Last week saw two contrasting stories, illustrating very different examples of news reporting in Sri Lanka.
Few non- Sri Lankan reporters have ventured into Jaffna in the North of the country, the scene of the bloody 2009 conflict. Two Radio Netherlands investigative journalists visited Jaffna undercover and in July and were threatened and intimated into leaving.
They entered the territory on tourist visas – official journalist visas are not issued without months of government vetting. The journalists, one male and one female, wanted to get a better sense of the reality facing those refugees returning to the war-torn region. Whilst speaking to locals in a restaurant, they were overheard and reported to the police. At midnight of the same evening, ten policemen including the Chief of Police burst into their hotel and interrogated them, intimidating the journalists into abandoning their investigation.
The next morning, as they made their way out of the North, they were followed and robbed at gunpoint by a gang in a white van. The white van has an especially ominous significance in Sri Lanka as a common means of state-sponsored intimidation. Such intimidation has been long been a fact of life for Sri Lankan journalists, but the targeting of Western journalists is a brazen move by the authorities.
Contrasted with this incident was last Tuesday’s BBC report by Charles Hallivand from Jaffna. This was a curious report, focusing on limited rehabilitation in the North. The report did go into some details about the hardships faced by returning refugees, but made little mention of the government’s role. The report only implicitly alluded to the continuing heavy miitarisation of the region.
The BBC was apparently ‘given unconfined, though temporary, access to Killinochi district.’ Given the BBC’s clout and the seismic events that have occurred in the last few months around the alleged war crimes committed by the government, it felt like a real omission that issues around the government’s activity around aid, huge wealth inequality, intimidation and extensive militarization were not discussed. Whether this is because the BBC was there in an official capacity is unclear. The BBC did not report the Radio Netherlands story, despite it making headlines around the world.
The tone of the report, especially the quotation picked for its conclusion, was oddly passive:
‘A refugee is asked if she wants punishment for those responsible for her brother’s death.”We don’t need another war or fight,” she says. “We’ve lost a lot because of the war and it mustn’t happen again…” ‘
The only way to ensure that the terrible events of 2009 do not repeat themselves is to seek justice in a genuine war crimes investigation. The foreign media have a real role to play in keeping up the pressure on the Sri Lankan government. They should not be cowed by the government.