FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION SRI LANKA

For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya

Sri Lanka blocks BBC from travelling to war commission

By Charles Haviland BBC News, Colombo
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission hears from Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse at hearings in Colombo, Sri Lanka, August 2010 Human rights groups say the war commission, which started hearings in August, is not independent.

The Sri Lankan government has again blocked BBC News from travelling to the north to attend public hearings of a commission looking into the country’s civil war.

The defence ministry refused to give reasons for preventing the BBC covering the story in Jaffna.

Post-war northern Sri Lanka remains heavily militarised and foreigners need defence ministry permission to visit most of it.

Permission is often denied.

This is the second time in two months that the government has blocked BBC News from travelling north to cover the hearings of the war commission, despite the fact that local journalists are travelling up from the capital, Colombo, for the same purpose.
Both sides criticised

The panel is gathering information about the final years of the war with the stated aim of preventing another one.

At earlier hearings in the former war zone, witnesses have strongly criticised both the government and the Tamil Tigers.

Civilians have accused the military of being responsible for the disappearance of their family members, or killing civilians when bombarding the war zone.

The Tamil Tigers have been accused of regularly shooting people who were trying to flee to safety.

The government has blocked the BBC this time, despite saying the commission is vitally important and despite frequent official reports saying that Jaffna is undergoing a post-war economic revival.

Last month three human rights groups including Amnesty International publicly declined the war commission’s invitation to them to testify.

They alleged that the panel was not independent, as its members had fulfilled senior offical roles or were, they said, overtly pro-government.

The groups say the commission has no mandate to investigate allegations of war crimes.

The commission chairman has told the BBC that it may, however, be able to recommend prosecutions for alleged rights violations.

On Tuesday, parliament further extended a long-running state of emergency which gives the security forces strong powers to detain people without trial.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11729962

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