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How I was barred from reporting Tamil Tiger conflict

[Times Online UK, Saturday, 18 April 2009 08:05 No Comment]

The Sri Lankan immigration officer’s eyes narrowed as she swiped my passport at the international airport in Colombo last week. “Come this way,” she said, leading me into a side room, where a colleague typed my details into a computer.

 

A message flashed up on his screen: “DO NOT ALLOW TO ENTER THE COUNTRY.” With that, my passport was confiscated, I was escorted to a detention room, locked up for the night, and deported the next day. I can’t say that I was surprised, though it was my first deportation in 12 years of reporting from China, the former Soviet Union and South Asia.

 

Despite multiple applications, I’ve been denied a journalist’s visa for Sri Lanka since August. For almost two years, the Sri Lankan Government has prevented most independent reporters from getting anywhere near the military campaign against the Tamil Tigers. So I was trying to enter as a tourist to write about the 150,000 civilians that the UN estimates are trapped in a no-fire zone with the remnants of the Tigers. The only other countries that I can think of where foreign journalists have to pose as tourists are Zimbabwe, Turkmenistan and North Korea.

 

I am blacklisted because the Government thinks that the British press, support the Tigers because of the large Tamil community in Britain. That is nonsense: I have no personal connection to either side of this 26-year civil war. The Times has repeatedly reported that the Tigers are banned in the EU, US and India as a terrorist group. It has also reported criticism of the Government’s strategy and tactics from ethnic Tamils and Sinhalese.

 

This is what journalists do in a democracy. I regularly interview members of the Taleban in Afghanistan. In Russia I reported on both sides of the Chechen conflict. In China I interviewed dissidents and Tibetan independence activists. To do the equivalent in Sri Lanka is not only forbidden, it is highly dangerous.

The last time I visited Sri Lanka, it was to write about Lasantha Wickrematunge, a newspaper editor who was murdered in January. He left behind a part-written obituary in which he accused the Government of assassinating him because of his criticism of the war. The Government denies this.

 

Another story that annoyed the Government was about its plan to keep Tamils who are fleeing the fighting in camps, ringed by barbed wire, for up to three years. The Government denounced me personally at a news conference, but the most surreal response came in a letter from Rajiva Wijesinha, head of the Government’s Peace Secretariat, who accused me of sensationalising the use of barbed wire in the camps. “Unfortunately, a man from a cold climate does not realise that, in the sub-continent, barbed wire is the most common material to establish secure boundaries, to permit ventilation as well as views,” he wrote.

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