Press Censorship in Sri Lanka

Satin Curtain over Sri-Lanka (Press Censorship in Sri Lanka)

Thanjai Nalankilli

TAMIL TRIBUNE, August 1998 (ID. 1998-08-01)
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Executive Summary

1. Introduction

2. The Satin Curtain

3. During The Offensive for Jaffna

4. After Taking Control of Jaffna

5. Curtain Number 1: Limit Access To Human Rights Groups

6. Curtain Number 2: Accuse Human Rights Groups of Bias

7. Curtain Number 3: Censor Human Rights Reports

8. Our Plea to Donor Countries


LTTE - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

UK - United Kingdom

UNP - United National Party


This article is about press freedom or lack of it in Sri Lanka. It discusses the tight control the Sri Lankan government exercises on the flow of information out of Tamil areas, in order to hide the atrocities (arbitrary arrests, torture and murder in detention, retaliatory massacres of civilians and rape-murders of Tamil women) committed by army and police. The author asks if the army-police atrocities against minority Tamil civilians have significantly decreased in her rule, as Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga claims, why is she controlling information flow out of Tamil areas tighter than ever in the 15 year history of the civil war? That does not make sense.

The author requests donor countries that they make financial aid to Sri Lanka CONDITIONAL on it allowing foreign reporters, refugee relief organizations and human right groups full and free access to Tamil areas so that the world may know how minority Tamil civilians are treated by the Sri Lankan army and police. The article ends with an extract from a recent speech on human rights by Justice Marcus Einfeld, Justice of the Federal Court of Australia and the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory.


Soon after the Second World War, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave a memorable speech on March 5, 1946 at Westminster College, in which he said: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the (European) Continent."

Soviet (Russian) dictator Joseph Stalin pulled down an iron curtain over East European countries his victorious army had occupied at the end of the war, in order to keep the rest of the world blind of the way he brutally and sadistically put down any resistance to Soviet domination over these newly "conquered" territories. Behind this iron curtain millions of peace-loving, freedom-loving people were enslaved brutally under Russian guns and tanks.

Such is the situation today in the island of Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga has pulled down a "satin curtain" over the minority Tamil areas under her control, in order to keep the world blind to the brutality and terror minority Tamil civilians suffer under Sri Lankan army and police. No one is safe. Thousands of Tamil civilians have been killed in aerial bombing, naval shelling and mortar attacks on civilian areas including schools, temples, mosques and churches where civilians had taken shelter. In addition, thousands of Tamils have been arrested arbitrarily with out any charges or arrest warrants and many of them are never seen again alive - their tortured dead bodies occasionally found in lakes, rivers and road sides; no one has been punished for these murders. Hundreds of Tamil women, teenage girls to mothers in their forties, have been raped at will by soldiers and police and some of them murdered after the rape. In spite of hundreds of incidences, only one well-publicized rape-murder incidence was tried and the culprit soldiers and police punished; other rapists and murderers are still in the army and police free. Whole villages were wiped out (residents massacred in cold blood including months old babies and elderly men and women in their seventies) in retaliation for LTTE attacks on the army or police; no one has been punished for these massacres.(Full details of these atrocities with dates, places and names may be found in reports issued by international human rights groups such as Amnesty International.)

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga has drawn a satin curtain over the Tamil areas in order to prevent the world from knowing such atrocities in the future. She can say that "there are no more atrocities against minority Tamils and our army and police are behaving well" either by really curtailing the atrocities or by pulling a curtain over the Tamil areas and hiding the atrocities from world view. She has chosen the latter course. Why else would President Kumaratunga refuse entry into Tamil areas by foreign reporters, relief agencies and human rights organizations, and would even take the unprecedented step of censoring human rights reports by unbiased foreign human rights groups?


Why do we call it a "satin curtain" instead of an iron curtain? Soviet dictator Stalin's curtain over Eastern Europe was crude and rude - an iron curtain. He did not care much about world opinion because he did not need anything from the rest of the world. That is not the case with Sri Lanka. It needs financial aid from other countries to offset the huge war budget. So, unlike Stalin's crude and rude iron curtain, President Kumaratunga's curtain to cover up the brutal reality of the Tamil areas is bright colored and smooth - a "satin curtain". Stalin's black and rusty iron curtain or Kumaratunga's colorful and bright satin curtain, they both serve the same evil purpose, to cover up the murders, tortures and rapes committed by army and police.


Let us explore some facets of Sri Lanka's satin curtain.

