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Sri Lanka: voicing ‘damaging’ truths

10 May

In the midst of the civil war between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE, Channel 4 News reporter, Nick Paton Walsh was yesterday told by Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, that he would be deported, as a result of the a piece that was run on Tuesday concerning the internally displaced person (IDP) camps in Vavuniya.

Tuesday’s report carried allegations that dead bodies were being left in camps, children were separated from their parents and even seriously, women were being humiliated by having to bathe in public and also being sexually abused supposedly by Sri Lankan soldiers, according to aid workers.

So why has this not been picked up by the Sri Lankan media? A number of factors could be involved. The most obvious is government censorship – the media has to be guided by the army in IDP camps. Channel 4 managed to get cameras into certain zones of the camps and produced the first independent pictures of them.

The second concerns self-censorship. As well as gaining access, a Sri Lankan journalist would face the ethical dilemma of whether to fulfill his or her truth-telling duties – will it do more harm than good? Will I be preventing aid coming to the country? Or more simply, will I be putting myself in life-threatening danger? A relativist ethical approach of printing “all the truth that is fit to print” is discussed in Who is a development journalist?.

Nick Paton Walsh: Asia correspondent, Channel 4 News

Nick Paton Walsh: Asia correspondent, Channel 4 News

The report will now also be open to scrutiny from people who question the credibility of the aid worker sources and those who feel it has undermined access to camps for any other Western journalists now. 

Paton Walsh said the Sri Lankan government are sensitive, as they are partly looking to the international community, including the UN, to step-in. Rajapaska told him that Channel 4’s reports of the IDP camps “damaged the image of Sri Lanka”. In his blog today, he said:

“There is a reason why the government is so extraordinarily sensitive about this topic, bar the usual protectiveness of a nation for its armed forces. They need western money to fund these IDP camps – places government officials openly accept are “technically” internment camps. They will hold part of the country’s ethnic Tamil population for as long as three years, many involved say.

The government has spent a lot on the war and needs the UN to fund and manage this “resettlement” project – ostensibly the detention of up to 230,000 people for long enough to filter out any remaining militant sympathisers…

But there is a broader reason why deportation, not rapid rebuttal, was the chosen method in dealing with our allegations. The government is intolerant of a critical press. Journalists get killed – most notoriously Lasantha Wickrematunge – an editor assassinated in January.”

Now the UN has called for need to protect women and children in the camps to make them safer.

IDP Camp in Vavuniya about 160 miles north of Columbo, Sri Lanka

IDP Camp in Vavuniya about 160 miles north of Columbo, Sri Lanka