For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
A Sri Lankan diplomat has caused major embarrassment by telling Nobel Peace Prize nominated broadcaster that he will ‘make sure you don’t get a visa to come to Sri Lanka’ despite British government calls for a ‘guarantee’ of ‘full and unrestricted access for the foreign press’ at major Commonwealth Meeting
A prominent Sri Lankan diplomat – who was once the chief media advisor to Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa – has launched an astonishing attack on Nobel Prize nominated film-maker and journalist, Callum Macrae, who is touring his film No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka across Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Canada.
In a move that will embarrass both the British and Sri Lankan governments ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka this November, Ambassador Bandula Jayasekara, Consul General in Sydney, Australia, has issued a series of abusive tweets specifically targeted at Macrae.
Calling him an ‘LTTE (Tamil Tiger) Terrorist from London’ only focused on profiting from ‘blood money,’ Jayasekara threatened to bar Macrae from entering the country: ‘I will make sure you don’t get a visa to come to Sri Lanka.’
This is particularly embarrassing for the UK and Sri Lankan governments in light of pledges made by the UK when it controversially agreed to attend CHOGM – despite calls for a boycott. Alistair Burt, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has stated unequivocally: ‘… we will make it clear to the Sri Lanka Government that we expect them to guarantee full and unrestricted access for international press covering CHOGM,’ implying this was a condition of attending the meeting.
But Ambassador Jayasekara did not stop at threatening to keep Macrae out, in further tweets he contacted freelance PR agent Ranjit Perera and asked him to ‘track that LTTE tiger terrorist propagandist Callum Macrae and find how much $$$$ he earned so far.’
Macrae said: ‘This is a regime which stands accused of some of the worst war crimes and crimes against humanity this century – of course they don’t want to be subjected to any kind of scrutiny at all.
Given that the UK government has said that free and unrestricted access to the foreign press attending CHOGM is effectively a condition of the UK’s attendance, I don’t see how the Prime Minster and Foreign secretary can now agree to attend.’
Siobhain McDonagh, MP for Mitcham and Morden and vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, said: ‘The tweets threatening to deny Callum Macrae entry to Sri Lanka to report on the Commonwealth conference tell us all we need to know about that country’s respect for press freedom. It also throws into sharp relief the moral ambivalence displayed by the UK government in declaring it will attend. Alistair Burt’s insistence that the Sri Lankan government guarantee free and unrestricted access for the media is simply incompatible with these remarkable threats from a Sri Lankan diplomat.
Ambassador Jayasekara’s comments came after Macrae was interviewed in a Sri Lankan daily, in which he announced his intention to attend CHOGM (as he also did at the last one in Perth Australia). But when that article was reprinted in the online Colombo Telegraph (20 June), he received threatening comments online from readers.
In response to Macrae’s remark: ‘I trust the Sri Lankan Government will welcome me.’ One anonymous comment read: ‘Absolutely white van is waiting at the airport.’
White vans are notoriously used in the abduction of government critics and are seen as a weapon of terror associated with extra-judicial killings and disappearances.
Macrae said: ‘Ambassdor Jayasekara’s intemperate language – and his absurd suggestion that I am funded by terrorists – can only encourage the kind of death threats made against me in the readers’ comments section of the Colombo Telegraph.
Comments in the online newspaper included one which said Macrae was welcome in Sri Lanka ‘only to go back in a coffin’. Another said: ‘Callum Macrae – do not come to Sri Lanka. You will be abducted in a white van, and sent to meet Lasantha Wikremasinghe.’
Lasantha Wickrematunge was the editor and founder of the Sunday Leader – a respected newspaper critical of the Rajapaksa regime. He was shot and killed by unknown assassins in January 2009 as the government’s final offensive against the Tigers got underway.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that 25 members of the press have been killed in Sri Lankan since 1999.
Callum Macrae added: ‘There is no free press in Sri Lanka. Literally dozens of media workers and government critics have died, disappeared or been forced into exile in recent years. The government is increasingly repressive, even the judiciary is under attack and the war against the Tigers has been replaced by a silent war against Tamil civilians in the North.
Rajapaksa hopes that CHOGM can be used to suggest to the world that their crimes have been forgotten. If they go to CHOGM, despite these kinds of threats and the ongoing repression of Tamil civilians and government critics, David Cameron and the British government are in serious danger of becoming part of that cover-up.’
Australian Green Senator, Lee Rhiannan who hosted a screening of extracts of No Fire Zone in the Australian parliament, alongside her colleagues from the Liberal and Labor party, said:
‘These tweets shows the true face of the Sri Lankan Government or regime – and it could not be more different than the picture they want to show to the Commonwealth.
‘This a brutally repressive regime where anyone who speaks out against the government faces harassment and at worst death or disappearance. Far from reaching out the hand of reconciliation to Tamils in the North East, they are systematically repressing that community and denying them their basic human rights. Commonwealth leaders who intend to travel to Sri Lanka for CHOGM need to seriously ask themselves whether they can risk giving the appearance of endorsing this brutal regime.
The Consul General’s tweets promising to deny Mr Macrae a Sri Lankan visa are threatening, unprofessional and a real indication his country’s views on press freedom. His insinuation that Mr Macrae is involved in terrorist propaganda is outrageous.’
Macrae, is on the first leg of an international tour with No Fire Zone visiting New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia and Canada. It was Macrae’s arrival in Australia that seems to have most infuriated the diplomat.
CHOGM will take place in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo from 15 to 17 November. By hosting the biennial event Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, will become Commonwealth Chairperson-in-Office for the next two years which puts him in the position of the Commonwealth’s leader in the pursuit of Human Rights