This is rather like the Gaza Strip

The Sri Lankan regime are currently excelling themselves in perfecting the art of brutality.

A Channel 4 News team was deported from the country yesterday. Here its Asia correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, tells the Guardian what happened:

When Sri Lanka’s defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, rang he got quickly to the point.

“Is this Channel 4? You have been accusing my soldiers of raping civilians? Your visa is cancelled, you will be deported. You can report what you like about this country, but from your own country, not from here.”

Our ‘crime’ had been to broadcast a report from internment camps at the northern town of Vavuniya, which can only be reached with the permission of the Sri Lankan army. The army orchestrates the visits and escorts you wherever you go. But someone working for us had managed independently to get a camera into the camps and record a series of interviews. The allegations were startling: bodies left for days, children crushed in the rush for food, the sexual abuse of women, disappearances.

We went out of our way to get a government response: the army spokesman, Brigadier Nanayakkara, eventually agreed to appear on camera saying any wrongdoing would be punished.

The day after the broadcast I went to the media centre for national security. There [military censor] Lakshman Hulugalle explained that I had damaged the country’s image and would later hear of their ‘measures’ against me. Three days later came the call from the defence secretary.

What followed was 10 hours in police custody, searches of our vehicle and a barrage of questions, asked to sign statements which we had not given. We were finally driven to the capital, Colombo, and deported.

Now that we’re out of the country Mr Hulugalle claims we have admitted we had ‘done something wrong’. That is nonsense. The government is intolerant of a critical press. Journalists get killed, most notoriously Lasantha Wickrematunge, an editor assassinated in January. The line we at Channel 4 crossed was at passport control.

But you realise what crossing the line for Sri Lankan journalists means.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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