While repeating again and again that her government respects the human rights of the Tamil minority and that her war was against the Tamil fighters (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and not against Tamil civilians, President Kumaratunga unleashed the most brutal, no-holds barred military offensive to wrestle control of the Jaffna Peninsula from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Sri Lankan army, navy and air force showed no regards for Tamil civilian life. According to independent statistics published in August 1996, one-fifth of all the deaths during the past 13 years was in the first two years of President Chandrika Kumaratunga's rule. (These numbers tell more that all the propaganda unleashed by President Kumaratunga and her foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.)

How to hide this total disregard for minority Tamil civilian life and the large numbers of civilian casualties? Answer is simple. Ban foreign reporters, human rights groups and refugee aid organizations not only from Jaffna but also from areas to which Tamil refugees have fled. This is exactly what Sri Lanka did. Her foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said "we do not, at this particular moment, wish to permit outside agencies, including the United Nations, to run any independent relief work in the country." Why not? Answer is simple. Prevent all contact between Tamil refugees and foreigners, even United Nations relief agencies, so that the world does not hear about the enormous civilian casualties through the relief workers. If there is any other explanation, we would like to hear it from foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Security reasons cannot be attributed here. First, does Sri Lanka consider United Nations relief agencies as security risk? Second, these agencies were prohibited from refugee areas that are far from the war zone.


Once the Sri Lankan army wrestled control of much of Jaffna Peninsula, Tamil civilians returned to their homes from the wretched conditions of refugee camps. (Civilians returning to their homes is no indications of their vote of confidence on the army. After all, during the Second World War most French civilians lived in their homes under Nazi occupation! Home is sweet even under enemy occupation!)

The horrors and nightmares were not over for these returning civilians. Another phase of fear and terror started in the lives of these innocent Tamil civilians. There were arbitrary arrests of thousands of Tamil civilians. According to the United Nations, Sri Lanka has the highest number of civilian "disappearances" in the world.

Torture-deaths in custody:

List of horrors in Tamil areas read like an encyclopedia of crimes against humanity. Torture and torture murders are common in army and police custody. Murdered bodies were mostly tossed into lakes and rivers. Occasionally a tortured dead body would wash ashore. According to Times of India, a respected newspaper from India, some bodies had their kidneys removed. Were they harvested for organ transplant?

Reprisal massacres:

If an army patrol is attacked by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), soldiers took it on innocent Tamil civilians of nearby villages. Everyone in the village, including months old babies, pregnant women and elders in their seventies, were lined up and murdered. (These are all documented by international human rights watch groups.)


If a soldier or police liked a Tamil woman, whether it is a teenage girl or a mother in her forties, she was taken to their camp and gang raped. Some were sadistically murdered after the rape. Relatives complaining about it are threatened and in some cases murdered. So many rapes go unreported. There are several hundred rapes each year after the army took control of Jaffna. U.S. Committee for Refugees reported in March 1997 that Jaffna residents' fear of rape is as pervasive as their concern about disappearances.


There were so many independent human rights reports of massacres, tortures and rapes that it became a problem to President Kumaratunga's assertions to foreign governments that her government has curtailed human rights abuses. So she limited the access of human rights groups into Tamil areas. Every human rights organization working in Sri Lanka has complained that their entry into Tamil areas were severely restricted.


During Sri Lankan army's Jaffna offensive and following their victorious entry into Jaffna city, there was dire need for humanitarian aid to the thousands of refugees who fled the city and environs. A number of international relief agencies held a meeting in the Sinhala town of Humbantola to chalk out a plan to help Tamil refugees. A Sinhala mob broke up the meeting saying that the relief agencies are pro-Tamil. Sri Lankan police did not give any protection, and so the agencies rescheduled the meeting in Ratmalana. This time the government itself would not allow the meeting, saying that the agencies did not get the necessary permission to hold the meeting. First the President Kumaratunga government would not give protection to hold the scheduled meeting in Humbantola, then the government itself would not allow the rescheduled meeting at Ratmalana because they did not get a permission to hold the meeting.

When the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported the Sri Lankan Air Force bombing of a Jaffna church killing large number of Tamil civilians taking shelter there, instead of taking effective measures to prevent bombing civilian targets, the Sri Lankan government accused the ICRC of siding with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). What reason does ICRC has to be biased towards the LTTE? ICRC almost lost the government permission to operate in Sri Lanka. President Kumaratunga, while repeating that her government respects the human rights of Tamil minority, tries to silence the independent human rights groups that expose the reality to the world. Sri Lankan officials have criticized Amnesty International to be biased towards the LTTE several times. What reason does Amnesty International have to be biased towards the LTTE?


