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Restrictions and intimidation on journalists covering resettlement process in the Vanni

“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)
After more than 11 months of the LLRC report being handed over to the President, the above recommendation remains far from reality, despite the National Action Plan to Implement Recommendations of the LLRC reaffirming it by committing to identify and remove impediments to free movement of media personnel in the North and East.

A few days ago, I accompanied a crew from a local TV station to the Mullativu district to do a story on the life of the last batches of people who left Menik Farm before its closure in late September 2012. 

First, our team met the Government Agent for Mullativu, who told us we could go and film the resettlement and relocation areas, and in fact, encouraged us to give maximum coverage to avoid misrepresentation of facts. Considering restrictions imposed by the military on journalists who had visited before , our team asked whether the GA could give us a letter granting us permission to go to Seeniyamottai . He however told us that there were no restrictions, no necessity to obtain approval, and hence, no requirement for any letters.

So we reached Seeniyamottai by around 10.30am, located in the interiors of the Vattapalai – Puthukudiyiruppu road. When we turned further interior, we saw a sign board with the words “Keppapulavu Model Village” in Tamil and English. The military check point which had stopped some of us on our previous visit a few weeks back was no longer there. I thought access has been eased.

As some men were digging a well there, our team spoke to some of them and they indicated willingness to be filmed and interviewed. As we were filming, an Army officer in uniform approached us and asked us where we were from. He didn’t ask us for any identification or the identity card issued by the Government’s Information Department. Instead, he told us that no filming was allowed, unless we got prior permission from the Security Forces (SF) Commander. When we replied that Mullativu GA had told us personally a few hours ago that we could film any civilian resettlement and relocation area, specifically including Senniyamottai, the Army officer insisted that permission would need to be got from the SF Commander.

The Army Officer refused to give us his name, rank or phone number, and simply introduced himself as the Officer in Charge (OIC) for the camp. We called the GA and he again told us that we could continue with our filming, and to meet with the Grama Niladari (GN), who he would instruct to facilitate our work. When we met the GN, he too confirmed that we could continue filming after speaking on the phone with the GA. In the meantime, another Army Officer in uniform questioned us in a slight more aggressive and threatening manner about who we were, and told us that he had orders to remove us from the camp. Just before, several inmates of the camp told us that this Army officer was asking them (inmates of the camp) who we were and what we were doing there and to ask us to leave the camp. When we told this Army officer that the GA had given us the green light to go ahead with our filming, the officer insisted that the GA didn’t matter, and if we wanted to do any filming, we had to get permission from the SF Commander. When we asked whether the SF Commander could overrule the GA in a civilian activity of journalism in a civilian space such as an IDP camp (or a model village as the name board now proclaimed), he said that the final decisions are taken by the SF Commander. When we asked under what law they were preventing us from filming, the officer’s response was that he was merely carrying out orders and delivering messages from their superiors, without of course mentioning who actually the superior officers were.

Thereafter, the GN told us that he was helpless despite the clear orders he had received from the GA, and he himself agreeing on principle that we should be permitted to film. He suggested that it would be more practical and easy for us if we could get permission from the SF Commander. As it became quite clear to us that we were going to be physically removed if we resisted, and also because we were keen to do the filming, we decided to compromise for the time being and request the SF Commander for permission.

The OIC refused to tell us the name, rank or the telephone number of the superior officer he had asked us to get permission from, and merely asked that we leave the camp and go directly to the SF Headquarters nearby. We went to the entrance of the closest Army camp, and the Military Police officer on duty told us that he had contacted the person in charge, and that we should await his response. We asked whether we can meet or even call the relevant person, but he refused to give us a name, rank, or telephone number of a person we could contact. After about 10-15 minutes, he suggested we go to another check point several kilometers further away towards Puthukudiyiruppu, as it might be faster to get permission from there. We decided to follow his advice, but as we were moving there, the Military Police officer called us and told us that he had got a message that we could go to the camp to continue our filming. We turned back towards the camp and on the way, thanked him for his efforts. However, when we reached the camp, the OIC said he had not got any message permitting us to carry out our filming. He then spoke to his superior on the phone and confirmed this. When we called the Military Police officer who told us we could go ahead, and asked him who had given us the green light, he said he didn’t know who had given him the order, as he had just been asked to pass on the message to us. The OIC also spoke to the Military Police officer and informed him that he could not permit us to do any filming unless he knew who had given that order. The OIC had previously told us that we could talk to people and take photos, but he told us that even taking photos or talking to people would not be allowed now. At his insistence, we again proceeded towards the checkpoint located several kilometers away. The officer there informed us that the SF Commander, his deputy and all other senior officers were away, and that there was no one we could call or meet, or that he could contact, to grant us the necessary permission. We tried to call the GA again several times, but there was no answer. As we had already spent more than 90 minutes travelling to and fro and waiting around, we decided to proceed to our other destinations with the hope of returning here later that afternoon.

