Sri Lanka Threatens to Expel Media as Army Closes in on Rebels

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The Guardian/UK

Sri Lanka Threatens to Expel Media as Army Closes in on Rebels

Defence secretary accuses BBC among others of being biased towards Tamil Tigers

by
Randeep Ramesh

Masked Journalists and activists for free media take to a street and protest the attacks on journalists in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, Jan. 26, 2009. The Sri Lankan government should do more to ensure the safety of the country's journalists and their ability to work without restrictions, Amnesty International said Saturday. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Sri Lanka has publicly warned foreign media, western media and aid agencies that they will be expelled from the country if their reporting is deemed sympathetic to the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, who are making a last stand deep in the island's jungle.

In an interview to local media, the defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, highlighted the role of ambassadors of Switzerland and Germany, and television networks CNN, BBC and al-Jazeera in his criticism of foreigners, accusing them of being biased towards the rebels, known formerly as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

"They will be chased away [if they try] to give a second wind to the LTTE terrorists at a time the security forces, at heavy cost, are dealing them the final death blow," he said.

The blunt words underline how difficult it has become to cover one of the world's bloodiest and most under-reported conflicts. The government controls access to the war zones and international media groups complain of reporters being intimidated.

European diplomats have come under fire in Sri Lanka for their high-profile support of journalists and media freedom, particularly after the assassination of crusading editor Lasantha Wickramatunga.

Rajapaksa claimed that media reports were damaging the security forces at a time when they were "dealing the final death blow" to the Tigers. In the newspaper article, he singled out the BBC correspondent reporting from Colombo, Chris Morris, saying that "if he does not act responsibly and attempts to create panic, I will have to chase him out of the country".

The BBC said it had been assured by the Sri Lankan government that the comments had been "misreported". In a statement the corporation said it welcomed these reassurances. "The BBC remains committed to reporting the story in Sri Lanka in a fair and balanced manner," it said.

When contacted by the Guardian, Rajapaksa said he had not seen the reports indicating his apparent readiness to throw journalists out of Sri Lanka. "I have given many interviews," he said. "What I have been saying is that the BBC, CNN and al-Jazeera have to be careful in their reporting so that they do not worsen the situation."

The defence secretary said that these three organisations had been taken on guided tours to "areas free from LTTE. It is very clear we used no shelling or air strikes [in civilian areas] but what I say is sometimes not reported."

One piece by the BBC had angered the Sri Lankan authorities because it featured video clips from Tamilnet, a website which is seen as pro-Tamil Tiger. "It is a mouthpiece of the terrorists and the BBC are using the [footage] and saying civilians are being shelled."

The defence secretary, the younger brother of Sri Lanka's president Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a powerful figure in Sri Lanka and is credited for bringing the Tigers to the brink of extinction.

The LTTE, which has fought for a separate state for the Tamil minority for 25 years, has been routed in military clashes. Once in control of large swathes of the north and east of Sri Lanka the rebels are now confined to a mere 100 square miles of jungle.

The war has extracted a terrible human toll. Humanitarian groups say as many as 250,000 unprotected civilians are trapped in the area - used, say Sri Lanka's government, as "human shields" by the rebels. Over the weekend tens of thousands of Tamils marched in London in protest over the Sri Lankan army's actions.

The army has promised to allow safe passage to trapped civilians and urged the Tamil Tigers to do the same. However, United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who have staff in the area, say that civilians are still being killed in the crossfire.

Today CNN reported that artillery shells fell on a hospital in the northern Sri Lankan district of Mullaitivu, where civilians, including children, were being treated.

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