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Sri Lanka's war of propaganda

  • 26 May 2009

'It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of press.

'It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.

'It is the soldier, not the politician, that ensures our rights to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.'  

This statement can be found on a military map in a media briefing room in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The words taunt the news crews that wish to penetrate deeper into the heart of what is becoming one of the most censored humanitarian crises ever reported, and reminds them all who holds the power in Sri Lanka.

As the dust begins to clear from the scorched battlefields after the Sri Lankan Government's final push against the Tamil Tigers, accusations and counter accusations of human rights abuses remain as vociferous as ever.

The Sri Lankan Government has been accused of endangering and killing civilians by using heavy weaponry in the conflict area. The Tamil Tigers have also been accused of using civilians as human shields.

But while the fog of war may be dissipating, the fog of propaganda and distortion continues to wreak havoc. Independent journalists who attempt to balance contrasting claims are continually denied access to the conflict area by the Sri Lankan military.

Most recently Nick Paton Walsh, the Channel 4 correspondent to Asia, was deported from the country on 9 May, following a report he released into military run Tamil internment camps.

The report was the first independently filmed video from a camp in Vavuniya, and contained claims from aid workers that there was a dramatic shortage of food and water and women were being sexually abused and abducted.

Mr Walsh, in his account of the expulsion, said: 'The Defence Secretary, Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa, expressed his upset at the piece we ran. He was angry and said we would be deported as a result of that piece.

'He said we could say what we liked about what's happening in this country, but we would have to do it in our own country.'

The Sri Lankan Defence Ministry has also condemned media organisations that have remained sceptical of the Government's conduct in the war. The Human Rights Watch released a report on May 8 containing claims of over 30 hospital shellings since December by the Sri Lankan Military.

In response to these claims, on 15 May the Defence Ministry said 'the media sympathetic to the terrorists once again