In the meantime, a colleague in Colombo had contacted the Army Media Spokesperson, who had mentioned that there was no restriction for media in these areas, and to contact Col. Wanasinghe at the 59th Division if we faced any problems. When we spoke to Col. Wanasinghe on the phone, he too affirmed that there were no restrictions on filming, and that there would have been some miscommunication, and that he would sort it out and call us back, so we could go ahead with filming. We waited for the call from him, but when the call never came, we tried to contact Col. Wanasinghe on our own, but could not get through. In desperation, we backtracked all the way to the 59th Division Headquarters, where we were told that Col. Wanasinghe was away and therefore could not be contacted. We spent more time waiting, but didn’t hear from him and as it was turning dark, were compelled to abandon the idea of filming in Seeniyamottai and turned back. Some of the more experienced crew members pointed out that the military officers in the camp, SF Headquarters and in Colombo were all part of one game of frustrating and delaying us and preventing us from filming.

Earlier in the afternoon, after having left Seeniyamottai, we travelled to Puthukdiriyippu East, where we interviewed a school boy and some residents who had been recently resettled, with their full consent. People seemed eager to talk and tell their stories and we seemed to be finding more people to interview than we could manage in the time we had. As the crew was filming, two Army officers approached us and told us that we were not permitted to film in the area. We repeated the fact that the GA had told us it was alright to film, and asked under what law we were being prevented from filming. However, the stock response seemed to be that they were merely carrying out orders from their superiors.

When we pointed out that we were filming within the premises of a privately owned property, he still insisted that it cannot be allowed. Again, realizing it was futile to resist in the face of clearly hostile armed military personnel, we decided to leave the area. 

We proceeded towards Mullathivu via Mullivaikal, and as we were leaving, we tried to film the pile of abandoned lorries, buses, vans, cycles etc. piled up in the fields. I had seen countless tourists groups – mainly Sinhalese – videoing and taking photographs of these very items in my visits to the area last month and August this year. However, once again, a soldier in uniform materialized, and we exchanged our usual manthras.

Soldier – you can’t film

We – why can’t we film? Under what law are we being prevented? The GA told us we can film!
Soldier – sorry, but my orders are not to allow you to film, if you want, you can video from a mobile phone

So we stopped filming and proceeded further.

We observed a good friend who had come to remove a lorry that had been left behind during the last phase of the war. He showed us a file containing many documents, and told us that he had been put through an extensive process involving multiple documents and signatures of government and military officials, and that finally after several months, the procedures were complete, and he was ready to remove his lorry. Our friend told us it was alright to film the lorry. But as soon as we started filming, military personnel approached us. So back to the chorus:

Solder – you can’t film
We – GA had told us it was ok to film, this is a civilian area, we are filming a lorry which is a private property with the full consent of the owner. Under what law are you asking us not to film?
Soldier – We are carrying out orders and delivering messages from superior military officers and what the GA and the owner says doesn’t matter

So we stopped filming yet again, and proceeded.

