Information, tips and advice for journalists travelling to Sri Lanka for work
Threats to journalists and to media freedom have grown significantly in Sri Lanka, especially since the escalation of fighting in 2006 between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). More than a dozen journalists and media workers have been killed and several have disappeared since the conflict intensified. Security forces, militia with links to the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE are known to intimidate, abduct and detain journalists.
Tamil reporters working in the strife-torn north and east of the island have borne the brunt of the intimidation. The fact that most of the killings and abductions have taken place inside high security zones (HSZs) and during curfew hours signals the complicity of the armed forces as they are responsible for security. Increasingly, Sinhalese journalists – especially those reporting on corruption or critical of the government’s conduct of the war – have been detained, threatened and at times assaulted in the capital Colombo.
Not surprisingly, Sri Lanka has been ranked by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF, or Reporters without Borders) as the fourth most dangerous country in the world for media workers and journalists.
Sri Lankan media are split along linguistic and ethnic lines. Tamil and Sinhala publications and broadcasters tend to take a more Tamil/Sinhala nationalist line than the English media. Newspapers are heavily dependent on advertising as a source of income since circulation of newspapers is limited.
State-owned media reflect the government line and are looked upon as its mouthpiece. The state-owned Daily News (www.dailynews.lk/2008/10/03/main_News.asp) and Dinamina are widely read English and Sinhala dailies respectively. The Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) operates Sinhala, Tamil and English radio services for its domestic listeners. Its overseas service has a large following, especially in neighbouring India and in the Middle East. The state-owned Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) has two channels – Rupavahini and Channel Eye.
Privately-owned publications and broadcasters are more critical of the government. The Island (www.island.lk), Sunday Leader, Sunday Times and Daily Mirror (www.dailymirror.lk/DM_BLOG/Sections/frmHome.aspx) are among the bigger privately-owned English newspapers. Lankadipa and Lakbima are popular Sinhala newspapers, while the Uthayan, Sudar Oli and Veerakesari are widely read Tamil dailies. There are over a dozen private radio and television stations.
The Defence Ministry and the LTTE regularly put out their version of how the war is going but casualty figures are hard to verify as journalists are barred from travelling to the front lines.
There are restrictions on travel to the Tamil areas. Travel to Wanni, the focus of the current fighting between the armed forces and the LTTE, is not allowed. And journalists must get special permission to travel to Vavuniya, where Tamils displaced from the north are streaming in.
Travel to Jaffna requires permission from the Ministry of Defence. With the overland route to the Jaffna peninsula closed, the journey is possible only by air from Colombo and by sea from Trincomalee. A return flight to Jaffna costs around NZ$275. The flight itself takes only an hour but passengers need to check in at least five hours ahead of departure and bags are checked several times, making the journey extremely arduous.
The Ministry of Defence must be ‘informed’ of an intention to travel to the Eastern Province, which can be reached by train or taxi.
Non-government organisations (NGOs) and human rights groups are useful sources of information and of insights on developments in the conflict areas, although they are more likely to speak off the record. Ordinary Tamil civilians are also valuable sources but are unlikely to share their experiences unless you are recommended by a trusted friend.
A room in a medium-range hotel will cost around NZ$60. Paying guest accommodation is a less expensive option. Staying in cheap guest houses or hotels is not advisable as these are subjected to routine searches by security forces. There have been instances in the past of foreign journalists being searched and questioned by intelligence agencies.
Internet facilities, though slow, are available in most hotels as well as in roadside shops.
Photography and video-taping in HSZs is prohibited. All military establishments and some government buildings, including official residences, have been declared as HSZs. Be aware that some may not be signposted.
Travel off the main roads in the north and east is best avoided as these areas are heavily landmined.
Contributor: Dr Sudha Ramachandran
Latest update September 2008