Sri Lanka’s reputation as an Indian Ocean paradise may hold true for determined holidaymakers, but for the sober-minded this image has been shattered in recent months.
First a damning UN report accused both sides in the country’s 30-year civil war of atrocities – a claim the current government refutes categorically.
Then in June British TV station Channel 4 broadcast a devastating account of the closing weeks of the conflict in 2009. At this time, the programme said, the Sri Lankan military systematically murdered thousands of civilians.
Colombo says the evidence is ‘fabricated’. Distinguishing truth from artifice is problematic in a country where the free press claims it is under constant threat. Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) sent a team to Sri Lanka to investigate.
Reporters with borders
In a new report the International Crisis Group says Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers "continue to repress the media and political opponents”. Other rights groups describe killings and disappearances of reporters alongside police impunity.
They also claim a widespread lack of press freedom, that the media does not tell it as it is, and that people are afraid to speak to reporters. Pressure is brought to bear on them with the use of armed men in white mini-vans, who kidnap or murder journalists. RNW’s team experienced that phenomenon first hand after a surprise roadside attack.
Few Western reporters have visited the former Tamil Tiger administered north and east of the country in the past year – journalist visas are not issued without months of bureaucratic delays.
Travelling from the relatively affluent capital Colombo, RNW’s two person team (who will remain anonymous for their safety, and that of the people they spoke to) saw how the further eastward one travels the poorer and more militarised the country becomes.
Entering on tourist visas to a former Tamil Tiger administered region, RNW spoke to locals on subjects as diverse as business, sport and the UN’s development role.
During one such conversation in a restaurant they were spied on and reported to the police, who later that night arrived at the hotel for a midnight interrogation. Ten police officers, including the Chief of Police, scared the team into leaving the region.
The following morning, on their way back to the well trodden tourist path, they were robbed and attacked at gunpoint by a gang in a white van.
Listen to their account of what happened. For security reasons, we have called them 'Olivia' and 'Philip'. They were speaking to RNW's Dheera Sujan. (Story continues below):
White van tactic
The intimidation of the ‘white van tactic' that Sri Lankan reporters had described now came sharply into focus.
“The police reaction is absurd, but it shows the fear of anything that, in their perception, might be connected to the Channel 4 programme or the UN investigation into war crimes”, Sanjana Hattotuwa from the independent Colombo-based media watchdog Groundviews told RNW.
“The government reaction is understandable because their stance has always been that there were no war crimes committed by their side – so they clamp down violently on anyone suggesting otherwise,” he added.
Leading the way
Raisa Wickrematunge from Sri Lanka’s most controversial newspaper, The Sunday Leader, believes the attack on Western journalists marks a new low.
"What is particularly shocking is the robbery that happened... Disappearances and things like this unfortunately still happen here. So in that sense it’s not really a first, but it’s quite shocking that they did this to foreign journalists, particularly the robbery."
Raisa is the niece of the Leader's outspoken and fearless former editor Lasantha Wickrematunge who was gunned down in 2009. The paper's Colombo newsroom is adorned with pictures of a smiling Wickrematunge, pen in hand.
Raisa joined the paper shortly after his murder, wanting to keep the memories and values of her uncle alive. "But after it happened, we decided we can't take that same hard line. Because the fact is that in the past people would attack us, now they would kill us."
Sri Lankan journalists self-censor to protect themselves. The current editor of the Sunday Leader Frederica Jansz explains why. "I don’t do this myself. I am willing to die for my job. But I understand that not everybody will do this."
Raisa says the fears are legitimate: "Many (reporters) … are taken in those white vans and they vanish. There are also cases documented where people were taken and abandoned later with their legs broken."
Mini-van, big trouble
The white van phenomenon is well-known to the Tamil diaspora. Donald Gnanakone, the president of pressure group Tamils for Justice, based in Los Angeles, told RNW: “You got white-vanned. This is a state-terrorist act’”.
Other reactions to the RNW experience confirm the likelihood of this being an example of state-sponsored press intimidation. A senior European diplomat working in Colombo, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “You can be sure this is the authorities sending you a message”.
Fear is the key
That a conversation can be overheard and misconstrued by informants, and then reported to the police is a story not commonly associated with South Asia.
Raisa Wickrematunge is pessimistic for the prospects of free speech in Sri Lanka'. "I don’t think that [objective journalism] is possible in this country. There are so many things you can’t write about."
"Even if you call people and say that you’re from the Sunday Leader, there is immediately this sense of fear, people don’t want to talk to you. We have to be very careful what we write about."