, what conceivable reason could there have been for preventing foreign media from covering public hearings of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission held earlier this month in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu?
If the long-suffering Tamils that gave evidence before the LLRC at these two venues are to be deprived of having their story heard by those who want to hear it, have any lessons been learnt at all?
‘Incarceration’ of information
In post-LTTE Sri Lanka, archaic laws are repeatedly invoked throughout the government sector to prevent essential information from reaching voters. Take a recent example – President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to New York. Ideally, journalists should not have to beg for information about this luxurious pilgrimage (as it has transpired to be for most).
How many were on the president’s delegation; what business did each have to be on that delegation; where were they accommodated; was a flight chartered to fly them there or did they take the cheapest travel options; how long would they stay there; and, crucially, how much does the visit cost the tax-paying public. But none of this information is volunteered while raising these questions does not get a journalist anywhere.
In the absence of a vibrant opposition, we are left to depend on disgruntled persons within the government apparatus to leak the facts. And spiralling state control of the public sector may soon put an end to such ‘impudence’.
During the difficult period of the conflict, all manner of information was withheld from the public on the pretext of it being “sensitive” and “harmful” to either the war effort or the country. In many cases, it was neither.
After the war, vast categories of information continue to be controlled. The overriding concern appears to be that the release of such information will cause voters to disfavour the government and must therefore be religiously hidden. For example, it remains impossible to obtain accurate data about public expenditure and state deals or contracts.
But some of the government’s actions in this regard simply make no sense. Take the repeated confiscation of The Economist by customs authorities each time it publishes a story on Sri Lanka that may seem critical of the Rajapaksa regime. Customs sends it for approval to the Department of Government Information and it is, more often than not, released to the public albeit late.
Two issues of The Economist, however, never made it to the market this year. The May 20th newspaper contained an article called ‘Putting the Raj in Rajapaksa’ that described how President Rajapaksa had put himself in control of 78 government institutions following the UPFA victory in parliamentary elections. “Reconciliation takes a back seat as a band of brothers settles in,” it said. The May 27th edition published an editorial titled ‘Don’t ban Ban’ that said foreigners should press Sri Lanka’s government to accept a UN inquiry into the war.
The confiscation of the newspaper was reported by major international news organisations. The last time this happened (when customs delayed distribution over an editorial that criticised the passing of the 18th Amendment) the story even made its way into the daily press briefing at the UN headquarters in New York.
If anything, it is unnecessary — indeed, nonsensical — to detain a print edition of an international magazine when the content that the government finds objectionable has already been disseminated via the internet. Each time The Economist is confiscated, the sensitive content is more widely circulated through email, read on internet sites and debated.
None of the articles or editorials contains anything the Sri Lankan public don’t already know. It is doubly ridiculous therefore to hear Keheliya Rambukwella, government spokesman, say: “Sri Lanka has no official censorship but any material that comes to the country triggers a threat in terms of national security and the country’s sovereignty may be held for a couple of days. That is the government policy.”
In the end, this pointless exercise only leads to extensive negative publicity for the government despite most detained issues being eventually released.
North still taboo
Then, there is this question of permission to cover the north of Sri Lanka. This is particularly irksome to foreign journalists or to journalists working for foreign news organisations based in Sri Lanka. Reporters from local media institutions do not seem to face the constraints they do.
From conversations with a variety of journalists attached to international media (both here and abroad), it was learnt that authorisation is still required for anything beyond Omanthai. Once an application is lodged, the modus operandi is to give the applicants such a run around that they either quit or agree to rare chaperoned tours. The latter come complete with a pre-arranged programme and handpicked interview candidates. Even in this post-war era, the government refuses to entertain anything but propaganda.
Travel to Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi or any other part of the north for the purpose of reporting needs defence ministry consent. Even a simple story on de-mining would require permission. One visiting journalist found that defence ministry approval was necessary for a story about fishing off the east coast. Another asked permission to cover elections in April and gave up after deducing that the okay would never come.
And the BBC discovered in early September that the defence ministry would not grant it authorisation to cover public hearings of the LLRC in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. Another leading international newspaper tried for several weeks to obtain defence ministry permission for the same event but was sent from pillar to post before cancelling its intended visit.
This is not only bizarre — given that these were public hearings — it is a gross injustice to the innocent Tamils that gave evidence before the commission. Deliberately blocked from the process, international media were forced to scavenge for scraps of information from local newspapers.
The LLRC was intended to be an exercise in accountability artfully designed to keep the international community at bay. The government should have encouraged the participation of foreign media in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. Instead, the authorities ran scared. Apprehension over information that northern Tamils may hold seems to guide media policy even now.
Not that there is any declared media policy. Reporters are merely left with the bitter emotion that they are being sent around in circles. There is a general feeling, especially among visiting journalists, of not knowing what needs permission, who grants permission or what the set way is of applying for permission. “We were never turned down,” said one reporter, asking to remain anonymous. “Our requests were held up and we went back and forth.”
There is no published list of areas to which travel would require defence ministry permission. Would, for instance, a reporting job in Mannar need prior approval? Could you go to Batticaloa and film freely? Are all areas of Trincomalee open to foreign journalists? “You could be turned back at any point and there is nobody to take responsibility,” said another reporter, also on condition of anonymity.
A visiting Japanese photographer was turned down permission in August to use the A9 road for travel to Jaffna. He tried his luck on public transport, was detected at Omanthai and turned back. He returned to the Media Centre for National Security and applied for permission. He was told he couldn’t travel through Wanni but could fly to Jaffna. He ended up being escorted around the peninsula.
So, what stories in the north are taboo to foreign journalists and why? Writers and photographers recently taken by the Central Bank to an official event in Kilinochchi were prohibited from taking any photographs between Vavuniya and Kilinochchi.
Sometimes applications lodged with the Media Centre for National Security seem to disappear into thin air and there is no number that a journalist could call to track progress. There is certainly no guaranteed timeframe within which permission is granted.
You could wait forever, as one international reporter put it. And certainly many of them have been. It makes the government seem more insular than ever at a time when there is so much to say for openness and so little in defence of such mystifying restrictions.
“Journalists not permitted into certain places”
LAKBIMAnEWS asked Laxman Hulugalle, director of the Media Centre for National Security, about the procedure for granting permission to journalists to report in the north.
“Media who asked at the right time were given permission,” Hulugalle said. “Apart from a couple of technical problems, we have allowed all foreign and local journalists through. Only thing, they also have to understand that if they send me a letter at 3.30 pm or 4 pm and ask for permission to travel the following day, I won’t be able to give. But if they follow procedure and send in time, there is no delay… nothing.”
“Yesterday, I got a request to go to the north without a proper date and without people who are going,” he continued. “Because of that, I had to request them to send names and exact date.”
Hulugalle added, however, that journalists are not permitted into “certain places”. Asked why the BBC was not granted approval to cover LLRC hearings in the north, he said: “I also heard about this but I was out of the country for one week during that time so I don’t know if there was a delay.”
Hulugalle said journalists were free to travel to the east although they “could not go into camps and interview soldiers and various other people”.
For the sake of clarity, he explained that all applications have to be lodged through him. “They are sent to the ministry of defence through me,” he said. “I have to recommend. Generally it takes about one working day or two. They can always send an email or something. We have no policy of preventing any journalist but if any organisation who has harmed the integrity of Sri Lanka asks, we have an inquiry. For instance, if Channel 4 wants to come again, we have to think twice.”
There is no point addressing letters directly to the secretary of defence or other officials in the defence establishment because these are returned to MCNS for approval, he said.