Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sri Lanka ranked 162 in the latest press freedom rankings

Political power grabs dealt press freedom a great disservice again this year. A military coup caused Fiji (152nd) to fall 73 places. Soldiers moved into Fijian news rooms for several weeks and censored articles before they were published, while foreign journalists were deported. In Thailand, the endless clashes between “yellow shirts” and “red shirts” had a very negative impact on the press’s ability to work. As a result, the kingdom is now 130th.

The authoritarianism of existing governments, for example in Sri Lanka (162nd) and Malaysia (131st), prevented journalists from properly covering sensitive subjects such as corruption or human rights abuses. The Sri Lankan government had a journalist sentenced to 20 years in prison and forced dozens of others to flee the country. In Malaysia, the interior ministry imposed censorship or self-censorship by threatening media with the withdrawal of their licence or threatening journalists with a spell in prison.

War and terrorism wrought havoc and exposed journalists to great danger. Afghanistan (149th) is sapped not only by Taliban violence and death threats, but also by unjustified arrests by the security forces. Despite having dynamic news media, Pakistan (159th) is crippled by murders of journalists and the aggressiveness of both the Taliban and sectors of the military. It shared (with Somalia) the world record for journalists killed during the period under review.

The Asian countries that least respected press freedom were, predictably, North Korea, one of the “infernal trio” at the bottom of the rankings, Burma, which still suffers from prior censorship and imprisonment, and Laos, an unchanging dictatorship where no privately-owned media are permitted.

The media in China (168th) are evolving rapidly along with the rest of the country but it continues to have a very poor ranking because of the frequency of imprisonment, especially in Tibet, Internet censorship and the nepotism of the central and provincial authorities. Similarly in Vietnam (166th), the ruling Communist Party targets journalists, bloggers and press freedom activists over what they write about its concessions to China.

In the good news section, Maldives (51st) climbed 53 places thanks to a successful democratic transition while Bhutan (70th) rose another four places thanks to further efforts in favour of media diversity.

Asia’s few democracies are well placed in the rankings. New Zealand (13th), Australia (16th) and Japan (17th) are all in the top 20. Respect for press freedom and the lack of targeted violence against journalists enable these three countries to be regional leaders.

South Korea (69th) and Taiwan (59th) fell far this year. South Korea plummeted 22 places because of the arrests of several journalists and bloggers and the conservative government’s attempts to control critical media. The new ruling party in Taiwan tried to interfere in state and privately-owned media while violence by certain activists further undermined press freedom.

Two Asian countries were included in the index for the first time: Papua New Guinea (56th), which obtained a very respectable ranking for a developing country, and the Sultanate of Brunei (155th), which came in the bottom third because of the absence of an independent press.

© Reporters Sans Frontières

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sri Lanka agrees to study critical EU report

Click here to read the full EU report

Sri Lanka on Tuesday agreed to study a European Union report criticising its human rights record, as Brussels threatened to withdraw the island's preferential trading status.

The European Commission submitted Monday the findings of a year-long probe which concluded that the Sri Lankan government was in breach of commitments on human rights and good governance.

Sri Lanka had refused to allow the EU inquiry mission access to the island and insisted that its preferential trade access to the 27-member European bloc should be extended unconditionally.

"The government will closely study the European Commission report," the foreign ministry said in a statement. It stressed Colombo felt it "unnecessary" to allow any investigation.

Sri Lanka has till November 6 to respond to the EU report. Sri Lanka gains about 150 million dollars annually due to the preferential tariff currently granted by the EU, according to trade estimates.

EU trade spokesman Lutz Gullner said in Brussels that "serious problems" were identified in the Brussels probe which accused Sri Lanka of "breaching commitments" made on human rights.

Sri Lanka, which ended a decades-old internal conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels in May, is one of 16 countries benefiting from an EU deal giving its exporters easier access to the EU market.

The deal is offered to developing countries -- provided sustainable development and good governance conditions are met.

These include human rights obligations and working practices, and Brussels says Colombo has still to ratify and apply them fully.

According to the EU report passed to Sri Lanka, "the commission will now decide whether to propose a temporary withdrawal of the special incentive arrangement."

Gullner said member states would now be consulted, and stressed that the commission would be looking for improvement that was "sufficiently serious, rapid and verifiable".


