For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Once again the government of Sri Lanka has tried to prevent an international screening of No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, this time in Nepal. Once again they have failed because of the determination of defenders of human rights and free speech.
Yesterday the Nepali authorities gave the organisers of the Film Southasia festival just 24 hours notice that they must not show No Fire Zone and two other Sri Lankan films in their festival as planned.
Film Southasia issued an immediate statement: “We announce with great regret that the Sri Lankan Government has pressurised the Nepali authorities to stop the screening of all three documentaries from Sri Lanka selected for the Film Southasia ’13 festival.” They described the attempted ban as “an action that goes against the freedom of expression and the right of documentary filmmakers to exhibit their work.” The other two films were shorts by the respected Sri Lankan/British documentary maker and photographer Kannan Arunasalam.
Despite this attempt to ban the films the organisers have announced that No Fire Zone will now be screened at a private venue, at Yala Maya Kendra, Kathmandu, Nepal, on Sat 5 Oct 6:30pm.
No Fire Zone is a devastating indictment of the Sri Lankan government’s role in the massacres at the end of the Sri Lankan war. The culmination of a three year long investigation, it contains a mass of carefully authenticated evidence – including video, photographic and eyewitness accounts – of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the last few months of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009.
It describes, in harrowing detail, how in January 2009, the government of Sri Lanka encouraged thousands of Tamil civilians to gather in series of what they called “No fire zones” – and then subjected them to deliberate, sustained shelling. They compounded this by deliberately denying adequate supplies of food and medicine into the area. No-one knows how many died, but one UN report suggested it could have been as many as 40,000. A later Un report suggested the total could have reached 70,000 or even more. No Fire Zone also examines the role of the Tigers in the tragedy revealing how the agony of the trapped Tamil civilians was further compounded by the Tigers who refused to let those who wanted to leave the zones from doing so – even, on occasion, shooting at those who tried.
This new attempt to ban No Fire Zone follows a similar move in Malaysia where a screening of the film was raided by between 30 and 40 members of the Malaysian Censorship Board and police officers – again on the instigation of the Sri Lankan Government. However they did not succeed in preventing the screening.Last month Lena Hendry of Malaysian Human Rights organisation Pusat Komas appeared in court and was charged for organizing the screening. She faces a maximum of three years in jail if convicted.
In protest over the attempts to silence the film another Malaysian organization Lawyers for Liberty, screened the film again. Yet more screenings are now planned.
Following attempts to stop the Nepalese screening No Fire Zone, the film’s Director, Callum Macrae, issued the following statement.
“Once again the Sri Lankan government has shown its true colours. While telling the world that it is investigating the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity – it is in practice mounting an international campaign to deny the truth and silence the witnesses. Film South Asia deserves every credit for refusing to stop the screenings, instead moving them to another venue.
“The Sri Lankan regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers is determined to suppress the evidence of these crimes and their responsibility for them. That is why the Sri Lankan government wants to stop the world seeing our film. From the UN to the European parliament, from Malaysia to Nepal they have tried to stop the screenings. I am glad to say they have never succeeded.
“In Sri Lanka itself they are desperately trying to silence any critics. Military repression of the Tamils in the north of the country is ongoing. The Tamil homelands are being ethnically re-engineered by plantation of majority Sinhala families and soldiers. Land grabs are rampant. In the south anyone who speaks out against the regime is silenced. The independence of the judiciary is under attack. Journalists are being threatened and intimidated. Government supporters are now turning on other ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka – in particular, they are targeting Muslims.
In November the leaders of the Commonwealth will gather in Sri Lanka for the bi-annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
If those leaders want the Commonwealth to retain any credibility, they must not turn a blind eye to the crimes of their hosts – or their attempts to deny the truth and silence their critics.
For our part we pledge that we will continue to take this film around the world – and we will continue to tell the truth about what happened