By this time, we had realized we were being followed by men on push bicycles. We thought of ways we usually get rid or make life difficult for those who follow us around, but since we had nothing to hide, we decided not to do anything to make it difficult for them to follow us. Later on, at a place in Mullivaikal which was not a check-point, (where I had never been stopped before on any of my previous visits, and had not seen any other vehicle being stopped), we were stopped by a group of soldiers who surrounded our van and asked us menacingly where we were going. They didn’t ask us who we were. Clearly we were marked and they were waiting for us. We told them that we were going towards Mullativu. “They are here, and they say they are going to Mullativu,” was the message one of the soldiers communicated to someone else in Sinhalese on his radio set. A while later, he got the response,  and “ok, sir says to allow them to go,” was the message the solider who took the call gave to the soldier on the motorbike, who appeared to be the leader of the group of soldiers who had surrounded our van.

So we were free to proceed.

Our next stop was to talk to a family in Puthukudiyirupu West, whose resettlement had been delayed, as the Army had been occupying their land, when they left Menik Farm in September 2012 . Even at the time of our visit, the Army was still occupying part of his land.  As soon as our team went into the garden, two Army officers materialized like magic. This time, they didn’t prevent our team from filming, but stood at the entrance watching. Several other Army officers were coming and going and staring at our parked van. Some peeped inside, and one questioned those inside the van. There was a new chorus now:

Who are you? What media institution are you from? What are you filming about? Why did you choose this area? Are there any foreigners? (Perhaps the fair lady in our team who spoke in English because she was not Sinhalese, was mistaken for a foreigner?)

We patiently tried to answer their questions and then bid our farewell to the family.

We thought we would push our luck further and try and meet and film one more family who had resettled recently, this time in Manthuvil. By now, we would have been surprised if military personnel didn’t turn up like clockwork as soon as our team went into the garden and started filming. We were not wrong! It was time for the new chorus:

Who are you? What media institution are you from? What are you filming about? Why did you choose this area? Are there any foreigners?

But by this time, we were getting desperate phone calls from the people we had interviewed before, saying that officers from the military and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) were questioning them about who we were, and if they had known us before, what we had asked, whether they had our phone numbers etc. All the three areas we visited and those we interviewed were also “interviewed” by the Army, and some also by the CID.

Strangely, none of the soldiers who had stopped us from filming questioned us and subjected us to surveillance asked for our national identity cards, the company identity cards or journalistic identity cards issued to some of us by the Government Information Department.

So we decided to call it a day. But our friends the soldiers wanted to have the last say:

Where are you going next?
How long will you stay?

Maybe they were getting fed up of following us and keeping track!

Anyways, by this time, we were concerned about our safety and even more about the safety of those we had interviewed and filmed, so we left. Anyways, we were fed up of these restrictions and surveillance by the military.  And besides, we still wanted to have a last shot at filming in Seeniyamottai, which in the end, military made sure didn’t happen.

But our experience seems to be the rule, rather than the exception. Few weeks ago, myself and another colleague were subjected to intense surveillance, and our driver was grilled when we visited the IDP camp in Seeniyamottai.  At least three well known journalists (one foreign and two local) had reportedly been prevented from visiting the same IDP camp, whilst also being threatened, intimidated and subjected to surveillance.

We returned with more questions on our minds;
•    Under which law can the military stop journalists from accessing civilian areas, private civilian properties and interviewing civilians, when the concerned civilians are clearly consenting, and even eager?
•    Can the military (Security Forces Commander or soldiers) overrule the Government Agent in the carrying out of civilian activities such as journalism in civilian areas?
•    Why would the military ask contact numbers from those interviewed by journalists, when they had shown no interest in examining the identification, credentials or contact details of the journalists themselves?

And contrary to the GA who asked us to give maximum coverage in order not to misrepresent facts, transparency is clearly the last thing the military seem to want in relation to resettlement and relocation.

And media freedom clearly has a long way to go in Sri Lanka.

Especially in the North, which seems a different country with a different set of rules – or no rules – as military can even overrule a District Secretary (GA) without reference to any law.

It seems clear the government doesn’t want the people in other parts of Sri Lanka and outside world to know the bitter truths of land occupation by the military and miseries of resettled people in the North, which runs contrary to the government’s fairy tales about resettlement.

If there is nothing to hide, why prevent journalists and TV crews from talking and filming – especially when the people are eager to tell their stories and show how they live?

25th October 2012


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