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Sri Lanka 5 January 2007

War of words and figures as press gets less access to the field

Reporters Without Borders voiced deep concern today about the fact that journalists are being denied all access to war zones while a war of words and figures is being waged between the government and the Tamil armed separatists, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“This week’s Padahuthurai bombing tragically showed that the lack of independent information is detrimental to the public interest and allows the two sides to feed their propaganda,” the press freedom organisation said.

“It is imperative that the president should order the army to allow journalists access to the theatre of military operations and to the zones controlled by the LTTE,” Reporters Without Borders added. “It is important that the LTTE should also ensure that journalists are able to move about freely.”

The organisation called on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to do everything possible to allow Jaffna-based newspapers to get supplies of newsprint and ink quickly in order to be able to continue publishing. The local press is in danger of disappearing because of serious problems of supplies and distribution.

The Tamil dailies Uthayan, Valampuri and Yarl Thinakkural have been reduced to publishing four-page issues instead of ones containing nearly 20 pages, which they normally produce. They could be forced to stop publishing altogether after 15 January if the authorities, especially the army, do not let them have newsprint and ink delivered from Colombo.

Northern Sri Lanka is suffering serious shortages as a result of the closure of the A9 highway from Colombo to Jaffna, which goes through areas controlled by the LTTE. The price of newsprint has tripled in recent weeks. The Tamil population in the Jaffna region relies on these three dailies as its source of news and information.

Uthayan was one of the nominees for the Reporters Without Borders press freedom prize in 2006. Four of its employees in Jaffna were killed last year and the newspaper’s premises were attacked several times. Most of the journalists working for Vaalampuri and Yarl Thinakkural have been threatened because of their coverage of the situation in the Jaffna peninsula.

In recent weeks, the armed forces and the LTTE have been waging a war of words and figures about ongoing military operations. On 2 January, the Sri Lanka air force bombed what it described as an LTTE military base near the western village of Padahuthurai. The Tamil Tigers responded that the air strike killed 15 civilians without hitting any military objective. No independent journalist has been able to enter the area.

As a result, some of the Sinhalese and English-language media in Colombo have relayed the information provided by the government, without verifying it, while Tamil-language media and websites have been using the information and pictures provided by the LTTE. In the case of Padahuthurai, the death of civilians was confirmed only because of the bishop of Mannar’s presence in the area.

The press has not been allowed to cover the fighting taking place in the eastern Vaharai region. Thousands of civilians are trapped in an area surrounded by government troops, and are being prevented from fleeing by the LTTE.

The army has been stopping the press from entering combat zones and regions controlled by the LTTE for the past several months. Reporters Without Borders already condemned this last August. The Sri Lankan army denied several journalists access to strategic towns such as Muttur where dozens of civilians had been killed in fighting.

The lack of independent reporting feeds rumors and propaganda. The governmental Daily News newspaper recently claimed, without any evidence, that Norwegian mediators had offered a TV set to the head of the LTTE.

These press freedom violations are being compounded by the self-censorship that has become obligatory as a result of the restoration of anti-terrorism legislation in December. The government had been planning to arrest Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickremathunga under its provisions last week for revealing that a luxurious bunker was being built for the president.

At the same time, three state media journalists were last month summoned for questioning by the police while a leading investigative journalist, Iqbal Attas, said he had been forced to censor himself on security issues because of the reactivation of the anti-terrorism legislation.

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