Reporters Without Borders today called on both sides in Sri Lanka’s civil war to see that journalists could continue reporting in areas of fighting, especially in the northeastern town of Muttur, and criticised them for refusing to allow the media into these zones.
"We know some parts of the country have become very dangerous because of the war but the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) must not in any circumstances use this as an excuse to stop local and foreign media moving around and investigating the true situation in the east and north of the country," the worldwide press freedom organisation said.
It said it would appeal to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to provide facilities for journalists there.
"Hundreds of civilians have been killed and it is vital that each side allows relief workers and journalists to work freely in these areas," it said. "We have to know what has happened in Muttur and other places."
Since fighting broke out in the Trincomalee area, several Sri Lankan and foreign journalists have been barred from strategic towns, including Muttur, by the Sri Lankan army, which has also kept them out of rebel-controlled areas that are now inaccessible by land. The rebels have shown no interest in allowing independent journalists to report from the areas they hold and during the attack on Muttur (a mostly Muslim town) they refused access to relief workers as well.
A group of journalists, including some from the BBC, were barred on 7 August from Muttur, where 17 Tamil employees of the French NGO Action contre la Faim were killed two days earlier. The government and the Tamil Tiger rebels each blamed the other for the killings.
One foreign journalist told Reporters Without Borders that many army roadblocks also stopped the media getting to places that were far from any fighting. Official passes could be obtained after a few days wait but in practice did not allow completely free movement. All journalists said the restrictions made it very hard to report on the fighting and have access to the victims.
The Sri Lankan navy took journalists to Muttur from Trincomalee on 5 August, the day after the rebels said they were pulling out of the town and as government troops moved in to occupy it.
"We are living in fear," one journalist said in Trincomalee. "Our job is to report but we do so at the risk of our lives. All the restrictions prevent us from talking to the war’s victims."
Reporters Without Borders is extremely concerned about the plight of Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese journalists in the Trincomalee area and said both the fighting and targeted killings put them in a "very dangerous" situation and that "once again their right to keep the public informed is being violated."
The organisation noted that Subramaniyam Sugirdharajan, correspondent for the Tamil-language daily Sudar Oli in Trincomalee, was murdered on 24 January, the day after an article by him appeared about the brutalities of Tamil paramilitary groups. Despite promises, no official investigation of the murder has been made.