17 Nov 2013

Sri Lanka, ‘impossible journalism’ and Channel 4 News

As the controversial CHOGM in Sri Lanka comes to an end, Channel 4 News Editor Ben de Pear reveals why he is pulling his team out of the country in the face of intimidation.

Channel 4 News Editor, Ben de Pear (@bendepear) writes:

Today, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa closed what has been a controversial CHOGM summit.

The final communique avoided any mention of human rights – one of the central principles of the Commonwealth – instead agreeing to cooperate on a number of issues, including poverty reduction, trade and youth affairs.

Tonight there will be no report from Channel 4 News on this important summit from Colombo, as despite having been invited to Sri Lanka, granted visas and even accredited for the event, after a difficult week it became impossible for Channel 4 News to operate as journalists in the county.

On arrival six days ago we were greeted at the airport and our hotel by organised and controlled protests; with banners and chants accusing us of lying and supporting the LTTE- the former Tamil Tigers who fought the government for 26 years.

After being invited to visit any part of the country – as were all CHOGM journalists publicly by the president – when we took a train to the north of the country, even the train was met and stopped by another organised protest.

Forced back to Colombo

We were then forced into a van by police and driven back to Colombo.

Much of the Sri Lankan press, which has to toe the government line- and all of them have to in some degree in a country ranked 162nd out of 178 for press freedom by the Committee to Protect Journalists, has reported our every move as front page news.

Strangely they’ve known where we are going most of the time even when we haven’t told them.

In public although the president has invited us for tea (an invitation repeated publicly by other public officials) it is clear after exhaustive follow-up phone calls this is not a genuine invitation.

The government has tried to exclude us from CHOGM press conferences and were it not for a few robust and key officials doing their jobs we would have been prevented from asking questions of the figures leading this summit.

Chogm and the commonwealth’s three key themes remember are democracy, open government, and the rule of law.

Monitored by security services

We have been followed everywhere by people we are reliably informed are intelligence, on foot, motorbike, motor rickshaw and in mostly, for some uniform reason, silver hatchback cars.

Our phones and laptops have been monitored, our hotel was under instructions to tell the authorities every time we left, and it has been made clear to us by those who have bravely wanted to meet that many of them are then spoken to themselves.

We were tailed by up to four vehicles, and when we stopped to film the scene of a Tamil Tiger terror attack in 1996, our crew had rocks hurled at them by people we believe to be members of the security services.

During the afternoon we received a number of warning phone calls from inside and outside Sri Lanka that the situation was highly dangerous for us.

Finally this morning at 6.20am at least six burly men knocked on my hotel door. It was an intimidating experience. People often get visits in this country and are bundled off in white vans never to be seen again.

Whilst I realise we have a large degree of protection as foreigners I have heard enough from a few who have survived these visits and the relatives of those who never come back.

When I eventually let them in they identified themselves as being from immigration police.

Threats of intimidation

They told me we had broken the terms of our visa by “attempting to enter the president’s palace”, and that our visa required that we only visit and film Chogm, though this is directly contradicted by the terms and conditions of the accreditation and the repeated statements of the president.

They told me we could now only visit CHOGM venues, and that we were not allowed to film or go anywhere else.

For the record, we did not attempt to sneak into President Rajapaksa’s residence.

We didn’t feel very courageous leaving early compared to the many brave people we have spoken to and interviewed.

They attempt to live in Sri Lanka by the standards the Chogm summit supposedly represents. But we want to avoid those people and the many others who want to talk about the horrors of the past and the repression of the present ending up facing arrest, detention and perhaps worse by their association with us.

We will attempt to track all of the people we spoke to and monitor what happens to them.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, with wonderful people.

Lied to by the Sri Lankan government

But it is a traumatised nation after 26 years of war. The ruthless terror campaign of the Tamil Tigers made Colombo a city of fear, where parents dared not send children to school and everywhere and everyone was a target for the Tiger suicide bombers.

We have faced the anger and the tears of those people, many of whom lost loved ones, who were told by the government the lie that we supported and were funded by the LTTE.

None of the protestors we engaged with had seen our coverage, or Callum Macrae’s films, but they have been subjected to a relentless campaign on behalf of the Sri Lankan government for years to discredit our journalism.

Criticism is fine in an open and free society, but there have been people arrested and detained for having DVDs of Channel 4’s Sri Lanka films.

Likewise the north is traumatised by the war, particularly by its ending, and the few short weeks in which tens of thousands of people died, and grievous war crimes took place.

That the war ended is a good thing. The manner of its ending has been the focus of much of our and Channel 4’s journalism and the serious questions raised by the films in particular are still unanswered.

The people who so effectively executed the annihiliation of the Tamil Tigers and many tens of thousands around them still run the country on a war footing.

Now the enemy is civil society, journalists, the opposition. But we leave heartened. Everywhere we went, as subtly but as strongly as they could, Sri Lankans; Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim tipped us the wink, gave us a thumbs up, whispered a thank you.

Sri Lankan journalist colleagues told us of their jealousy of our freedom to tell the stories they know are true.

Police and security personnel laughed with us at the absurdity of our treatment and the orders they must follow.

Sri Lankans are no fools; the war is over. Now give them peace.