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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sri Lanka faces loss of EU trade perks over rights

A European Union investigation has found Sri Lanka in breach of international human rights laws and EU sources said the country is likely to lose concessions worth more than $100 million for its top exports to Europe.

The EU on Monday published the findings of the investigation it launched a year ago into allegations of human rights violations and torture in the 25-year war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

"The report comes to the conclusion that Sri Lanka is in breach of its commitments. We will now prepare for a legal proposal to remove the additional trade preferences which may enter into force mid-next year," a spokesman for the EU's executive Commission said.

EU sources said the report showed evidence of police violence, torture and breaches of labour laws, notably the use of underage children.

"The evidence is very clear that Sri Lanka does not fulfil the basic human rights conditions of GSP Plus," one EU source said, in reference to a system of preferential tariffs -- sometimes as low as zero -- for the world's poorest countries.

Brussels has consistently warned Sri Lanka that it must meet 27 international human rights conventions to retain its Generalised System of Preference Plus trade scheme. Suspending the preferential tariffs would hit Sri Lanka's textile industry hard and many fear big job cuts as a result.

In 2008, the European Union was Sri Lanka's largest export market, accounting for 36 percent of all exports, followed by the United States with 24 percent. Garments earned the country a record $3.47 billion from EU markets and were its top source of foreign exchange, followed by remittances of $3 billion and tea exports of $1.2 billion.

The Commission will discuss Monday's report and decide by the end of November whether to propose to EU member states that they temporarily suspend Sri Lanka's GSP Plus status. A decision would likely take effect around June next year, six months from a vote by member states, a Commission official said.

Major European importers, notably large British retailers such as Marks & Spencer, are concerned about possible increases in the cost of buying from one of their major suppliers amid the worst economic downturn in decades.

Colombo came under heavy pressure from Western nations, including those in Europe with large Tamil populations, because of civilian deaths in the final phase of the war against the Tigers, which ended with the separatists' defeat in May.

The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly accused European countries with large and vocal Tamil populations of pandering to pro-Tamil Tiger viewpoints in exchange for electoral support. Last year, it said it would neither cooperate with the EU investigation nor allow investigators to visit the island.

Rajiva Wijesinghe, Colombo's secretary of ministry for human rights and disaster management, last week criticised a leak of the report as an attempt to undermine Sri Lanka. "The (trade) concession is a total process of economics, but the process is hijacked by politics. There is a political motive," he said.

© Reuters

Related Links:
Sri Lanka faces EU trade loss - Financial Times
EU may end Sri Lanka trade deal over human rights - Times Online

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sri Lanka's boat people

Australia is facing a rise in the number of refugees arriving by boat, mostly from war-ravaged Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. To curb the flow, Australia’s government is working with authorities in Malaysia and Indonesia, where the boats originate, and going after the criminals who profit from the trade.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd flew to Jakarta on Monday to meet with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who will be inaugurated Tuesday for a second term. Mr. Rudd’s opponents in Australia say he’s too soft on border controls: More than 40 boats carrying nearly 2,000 refugees have entered Australian waters since August 2008.

One boat in particular has made waves in Indonesia. Earlier this month, a boat carrying 255 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka was intercepted off Java. They have refused to leave the impounded boat, held a two-day hunger strike, and threatened suicide if they were not resettled.

Over the weekend, authorities arrested an Indonesian man on the seized boat who was previously jailed for people smuggling. Refugees said they had paid $15,000 to a Malaysian agent to be transported via Indonesian waters to Australia.

Indonesia has long been a launch pad for boatpeople bound for Australia. In 2001, Mr. Rudd’s predecessor John Howard detained asylum seekers on Nauru island and in Papua New Guinea – the so-called “Pacific Solution.” It slowed the flow of boat people, but was criticized as inhumane and unfair.

Last year, Rudd closed the offshore detention camps and began processing refugees caught at sea on Christmas Island, which belongs to Australia. His more liberal policy has come under attack, though, as the number of boats has risen, so his government is scrambling to get Malaysia and Indonesian support.

Australian media reported Monday that two more boats were intercepted in the previous 24 hours between Indonesia and Australia.

Refugees intercepted in Indonesia can expect a long wait for resettlement by the UN. Some try again to cross illegally by boat, despite the hazardous journey, often by tapping savings by relatives at home. Others languish for years in squalid hostels or other temporary accommodation.

