The Government of Sri Lanka are masters at the art of intimidating their critics into silence. However, like most bullies, they tend to pick on those who find it difficult to fight back – either because they are currently living in Sri Lanka or because they have Sri Lankan family members who might suffer the ill effects of any attempt to be more vocal. But the reach of the Government seems to be growing, as was demonstrated by the recent and ongoing intimidation of Matthew Lee.
Matthew Lee is the man behind Inner City Press, a non-profit news organisation that made its name in the 1990s by exposing the way banks circumvented fair finance laws to avoid lending money to people in the South Bronx. Latterly he, and they, have concentrated much of their investigative journalism on the United Nations. He reported extensively on the UN’s shortcomings with respect to Sri Lanka, and covered our interventions on the IMF, Shivendra Silva and the UN internal review.
This story starts in September of last year with a screening of “Lies Agreed Upon” – a government of Sri Lanka propaganda film which was expertly deconstructed by the International Crisis Group. Matthew Lee wrote a piece about how the screening, in the Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium of the UN, was organised by the President of the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA), Giampaolo Pioli, without going through the normal process of consultation for such screenings. He then further revealed (although he acknowledged it was “possibly unconnected”) that Pioli rents a flat to the Sri Lankan Permanent representative to the UN (and suspected war criminal) Palitha Kohona.
Then in May, five journalists wrote a letter asking Pioli to expel Lee from the UNCA. Pioli set up a Board of Examination (you can read Lee’s thoughts on the reasons for this and the make-up of the board here, with more detail here, here, and here). Meanwhile the UN itself muddied the waters by deciding “in this context” not to renew Lee’s accreditation to cover the UN.
Lee then offered to print a two sided clarification in which he and UNCA would both set the record straight. However this was rejected out of hand and, under Pioli’s direction, Lee was suspended from the UNCA. Although the grounds for expulsion have never been made public, it appeared to centre around various complaints that had been made by the Sri Lankan Government and by Pioli himself in respect to the showing of Lies Agreed Upon. To quote Lee:
“The Sri Lankan Mission to the UN, run by Pioli’s former tenant Kohona and his deputy Shavendra Silva, continues to act as though it has a special relationship with Pioli, sending complaint letters about Inner City Press to Pioli’s UNCA unlike any other member state at the UN.”
The next stage is a ten-day investigation by the UNCA, while the UN still refused to provide any clarity on if or when Lee’s accreditation will be renewed. Meanwhile Lee has been harassed from Sri Lanka using tactics which will be familiar to many Sri Lankan human rights defenders: anonymous threatening phonecalls, vicious personal emails, and several hyperbolic attacks in the media. The latter included the suggestion that Lee could be jailed for harassment for up to seven years. Since there is no evidence to suggest that there is any police investigation (or indeed any suggestion of harassment in a legal sense) this is pure yellow journalism.
The saga rumbles on (see also Lee’s articles here, here, here and here) and it may never be clear how deep the Government of Sri Lanka’s involvement in the intimidation was. What is clear is that they certainly gave the bandwagon a push and were very quick to jump on when it started rolling.
The UN should not be taking the side of the bullies, nor should they be adding to the confusion and speculation by failing to renew Lee’s accreditation. As for the UNCA; their role is to stand up for its members, not to expel them and we can see no justification for the continuation of this “Board of Examination”. Both the UNCA and the UN have played straight into the hands of the Government of Sri Lanka’s attempts to silence its critics.