Even with limited access to Tamil areas, Sri Lankan government's accusation against reputed, international human rights group of bias towards the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and indirect threats to close down the operations of human rights groups in Sri Lanka, a small percentage of murders, rapes and tortures of Tamil civilians by Sri Lankan army and police were exposed by human rights groups. Even this small percentage was large enough to tarnish the image of a humane government that President Kumaratunga and her foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar are painting to the world. So President Kumaratunga dropped another layer of her satin curtain.

She ordered that all international human rights organizations operating in Sri Lanka should submit their reports to Sri Lankan government censors before publishing them. This is unprecedented action. According to REUTERS "there have no previous known instances of censorship of human rights groups (anywhere in the world)". Yet this is President Kumratunga, who repeatedly ascertains to the world that murders, tortures and rapes of minority Tamil civilians have come down in her rule, that imposes censorship on independent human rights organizations? If, in fact, murder, torture and rape of Tamil civilians by her army and police have come down significantly under her leadership, she should be inviting every human rights organization to visit the Tamil areas and file their reports uncensored by her government. The very fact that she severely limits access to Tamil areas by human rights groups and then goes to the extreme of censoring the few human rights reports coming out of Tamil areas by independent foreign organizations is proof that murder, rape and torture of Tamil civilians is widespread.

PBI Statement on Government Censorship of Human Rights Reports

The international human rights organization Peace Brigade International (PBI), headquartered in London, UK, had worked in Sri Lanka since 1989. Following the Sri Lankan demand that all human rights groups submit their reports to government censors before release, it closed down its operations in Sri Lanka. Here are excerpts from its letter to President Kumaratunga, with copy to her foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar:

"On 4 March 1998, at a meeting with members of the Ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs and Plan Implementation and Parliamentary Affairs, we were informed that we would be unable to continue our work in Sri Lanka without agreeing to new and strict conditions. In particular, those conditions included the demand that we refrain from publishing reports outside Sri Lanka without first submitting them to the appropriate government ministries. No such condition had ever been imposed before, not even under the United National Party (UNP) government. As a non-governmental organization with a firm commitment to non-partisanship and independence, it was unthinkable that we could condition our work in this way. As a result our on-island representatives did not receive the necessary recommendation for residents visas to be issued. Under these circumstances we were forced to withdraw much more abruptly that we had planned."

"These measures undermine trust in the government, and weaken the possibilities for achieving true democracy and respect for human rights."


When the Sri Lankan government asks foreign nations for financial and other aid in the future, these nations should ask Sri Lanka to give foreign relief agencies and human rights groups full and free access to Tamil areas. The well-meaning donor countries who generously give financial aid to Sri Lanka do always ask the Sri Lankan government to curtail army and police human rights abuses and to end the war by peace negotiations. Though the Sri Lankan President Kumaratunga and her foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar always assure that they would do so, murder, rape and torture of Tamil civilians by Sri Lankan army and police continue unchecked and the Sri Lankan government refuses third party mediation to facilitate peace talks. We respectfully request donor countries to give future aid CONDITIONAL on the Sri Lankan government allowing foreign relief agencies and human rights groups full and free access to Tamil areas so that the real human rights situation in Tamil areas can be reported to the world, and on the Sri Lankan government agreeing to mediated peace talks. If Sri Lanka does not agree to these two reasonable conditions, all aid to Sri Lanka should be withheld. Many governments and individuals of great stature have shown an interest to mediate talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); while LTTE welcomed such mediation, it is the Sri Lankan government that is refusing mediation.

We close this article with an excerpt from a speech on May 25, 1998 at the University of Sydney on the topic of "Rights, Obligations, Responsibilities: The Human Dimension" by Justice Marcus Einfeld (Justice of the Federal Court of Australia and the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory):

"The lovely peaceable island of Sri Lanka continues to suffer from civil strife in which death, rape, torture, detention and disappearance of civilians, primarily Tamils, are common occurrences.

A recognition of the Tamils as a people with its own distinct ethnicity, and a cessation of brutality and a range of other serious human rights violations by security forces, and of armed and aerial attack on Tamil townships, are not too much to ask of the Sri Lankan Government.

Neither is it unreasonable to ask that the Sri Lankan Government accept third party mediation.

Neither would it be a threat to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka if journalists and other independent observers were permitted into every part of the country to examine the human rights situation of both Tamil and Sinhalese areas."


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