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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Freedom of movement and the free exchange of information still a lofty goal for journalists in Sri Lanka-IFJ Asia

 The Government should ensure the freedom of movement of media personnel in the North and East, as it would help in the exchange of information contributing to reconciliation” (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, recommendation 9.115-d)

A key recommendation of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a commission appointed by the President and lauded as the domestic mechanism for reconciliation and accountability, has yet to see the light of day. Free movement of media personnel in the North and East continue be restricted by the Government.   
 In mid-October, a TV crew of a local station travelled to the Mullaitivu District, in Northern Sri Lanka to do a story on people who had left the Menik Farm IDP camp immediately preceding its closure in September 2012.

 Before meeting with the IDPs, the TV crew met with the Government Agent (GA) of the Mullaitivu District, who told them they could film the resettlement and relocation areas, and in fact encouraged them to give the story maximum coverage which he hoped, would negate the misrepresentation of facts. Taking into consideration previous restrictions imposed by the military on journalists who had visited the area,[i] the team requested the GA to provide them with written permission to visit Seeniyamottai (people whose land has been occupied by the military have been relocated to Seeniyamottai)[ii]. The GA informed the crew that because there were no restrictions on journalists visiting the areas concerned, there was no need to obtain written approval.

 When the crew reached Seeniyamottai however they faced a different reality. The crew came upon a group of men digging a well and since they indicated their willingness to be filmed and interviewed the crew began filming. As they began filming an Army officer approached them, asked them where they were from, and although he didn’t ask them for any identification he informed them that without prior permission from the Security Forces (SF) Commander they were not allowed to film there. The crew informed him that the GA had informed them that they could film without restriction any civilian resettlement and relocation area, specifically Senniyamottai. The Army officer insisted that they could not without the permission of the SF Commander.

 The Army officer refused to provide the crew with his name, rank or phone number, and simply introduced himself as the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the camp. The crew called the GA who reiterated that they could continue filming, and asked them to meet with the village leader or Grama Niladhari (GN), who would facilitate their work. The GN, who had been instructed by the GA, also confirmed that they could continue filming. However another Army officer who questioned them in a more aggressive manner informed them that he had orders to remove them from the camp. Additionally, the residents of the camp informed the crew that the officers had questioned them (the residents) about why the crew was there, and had asked the residents to instruct the crew to leave the camp. When the crew informed the officer that they had obtained the approval of the GA before filming, they were informed that it was only the SF Commander and not the GA who could provide an approval. When the officer was questioned about whether a military commander could overrule the GA concerning a civilian activity in a civilian space, he informed them that the SF commander had the final say. When the officer was asked about the laws under which these restrictions were being imposed, he could not say what these laws were, but did state that he was merely following orders.

The GN was helpless despite the clear orders he had received from the GA. Because the crew believed that they were about to be physically removed from the area, they decided to seek the approval of the SF Commander. The crew proceeded to the closest Army camp and were asked to wait until they were given the authorisation but were not allowed to meet any officer in person who could provide the authorisation. After they waited for a while the Military Police officer who spoke to them at the camp confirmed that they could proceed with their filming. When they returned to the camp however the Officer they had spoken to previously indicated that he had not been informed that permission had been granted and so they could not continue filming. The Officer and the Military Police officer spoke with each other but neither could identify the senior officer who had given the authorization nor taken it away. The crew then returned to main entrance of the Army Camp where the SF Commander was based, but were told that the SF Commander and all other senior officers were away so there was no one who could give them the necessary permission. Since the crew had wasted several hours trying to obtain permission they left the area and proceeded to their next destination.

In Puthukdiriyippu East, the crew encountered residents who had been recently resettled, who were eager to talk and tell their stories. A little while after the crew began filming, two Army officers approached and told the crew that they were not permitted to film in the area. Although the crew informed the officers that they had obtained the approval of the GA, the officer informed them that he was following orders. Realising the futility of the exchange they left the area and proceeded to Mullaitivu via Mullivaikkal. Even when the crew were taking pictures of things that tourists from the South of the country, were capturing on their cameras, Army officers would appear out of nowhere and ask them to stop filming. One told them they could use their mobile phones to capture the scenes but not their video cameras.

The crew was also being followed by men on bicycles. As the crew was travelling in Mullivaikkal, although there was no established check-point the crew was stopped by a group of Army officers. The soldiers questioned the crew in an aggressive manner, but didn’t ask them who they were, which infers that the soldiers knew exactly who they were, because their movements were being monitored. One soldier radioed in the message in Sinhala “they are here, and they say they are going to Mullaitivu.” The person on the other end apparently cleared the crew to continue on their journey.

 The crew then proceeded on to Puthukudiyiruppu West, where they spoke to a family whose resettlement had been delayed because the Army was occupying their land. Even when the crew visited, the Army was still occupying part of the land and quickly emerged to keep a watchful eye on the crew. Although they didn’t prevent the crew from filming they made their presence felt and questioned them about who they were, where they came from and whether there were there any foreigners on the team.

The crew decided that they would interview one more family, but they started receiving desperate phone calls from people they had interviewed before, saying that officers from the military and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) were questioning them about who the crew were. The people had been asked whether they had known the crew before, what they had told the crew, and they (CID and military) had asked the people for the crew’s contact information. The crew decided to suspend their interviews and filming because they feared for their own safety as well as the safety of all the people they had interviewed. They didn’t want to put anyone’s lives in danger, but decided to return to Seeniyamottai.

While the crew was in Mullaitivu and Puthukudiyiruppu, a colleague in Colombo had contacted the Army Media Spokesperson, who had also stated that the crew was free to conduct interviews and film in Seeniyamottai. The crew was asked to contact Col. Wanasinghe at the 59th Division, who informed them on the phone that there were no restrictions, and that he would inform the appropriate people and call them back. That call never came and the crew was not able to contact him when they tried to call him. The crew decided to return to the 59th Division Headquarters in Seeniyamottai in order to attempt to meet Col. Wanasinghe in person. The crew was told that he was away and could not be contacted. After being sent from pillar to post they abandoned the idea of filming in Seeniyamottai.

The crew’s experience is not isolated. Others who attempted to interview IDPs were subjected to intense surveillance[iii] and at least three well known journalists (one foreign and two local) had reportedly been prevented from visiting the same IDP camp and were threatened, intimidated and subjected to surveillance.[iv]

Conclusion and recommendations

The IFJ has serious concerns regarding the restrictions on media and journalists from having unfettered access to IDPs and those who have been resettled. It is essential that a free exchange of information is fostered in the North and East of the country to ensure that the needs and rights of the people are being fulfilled.

The IFJ calls upon the Sri Lankan Government to uphold the rule of law and ensure that freedom of expression and the right to information are protected.

 The IFJ recommends:

• The demilitarization and return to civilian administration of former conflict areas.

• Greater transparency and accountability in the resettlement process.

• Full access to media personnel to all civilian areas in the North.

• Make public any restrictions on media personnel from having free access to the North of the country and the legal basis for these restrictions.


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