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Sri Lanka 29 January 2009

Government urged to let press visit north freely

Reporters Without Borders formally appeals to President Mahindra Rajapaksa to allow Sri Lankan and foreign journalists to visit the north of the country freely. It also calls for an end to the harassment and attacks on news media that refuse to support the government and a military solution.

“Like the Israeli army in Gaza, the authorities in Colombo have decided to prevent media and humanitarian organisations from working freely,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Amid reports of a humanitarian tragedy and hundreds of civilian victims, it is deplorable that the Sri Lankan authorities are refusing to let the press operate freely. It is also counter-productive, as it can fuel the wildest rumours.”

The army organised a visit by a small group of journalists on 27 January to the northeastern port of Mullaittivu, the last town still held by the Tamil rebel organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, until it was taken by the army. Earlier this month, the defence ministry also took journalists to Killinochchi, the former LTTE capital.

Ever since the army began its offensive in late 2007, the press has been banned from visiting the north, including the refugee camps there, and even permission to go to Jaffna is given very rarely. The authorities have invited some media, but they were accompanied by the army, and that prevented any contact with the Tamil population, the main victims of the conflict.

As a member of the International Press Freedom Mission, Reporters Without Borders wrote in a report released a week ago: “As the army announces an imminent victory against the LTTE, independent information about the war has been reduced to a minimum. Freedom of the press is a victim of collateral damage in the war between the government and the Tamil Tigers.”

A foreign press correspondent in Colombo told Reporters Without Borders: “We have had no access to the field of operations for a year and now the authorities refuse to give us casualty figures.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross insists that a major humanitarian crisis is taking place in the north. At least 200,000 civilians are trapped in an area still controlled by the LTTE rebels and are in great danger. The army is using artillery and air strikes to reduce the pockets of resistance. At least 70,000 have died since the start of the civil war in 1972.




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