Sunday, August 02, 2009

Sri Lanka: Government refuses to renew press visa for AP Bureau Chief

Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), is outraged by the Sri Lankan Government’s refusal to renew the press visa for Mr.Ravi Nessman, the Colombo Bureau Chief of Associated Press. After the authorities declined his request, he was compelled to leave the country on Monday July 20th. Even though the government has repeatedly emphasized that the decision is not related to Mr.Nessman’s reports of with the final stages of the war, by simply looking at the recent track record of the government, we have more than one reason to believe otherwise.

Mr.Ravi Nessman has reported extensively on the civilian deaths in the run up to the final stages of the Sri Lanka’s civil war. His controversial report filed on 24th of April 2009, which earned widespread attention in the foreign media, exposed the heavy toll on civilians. Quoting internal UN documents the report revealed that an average of 116 civilians were killed each day at the beginning of April. In addition to the reports on civilian casualties, Mr.Nessman was one of the first to expose Colombo government’s plans to lock up the displaced Tamil population in barbed wire camps for up to several years, through a report filed on 11th of February. Given the above context, we strongly believe that the reasons given by the government in explaining their reluctance to renew Mr.Nessman’s visa, does not reveal the real motive behind the decision. Mr.Nessman’s case clearly reflects the Sri Lankan state’s increasingly hostile attitude towards independent media. But this is not the first instance where the government openly adopted an obstructive and arrogant policy towards foreign media.

On the 1st of February, the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa openly warned news agencies of ‘dire consequences’ if they attempt to give the ‘LTTE terrorists’ a second breath of life. He named CNN, Al-Jazeera and the BBC as media trying to sensationalize civilian hardships in the war zone. Again on the 1st of April, the Immigration and Emigration Department of Sri Lanka announced that it has restricted the issue of visas to 837 persons including foreign media personnel, under the pretext of ‘protecting national interests.’ Furthermore, on the 09th of May, three journalists from Channel 4 News were arrested and then deported on the following day, as a reaction to their report about the shocking conditions prevailing inside the internment camps for refugees. On the 12th of June, the ‘’Economist’’ magazine was banned by Sri Lankan Customs in order to prevent its subscribers from reading an article on Sri Lanka, published in the latest issue of the magazine. In a similar incident, the authorities banned several South Indian journals, including popular Tamil language magazine, ‘Ananda Vikatan’, in order to keep it out of reach of the local readership. The authorities even went to the extent of arresting and detaining the importer of the magazine, Mr.Sritharasing, who is a leading book-store owner in Colombo - on the 5th of March 2009. Besides, the government has taken steps to block several Tamil TV channels, such as Sun TV, Jeya TV, Makkal TV and Tamilan TV, which had been transmitted from India.

Considering the above, there should be no doubt that the refusal to renew the visa of the AP Bureau Chief must be seen as a continuation of the same hostile policy of the government, maintained against various foreign media personnel. While denouncing the deliberate obstructions imposed by the Sri Lankan government against independent reporting, JDS calls upon the governments and responsible international bodies to condemn the Sri Lankan government’s increasingly aggressive policy towards independent media and to demand the government to have a more transparent policy in providing unhindered access to journalists.

Executive Committee
Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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