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Sri Lanka's Genocidal War - '95 to '01
BBC correspondent Flora Botsford: "There were no direct threats against me, but..."
Telephone Interview with BBC correspondent Flora Botsford, in Colombo on BBC World Service "Outlook" Programme, Presenter: Barbara Meyer - 6 January 1997, 7.p.m -
|"...there are no direct threats against me. On the other hand....and I won�t go into details.......when I was offered an exclusive interview, recently, with someone from the rebel side, it was made very clear to me that if I interviewed this person, if I travelled to interview this person, my life would be a misery when I got back, I might even have to leave the country.... Recently, some journalists were taken up to an area in the North which the government had recently captured from the Tamil Tigers and none of the international media were invited. Only local journalists were invited....and they were really.....it was spelt out very clearly to them... that this was to be used as an example to boost the army recruitment drive and certainly some of the journalists weren�t very happy with that."|
Barbara Meyer: The (Sri Lankan) government�s commitment to press freedom appears to be falling foul of the long ethnic conflict with the Tamil Tigers. In the latest incident a news director of the Independent Television Network (TNL) has been detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The arrest of Wickramasinghe has led fellow journalists to demonstrate for an end to intimidation. Flora Botsford, the BBC correspondent in Colombo joined me with the details.
B.M: What has she been charged with?
Flora Botsford: She�s been charged with being responsible for the broadcast of an allegedly incorrect news item which was sent out a couple of weeks ago, which was about an attack by Tamil Tiger rebels on a police post in Eastern Sri Lanka, and it appears that although the substance of the report wasn�t incorrect it didn�t actually use the words that had been given by the military officials in Colombo.
Therefore it didn�t tie in with their view of events. I think they�re not allowed to comment about the details of the case, but although other media organisations did report the same event, the government didn�t like the way that TNL did it. I think there may be a political background to all of this because we have to remember that TNL, the Television station in question is owned by the brother of the Opposition Leader.
In fact the woman arrested is the niece of the Opposition Leader and although the government wants the media to be saying what the government wants it to say, obviously if you allow the opposition to own media broadcasting organisations then perhaps they are going to take an anti-government stance, and perhaps that�s what the government isn�t happy with.
TV Journalist charged under Terrorism Act
B.M.: So she�s been charged with offences against the Terrorism Act?
F.B.: Exactly. Which is very peculiar but on the other hand there is a state of emergency in Sri Lanka and the government does have the right to arrest and question and detain anyone it feels is threatening the nation�s security. In this instance she�s been charged under a clause of the Act which talks about the �danger of communal violence erupting �. In other words if you get a report wrong, maybe there would be a backlash against one of the ethnic communities here and that would increase tensions in the country. That�s what the government is alleging in this case. Government unable to handle the idea of an independent media
B.M.: What do you think is behind it all?
F.B.: I think this government really hasn�t been able to handle the idea of an independent media. It had all the goodwill in the world when it was electioneering in 1994 and when it first came to power. But two years down the line it�s beginning to realise that the independent media can sometimes take a critical stance. It can also report things quickly, it can report things that it wants to report, in the way that it wants to report them and the government really hasn�t lost touch with the old way of doing things which was when the media was completely under state control. President Kumaratunga not used to criticism
B.M.: And yet in 1994 when the government came into power they made a very clear pledge that press freedom was a high priority.
F.B.: They certainly did. And I think it was. I think the government had seen for many years the United National Party in power abusing the press and controlling the press and it had a firm commitment then to maintaining a free press. On the other hand now that it�s been in power for two years it�s seen the downside of that. It�s seen that the government can be criticised, military operations can be criticised, the President herself can be criticised and that�s not something she�s used to.
For instance, recently now, she�s taking the Editor of the Sunday Times to court for criminal defamation, instead of just taking it through the civil courts as a normal libel case would be. Lawyers say this has never happened here before. She�s actually criminally charged him with defaming her. And this was only in a small gossip column - it wasn�t even a major article - which mentioned her going to a party with a colleague late at night and leaving by a back entrance at two in the morning. It didn�t say much about her perhaps, except that she was enjoying her spare time. But she took objection to it and its going all the way through the courts.
She is someone who is used to having a good life, to leading a free life and obviously now she�s very restrained by the security measures which protect her from possible attacks by Tamil Tigers. And her life is very constrained and therefore anything she does in her spare time is suddenly the highlight of interest here and she�s not happy with that. Government has not realised importance of media
B.M.: It�s perhaps not so surprising that the government is sensitive though, about the direct reporting of military matters?
F.B.: No it�s not. I mean we have to remember that there is a war on and that morale is important to the state of the nation and it�s very important to the military sources who on a daily basis are undergoing dangerous work. They�re at threat of the Tamil Tigers at any time wherever they are on the island, at any time of the day or the night. So the government is worried that any wrong reporting could threaten their efforts to bring peace to the country.
On the other hand I don�t think they�ve realised how important the media can be and how the media in fact can be used as an ally. And we have to remember that the Tamil Tigers are using the media very effectively indeed. They know the value of public relations. They know how to approach the media. They know the kind of information that the media is interested in and they�re happy to use the media. If the government was more effective in doing the same thing perhaps they would find the war more easy to win. Reporters asked to write specific stories on behalf of Government war effort
B.M.: But I gather there have been incidents where reporters have been asked to write very specific stories on behalf of the government effort.
F.B. : Recently, some journalists were taken up to an area in the North which the government had recently captured from the Tamil Tigers and none of the international media were invited. Only local journalists were invited....and they were really.....it was spelt out very clearly to them... that this was to be used as an example to boost the army recruitment drive and certainly some of the journalists weren�t very happy with that.
On the other hand if you read the newspapers here they really do tend to take a fairly soft line with the government. There are fairly glowing reports, for instance when we went up to Jaffna to again see an area which was recently recaptured by the government forces. Most of the reports in the papers were very glowing, not remotely critical of what the government or the security forces were doing and that�s the general rule here. In other words the government really doesn�t usually have much to worry about.
No direct threats against me, but...
B.M.: Where does this leave you, as a BBC correspondent, Flora?
F.B.: That�s a very difficult thing to answer. I mean there are no direct threats against me. On the other hand....and I won�t go into details.......when I was offered an exclusive interview, recently, with someone from the rebel side, it was made very clear to me that if I interviewed this person, if I travelled to interview this person, my life would be a misery when I got back, I might even have to leave the country.
Now that didn�t make me very happy. On the other hand the BBC were not keen for me to do it for security reasons, for reasons of my own personal safety. But I had to bear in mind, very clearly, that it was a choice between �getting a good story� - as a journalist, as every journalist always wants to do, and maintaining my job here, and that wasn�t particularly pleasant