Sri Lanka’s attempts to restrict media accreditation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) later this year and bar international journalists who have exposed the atrocities committed against the Tamil people at the end of the armed conflict, have led to widespread condemnation of the state’s abysmal record on press freedom. Whilst the condemnation is welcome, the current furore negates the very crux of the conflict – the Tamil question. The Sri Lankan state’s clampdown on press freedom is not universal in its intention or impact. Instead, Sri Lanka has a long-standing policy of targeting the Tamil press (and by extension, non-Tamil journalists probing Tamil injustices) in an attempt to silence the Eelam Tamil nation. To Tamil journalists working in the North-East, the granting of media accreditation to their international counterparts is of little consequence. The juxtaposition, so close to home, only serves to highlight the lack of press freedom available to them.
Since the end of the armed conflict, there has been increasing international criticism at the Sri Lankan state’s attacks on the media and the curtailment of freedom of expression. Assault, abduction and murder of media workers are rife. Impunity is rampant. The excesses of the Rajapaksa’s shamelessly authoritarian rule impinge tangibly on the press freedoms of all media workers on the island. The assassination of a widely acclaimed Sinhala newspaper editor and the disappearance of a notable Sinhala cartoonist are cases in point. Indeed many Sinhala journalists now live in exile. The Sri Lankan government’s deplorable attempts to exert control over the process of media accreditation for CHOGM are, in part, an extension of iron rule.
International condemnation and scrutiny of press freedom is welcome. However, the current discourse is severely wanting. The problem in Sri Lanka is not merely one of a universal clampdown on all anti-government press. There is instead, very specifically, a long-standing stranglehold on Tamil press in the North-East – including Tamil journalists, as well as any reporting of Tamil affairs, particularly injustices. The numbers speak for themselves. The murder, abduction and attacking of Tamil media workers are disproportionately higher than that of their Sinhala counterparts. Moreover, the introduction of the 6th Amendment, as well as the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act has resulted in endemic self-censorship. Unlike the prevailing clampdown of all anti-government media, the stranglehold of Tamil press - which precedes the Rajapaksa era - is aimed at quashing the collective political conscience of the Eelam Tamil nation, and thereby any possibility of Tamil resistance.
The Sri Lankan state’s attempt to discredit and silence non-Tamil journalists, who probe into Tamil injustices, is but an extension of this stranglehold. The international journalists at the centre of the CHOGM media controversy were not singled out for being prominent journalists, but precisely because their work had exposed the Sri Lankan state’s atrocities against Tamils, and that they are actively calling for justice and accountability. That many such journalists ritually condemn the LTTE, in an attempt to portray themselves as ‘unbiased’, is of little consequence to Sri Lanka, whose working logic is a dichotomy of ‘with us or against us’. Indeed the language used in denunciation, reflects this: “white tigers” and “terrorist sympathisers”. The Sri Lankan government’s use of such remarks, designed to delegitimise and criminalise international journalists and human rights activists, has been met by a welcome collective condemnation by the international media and activist community. Whilst this is commendable, the community’s comparative apathy towards the Sri Lankan state’s long-standing, identical defamation and criminalisation of Tamil journalists and activists, is deplorable. It effectively endorses Sri Lanka’s logic that those who are Tamil and call for greater freedoms and rights, can legitimately be branded a ‘terrorist’, with no evidence to substantiate the accusation.
Whilst Sri Lanka’s attempts to influence media accreditation for CHOGM have resulted in welcome international condemnation, the converse cannot be lauded as a sign of progress. The eventual granting of visas and accreditation for international journalists is indicative only of their own clout. Their entry, safe stay and departure from the island, bear no reflection on the security threats faced by journalists on the island, nor that, which Tamil diaspora journalists would potentially face on return. Moreover, it is poignant that the Sinhala South’s agitation against the clampdown on press freedoms, is not an outcry against the long-standing subjugation of the Tamil press, but merely a call to push back the excesses of Rajapaksa’s rule. Thus, lest we forget, when the circus of CHOGM has come and gone, the stranglehold on Tamil press in the North-East will remain unchanged.