Journalists’ vigilance must continue post-CHOGM if Sri Lanka is to be held accountable for its crimes

In the run up to the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka there is burgeoning media attention on the human rights abuses and suspected war crimes the host nation has tried to conceal. Many hope the attention will keep Sri Lanka accountable and also facilitate progress on human rights and good governance. While media scrutiny during the Summit is indeed important, if the regime in Colombo is to be made accountable for its crimes it is vital that the vigilance continues.

Jurists have pronounced Sri Lanka has violated principles that the 54-member group of former British colonies hold sacrosanct by undermining human rights and the rule of law. This means the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo will ring a death knell for the organisation’s legitimacy. Further, Sri Lanka, by assuming leadership of the body for the next two years, will legitimise violent and authoritarian principles of governance in the Commonwealth.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II , right, shakes hands with Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, as his wife Shiranthi Rajapaksa, center, looks on during a Commonwealth event in London last year. Pic: AP.

There are two schools of thought on attending CHOGM. Those among them who feel that engagement is better than boycott would argue that deploying the international media to cover CHOGM and also report on past and continuing human rights violations could be useful in making Sri Lanka accountable for its actions.

Aware of this, Sri Lanka displayed a marked reluctance to granting media accreditation to Britain’s Channel Four television, apparently because it produced the Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields trilogy, a TV documentary that records violations by both government troops and rebel LTTE fighters that experts say point to war crimes. However, due to sustained pressure, including an international Twitter campaign, Channel Four was given media accreditation, although the Colombo says it still reserves the right to deny any journalist a visa.

(READ MORE: Sri Lanka to deport 2 international media activists)

The question, however, is what impact the coverage of stories of rights violations and abuses will have on long-term improvement in the country’s accountability and governance. For an answer one could be guided by the past, although comparisons might not be watertight. The examples that come to mind are: Yoweri Museweni’s Uganda that hosted CHOGM in 2007 and Nigeria under Olusegun Obasanjo where CHOGM 2003 was held.

Uganda in 2007 was designated by Freedom House as “partially free.” The country was riddled with problems, some more critical than others including massive human rights violations by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and troops loyal to Museveni that had enslaved child soldiers, displaced millions and devastated Northern Uganda; systematic crackdown on LGBT rights and endemic corruption by the government officials.

There were no restrictions on reporting the war in Uganda in 2007 as there are in Sri Lanka. However, because its horrors were underreported it was characterised as the “forgotten war.”

The Ugandan government’s homophobia was much more controversial. And as CHOGM got under way, LGBT activists had arranged to use the Commonwealth Peoples’ Space to advocate for better treatment for the gay and transgender communities. They were however beaten by police and prevented from speaking. These issues were widely covered by the international media and commented on, mostly negatively. But all that publicity was of no avail for long-term recognition of LGBT rights. Homophobia continues in Uganda with a bill criminalising same-sex relationships introduced to parliament in 2009, although it is yet to be enacted.

Nigeria hosted the CHOGM in 2003. Obsanjo’s government was accused of the massacre at Odi where many hundred civilians at least were killed; violence during the April 2003 elections in which his People’s Democratic Party emerged victorious and continuing acts of violence and torture of his critics.

These issues came under the spotlight when Human Rights Watch publicised a report on violations on the freedom of expression to coincide with the Summit. The international media in the country to cover CHOGM gave the issues publicity. Despite that, authoritarian rule continues, including fraudulent elections in 2007 and even today, where it results in sectarian violence.

Therefore, it appears that the exposure of human rights abuses by the international media when CHOGM was hosted by Uganda and Nigeria did not mean much for long-term accountability. It could be that Obsanjo, Museveni and Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse, who govern on the wrong side of democracy, are not unduly perturbed if the lowlights of their regimes are aired during summits, knowing full well that after the summit such negativity will be forgotten.

That is why if the international media is to contribute meaningfully to curb authoritarianism and calling the Rajapakse to account, its role has to be more robust than only shining the spotlight during CHOGM. First, rather than ceasing scrutiny of the regime in Colombo, as usually happens when important international events come to an end, it should build on the information it collects while in Sri Lanka and deploy it effectively. It would go a long way to prove the allegations Colombo has been contesting.

Second, leaders like Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron have said they will not boycott CHOGM so as to deliver a “tough message” to the Rajapakse government. But are they sincere when they say so, or is it merely because they want to preserve the status quo and focus on business and not values or rights? One way of finding out will be the domestic media in countries like Britain highlighting human rights and governance issues as they develop in Sri Lanka after CHOGM, and ascertain how far the “tough message” has helped or hindered good governance, accountability and human rights.

The road ahead is long and winding for those desiring change in Sri Lanka. If progress is to be made, the media’s mission will have to be after CHOGM just as much as during it.