November 3, 2013,
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia-Pacific Director Jacqui Park and her deputy Jane Worthington arrived in Australia on Saturday after being detained and questioned in Sri Lanka for attending a media workshop while being in Colombo on tourist visas.
The treatment meted out to Park and her colleague is in sharp contrast to the way the government has chosen to deal with Australian gambling czar James Packer. It is going out of its way even to change the existing laws to grant Packer tax breaks and make him feel at home in spite of mounting opposition from some quarters to his grand plans to set up a star class casino resort in this country. It was only the other day that we saw several ministers dancing attendance on him. But, the same government worthies lost no time in pouncing on media activists Park and Worthington, as if they had landed here to commit some heinous crime.
The government should have allowed the media workshop to continue uninterrupted and the visa issue could have been settled diplomatically. But, it, true to form, acted like a bull in a China shop. If the IFJ officials had been planning to stay longer to attend any other media events they could have been issued with visas needed for that purpose.
This is a country where lawbreakers become lawmakers and criminals go scot free thanks to their political connections. On Saturday, we reported an incident where a gang of politically connected thugs assaulted a police sergeant who had prevented them from attacking some foreigners. But for that intrepid cop they might even have killed the tourists fleeing for their lives like the Briton put to a violent death in Tangalle in 2011, landing the government in another diplomatic soup ahead of CHOGM. It is such violent elements who need to be tracked. Time was when terrorists were given unbridled freedom at the behest of the international community to engage in political work while being armed and making preparations for war. But, intriguingly, foreign media activists here on tourist visas are promptly detained and grilled!
The two IFJ officials have, following their harrowing experience, claimed that by detaining them Sri Lanka has sent a clear message to others about the kind of treatment they could expect if they campaigned for freedom of expression. They are entitled to their opinion, but they should have admitted that they, too, were at fault as they had not mentioned the specific purpose of their visit in their visa applications thus allowing Sri Lankan immigration authorities to do what they did, however deplorable the manner in which the issue was handled may be. One of the cardinal rules of journalism is that the truth or part thereof must not be suppressed. We don’t think the government would have been able to deny the IFJ duo visas if they had mentioned the real purpose of their visit not because it is any great fan of IFJ but because it would not have been able to justify such action. There was absolutely no need for any undercover journalistic op.
That being said, it needs to be added that Sri Lanka is not the only country where journalists undergo harrowing experience over visa matters. Some of the journalists working for our newspaper group, have been detained at foreign airports and sent back home unceremoniously despite having valid visas and official invitations to the events they were to attend. A senior diplomat of an Asian country once threatened to deny visas to all Island journalists or even anyone connected to them because we had run some articles critical of his government. However, sanity prevailed and he changed his mind a few days later. A Sri Lankan Prime Minister was once held at a foreign airport for an inordinately long time a few years ago due to some protocol bungling. But, this does not mean tracking foreign journalists and looking for the slightest excuse to harass them should be taken for granted.
The government ought to stop viewing all foreign journalists or media rights activists as enemies on secret missions to destroy this country simply because there could be one or two propaganda hit men among them. The best way it could take the media, both international and local, off its back is to ensure that human rights and media freedom are protected here.