Thursday, November 14, 2013

BBC Crew Forcibly Prevented From Speaking To Sri Lanka President

BBC's James Robbins prevented from speaking to Rajapakse (Pic.BBC)



Freedom of the foreign media to cover events in Sri Lanka reached a new low on Wednesday. A BBC camera crew was physically restrained by security personnel to prevent them getting close to the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, to ask him questions. The incident occurred at an event associated with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) which Sri Lanka is hosting between November 15 and 17. 


Heightened security appears to follow an incident on Tuesday, when a journalist of UK’s Channel Four television asked Rajapakse a question as the latter was getting into his car after opening the Commonwealth Business Forum. Media culture in Sri Lanka discourages reporters questioning officials and politicians except at press conferences or with an appointment.

The occurrence reflects the growing culture of intolerance of criticism and impunity in Sri Lanka. The country is ranked 163rd among 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index with journalists killed, made to disappear, imprisoned and forced to flee overseas.

“Critical or opposition journalists continue to face intense intimidation in Sri Lanka. Our research shows that at least 26 journalists have gone into exile in the past five years, which is one of the highest rates in the world. And while work-related murders have declined since 2009, the slayings of nine journalists have gone unpunished over the past decade, which is one of the worst records of impunity in the world,” wrote Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urging Commonwealth leaders to press Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, to unshackle the media.

Meanwhile, on November 13, Channel Four journalists who were on their way to northern Sri Lanka where much of the fighting took place in 30-year civil war that ended in May 2009 were not allowed to enter the area to film. The train in which they were travelling was blocked by pro-government protestors.

“Hundreds surrounded the train and some boarded it, a witness said, adding that police made no attempt to clear the crowd. The Channel 4 television news team, which has previously reported on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, had to return to the capital Colombo…,” said Reuters quoting Channel Four and the local police.

Channel Four is particularly shunned by the Sri Lanka government for three documentaries it made on the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war known as ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ that show civilians caught up in savage combat between government troops and rebel LTTE fighters. Political and military leaders of the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE hierarchy are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The spotlight on Sri Lanka from CHOGM has also shone on Sri Lanka’s long history of suppressing media freedom. Among the victims is Prageeth Ekneligoda, a columnist and cartoonist who disappeared on the eve of the presidential election on January 26, 2010.

Prageeth’s wife Sandaya in a piece to The Independent UK wrote, “In Sri Lanka there is almost no independent media. What are journalists there allowed to write about? Peaceful elections, new initiatives to keep the streets clean, how well the government is doing and CHOGM.  When CHOGM comes to Sri Lanka there will only be positive stories for the visitors to read. Positive stories, smiling billboards and hidden secrets.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will raise human rights and media freedom issues with host Rajapakse. However Sri Lanka’s Media and Information Minister Kehiliya Rambukwella angrily dismissed the suggestion.

“The invitation to Prime Minister David Cameron was not based on that (raising human rights concerns).We are a sovereign nation. You think someone can just make a demand from Sri Lanka? We are not a colony. We are an independent state,” Rambukwella told the BBC.

However Cameron has said he would insist on taking up the issues with Rajapakse.

CHOGM that Colombo hoped would help its leaders consolidate their badly-eroding legitimacy at home has turned out to be PR nightmare both within Sri Lanka and overseas.

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