What can the West do about the ‘information black hole’ in Sri Lanka?

By Jasper Jackson

More than 30,000 civilians may have died in the final days of the Sri Lankan civil war, according to the International Crisis Group.

But an “information black hole” created by the Sri Lankan government has prevented the world from uncovering the actions of both state forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), according to members of a Frontline Club panel debating press freedom in Sri Lanka.

If you couldn’t be with us for this event, you can watch the whole thing here:

Channel 4 foreign affairs correspondent Jonathan Miller said that western journalists were last year obstructed from investigating reports of atrocities in the small strip of north eastern Sri Lanka where the LTTE made their final stand.

He said that he and others are still being denied visas to enter the countr, and are the target of propaganda campaigns designed to discredit their reporting. Miller added that conditions for Sri Lankan journalists are far worse:

“In the last three years 15 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka. In the last year, 29 journalists have been forced to flee the country. Others have been abducted and beaten…Very few are left who dare raise their heads above the parapet.”

Amnesty International Sri Lanka researcher Yolanda Foster claimed there is “a climate of fear for journalists” in Sri Lanka, adding that suppression of the press was compounded by a lack of “enforceable justice mechanisms”.

Douglas Wickramaratne, president of the Sinhala Association of Sri Lankans in the UK, provided a dissenting voice. Addressing an often hostile audience, he claimed the country is a “vibrant democracy” with a healthy press unafraid to criticise its government.

Wickramaratne warned that investigations by international bodies and journalists risked jeopardizing reconstruction following the LTTE’s defeat. Sri Lanka is “quite capable” of investigating allegations of human rights abuses, he claimed.

“It is not the time for others to intervene…to disrupt what is going on in Sri Lanka…No sovereign state would allow that kind of interference by an international organisation.”

Miller claims Sri Lanka has set a dangerous precedent for internal conflicts in other countries:

“The international crisis group has referred to this as the ‘Sri Lankan option’. This is a reference to what they say is un-restrained military action combined with refusal to negotiate, disregard of humanitarian issues and clamping down on the press…Now other countries are interested in how they managed to do that and get away with it.”

Edward Mortimer, former Financial Times writer and chair of the Advisory Council for the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, argued that developing countries emerging from their own struggles must help hold Sri Lanka to account.

“If it’s left to the west, probably nothing will change. The crucial thing is what attitude are the democracies in the developing world going to take…They should insist that their elected governments apply the same principles in international life that they have applied domestically.”