The number of Sri Lankan Tamils trying to reach Australia is on the rise and appears linked to the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels in May. Some refugees have said they fled from overcrowded refugee camps in Sri Lanka where Tamil civilians were detained after the war, a policy that has drawn international criticism.

The detention policy certainly gives more weight to Tamil claims of persecution. But it doesn’t get those detained in Indonesia, like the 255 men, women and children aboard the ill-fated impounded boat any closer to their goal of receiving asylum in Australia.

© Christian Science Monitor

Related Links:
Sri Lankans beseech visiting Rudd - Jakarta Post
Sri Lankan Refugees Refuse to Leave Boat in Indonesia - VoA
Boat people and SL reputation - Daily Mirror

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sri Lanka: Government breaks promises that displaced can go home

The Sri Lankan government's recent statements that it aims to return only 100,000 of the original 273,000 displaced civilians confined to camps by the end of 2009 breaks a promise to camp residents and the international community, Human Rights Watch said today. In May, the government announced that 80 percent of the displaced people would be able to return home by the end of the year.

Since the end of the fighting in May, the government has released or returned fewer than 27,000 people, leaving about 245,000 civilians in the camps.

"Enough is enough," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It is well past time to release civilians detained in the camps. Sri Lanka's international friends should tell the government that they will not accept any more broken promises."

The Sri Lankan government has used its promises of rapid return (usually called "resettlement" by the government) to stave off international criticism over its treatment of ethnic Tamil civilians displaced by war. The displaced Tamils have been held in detention camps, which the government euphemistically calls "welfare centers," where they are deprived of their liberty and freedom of movement, in violation of international law.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for all civilians in the camps to be allowed to leave, even if security conditions do not permit them to return home immediately. Most could live with relatives or host families. Those who have nowhere to go could choose to stay in the camps, but this should be voluntary. For those who did stay, conditions would be improved because the camps would be less crowded. The United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and India have all called on the government to release civilians detained in camps as soon as possible.

The government has in its most recent statements dramatically decreased the number of people it says will be allowed to leave the detention camps by the end of 2009:

* On May 7, the official government news portal of Sri Lanka, http://www.news.lk/, announced that "[t]he Government plans to resettle over 80 percent of the displaced families in the North before the end of this year."

* Meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on May 23, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said, "The Government was already working on a plan to resettle most of the IDPs [internally displaced persons] within 180 days."

* In a July 16 letter of intent to the International Monetary Fund, which awarded Sri Lanka a US$2.6 billion loan, the government said that it "aims to resettle 70-80 percent of IDPs by the end of the year."

* On October 6, however, Deputy Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama, attending the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Istanbul, said that, "Sri Lanka may resettle 100,000 people from camps by the end of the year."

* On October 16, Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services Minister Rishard Bathiudeen said, "Our plan is to resettle around 100,000 persons by the end of this year."

These recent statements suggest that only about 37 percent of the original camp population would be freed from the camps by the end of 2009.

The Sri Lankan government has also made a number of statements about imminent releases of displaced persons from camps that proved to be untrue:

* On August 29, the government news portal announced: "Plans are afoot to resettle nearly fifty thousand persons now living in welfare camps shortly in their homes in Jaffna."

* In an official statement released on September 3, Northern Province Governor G.A Chandrasiri said: "All arrangements are in place to resettle 30,000 Internal Displaced Persons (IDPs) in 35 villages in Vavuniya District."

* On September 24, Minister of Mass Media and Information Anura Priryadarshana Yapa said: "The resettlement process of persons temporary [sic] accommodated at welfare camps in Vavuniya is in full swing and as of today, the Government has resettled 40,000 civilians in their place of origin."

* On September 25, the Ministry of Defense announced that active preparation is under way for "resettlement of an estimated number of one lakh [100,000] of displayed [sic] civilians by mid-October."

According to the UN, the government had returned only 13,502 displaced persons to their place of origin and released another 13,336 to host families and elders' homes as of October 9.

The media reported that on October 14, the Sri Lankan government promised a delegation of local parliamentarians from India that it will release 58,000 internally displaced persons from camps in the next two weeks.

"The Sri Lankan government is playing games with the lives and hopes of those displaced by the country's armed conflict," said Adams. "Its failure to address the genuine grievances of the Tamil community is disastrous for the country."

© Human Rights Watch

Related Links:
Group: Sri Lanka broke promise on war displaced - Jakarta Post

Colombo urged to release 2.45 lakh displaced Tamils from camps - PTI

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