An open letter to Sri Lankan journalists
I definitely detected a delicious sense of “schadenfreude” from among you brave – but mischievous – Sri Lankan journalists, over the relentless harassment of me and my Channel 4 News colleagues by state intelligence, police and immigration officers.
I’m not referring to the ranting rottweiler “reporters” who do the regime’s clunky propagandist bidding, although I have no doubt that they enjoyed it too.
I’m talking about those of you who live with such harassment yourselves, day in, day out, and don’t – or can’t – complain.
Those of you who confided in me that doing what you do is sometimes really hard.
‘State repression of the press’
Come on, admit it. Finally us Brits were feeling the chill wind of state repression of the press in your beautiful tropical paradise – and we were feeling it at first hand.
Wasn’t there just a little part of you that secretly relished knowledge that that our train north had been blocked by pro-government demonstrators, tipped off by the intel agents travelling with us?
And what about when you heard that for the final couple of days of our visit we were being tailed by no less than five separate state intelligence vehicles? Didn’t you let slip a little smile?
I’m not suggesting for a moment that you didn’t sympathise with us when you heard that a gang of thugs had pelted us with rocks as we left an interview on Saturday.
You also probably recoiled, as we did, at the sinister broadcasts on state TV, as Callum Macrae, my friend and colleague and Director of No Fire Zone, was repeatedly denounced as a supporter of the Tamil Tigers.
I do know you shared our disgust and indignation when we were removed from the lists of “approved journalists” deemed worthy of attending news conferences with your delightful president (the one who, by the way, still owes me that promised cup of tea.)
If it hadn’t been for some persistent haranguing of your Mass Media Minister by Commonwealth Spokesman Richard Uku and by the indefatigability of my Editor, Ben de Pear, we wouldn’t have got in there.
Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims
Don’t worry though if you did “schmirk schadenfreudenly” at some of the above. This assignment had its angsty moments, but we enjoyed it too. We love your country.
And for all that is reported to the contrary, we know that we have many friends there.
Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. So many people gave us secret thumbs-ups or whispered, winked or nodded their support. Sometimes in the most surprising places.
There aren’t many things that I delight in more, as a journalist, than turning a camera on pesky intel irritants in a repressive country.
The opportunity I had to do just that in downtown Colombo, near the York Street HQ of CID, was, I’ve got to say, unusually satisfying.
It’s up there with a fight I had with my Gaddafi minder and tops similar run-ins in Zimbabwe, Burma, China, Syria and Sudan.
That said, I do not mean to make light of what these agents of state repression are capable off.
‘Push the boundaries’
As foreign journalists, visiting during a major international summit, and with our own prime minister and foreign secretary in town, we had a security blanket I know that you don’t have.
I reckon it was thought unwise to arrest and torture us or kill us, tempting as it must have been.
Both Callum and I had death threats prior to coming, but we recognise that it was much safer for us than it is for you.
That is why we felt it was important to push the boundaries as we’d have expected to have been able to do in a “free and democratic country” as your president called Sri Lanka yesterday.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has maintained that he’s committed to Commonwealth values – which include freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
How he’s done so, while keeping a straight face, I cannot fathom. Some of your newspaper editors are tethered goats. Your state TV is edging towards Pyongyang.
I know that at least nine of your number have been murdered in the past ten years.
There are few things that chilled me quite as much as reading Lasantha Wickrematunge’s death foretold.
I wince in pain when I hear Prageeth Eknaligoda’s wife still pressing to find out where her abducted husband’s gone.I too have heard what you’ve all heard: that nothing at all of Eknaligoda remains.
I know that the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Sri Lanka 162nd out of 179 in terms of independence of the press.
I know the red lines which you cross at great risk to your life expectancy. I know it can be difficult for you to write critically of the Rajapaksa brothers.
You cannot write about the army and, unlike us, you can’t really even mention the war.
I know that you live with what Reporters Sans Frontieres ranks as the worst record for press freedom for any parliamentary democracy anywhere in the world.
But then again, to cast Sri Lanka as a parliamentary democracy is kind of stretching irony.
But for all the restrictions, I marvel at the inventive ways you find to bravely do your jobs.
I nearly fell off my chair in Rajapaksa’s press conference yesterday when a Sinhalese journalist was the first to stand up and ask the president about war crimes allegations.
We were all witnesses to what he did. I hope to God he’ll be OK once the spotlight’s off Sri Lanka once again.
I’m sitting writing this on the plane, having been forced, by threats to our security, to leave faster than we’d planned for.
I’ve been reading your Sunday papers. I understand how clever you are being, in the sometimes oblique ways in which you have to work.
I really understand how difficult it is. I understand the terrible dilemmas you must face when quoting people who themselves are putting their lives at risk. It’s really hard. I share your anxieties.
It was inspirational to have met you. We all admire you for the way you operate in the face of this repression.
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