A reader looks at the censored report in Sri Lanka's The Sunday Times newspaper. Pic: AP.

The Sri Lanka government is intent on controlling freedom of thought by expelling foreign passport holders who visit the country and later attend seminars or give press interviews on subjects the regime considers taboo.

On November 23 it arrested a well-known Tamil poet whose verse speaks of the yearning of his people for freedom from violence and oppression. V. I. S. Jeyapalan left his native Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka in the 1980s and lived in exile in Norway, writing poetry, acting in a celebrated South Indian movie and playing the role of a public intellectual.

Jeyapalan visited Sri Lanka in November. Following his arrival, he addressed journalists in Jaffna. Shortly afterwards, on his way to visit his mother’s grave, he was arrested by police, detained for four days and unceremoniously deported to Norway. The police spokesman told the BBC’s Tamil Service that Jeyapalan was arrested for “disrupting the ethnic harmony in the country” and accused him of “violating the visa regulations.” Ceylon Today, a Sri Lankan daily, quoted the Controller of Immigration and Emigration as saying “he [Jeyapalan] took part in a political meeting which he was not sanctioned to attend.”

On October 30, Jacqui Park and Jane Worthington, two activists from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) who participated in a workshop on media freedom in Sri Lanka, were detained by Criminal Investigation Division of the police and subjected to lengthy interrogation. The contents of Park’s laptop were apparently accessed without consent. The international media watchdog Reporters without Borders said, “[t]hey were accused of violating visa regulations, the authorities have allowed them to fly out of the country without any charges.”

Both Jeyapalan and the IFJ activists were detained ostensibly for visa violations. In the case of Jeyapalan, although Sri Lankan authorities said he was “disrupting ethnic harmony,” the substantive accusation was that he had participated at meetings while in the country on a tourist visa. Park and Worthington were accused by Media Minister Keheliya Rambukawella of engaging in “anti-government activism” because they attended a workshop convened by the Free Media Movement (FMM). They were deported as they had not obtained press accreditation before arrival. However, the two mounted stout defence that they only participated in a workshop on media freedom and did not engage in media coverage.

The FMM has said that attending workshops is not prohibited on a tourist visa. In the past, participants at seminars and a host of similar activities regularly entered Sri Lanka on tourist visas for similar purposes.

So, why did the police detain Jeyapalan, Park and Worthington? The answer to the question is simple: they were raising issues that challenged the Sri Lanka government’s authoritarian politics.

However, while expelling these activists constitutes a grave violation of freedom of expression, this is but one step further in the direction the government has been travelling since 2005. In pursuit of weeding out all ideas in civil society that dispute his right to govern, President Mahinda Rajapakse has single-mindedly attacked expressions of independent thinking.

The early assaults on free expression were against the independent media. A number of journalists have been murdered, with others made to disappear, tortured, imprisoned and forced to flee, while the perpetrators enjoyed immunity from prosecution.

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The government has been equally vigilant in preventing news on Sri Lanka from foreign sources which raise uncomfortable governance issues reaching Sri Lankan audiences. Colombo routinely blocks internet news sites and prevents foreign journalists from covering events dealing with violations of democracy, human rights or war crimes. Restrictions placed on the foreign media to cover issues of militarisation and war crimes in the former war zones during the Commonwealth Summit in November are a vivid example of this. Media censorship has pushed Sri Lanka down to rank 163 of 179 countries in Reporters without Border’s Media Freedom Index.

The government has been hardly less brutal in dealing with other expressions of popular protest. Over 600 Tamils forcibly prevented by the police in northern Vavuniya from going to Colombo to petition the UN on their disappeared loved ones in March 2013 is but one of many instances. In southern Sri Lanka, one Sinhalese was killed and 15 wounded this year when Weliweriya residents demanded clean drinking water, while a fisherman protesting rising fuel prices was shot dead in Chilaw in 2012.

Therefore to the rulers, intent on thought control within Sri Lanka, Jeyapalan and the IFJ activists were subversives. They were perceived as such for two reasons. First, by discussing issues such as media freedom they were confronting censorship. Censorship is the government’s tool to ensure the local public does not see challenges to its style of governance.

Second, the regime has taken very deliberate steps to prevent people coming together, especially in the North and East. This even includes meetings of groups to counsel trauma survivors. The reason is that people assembling in groups discuss politics, psychosocial issues and other privations they have been subjected to, thereby contributing to a narrative the government wishes to suppress.

Therefore the Rajapakse government, which began its existence by suppressing the independent media and went on to stifle political dissent expressed through protests, has now taken the next step: expelling foreign passport-holders who discuss rights, democracy and allied subjects.

Ahead of world human rights day, China’s moves to expel Bloomberg and The New York Times by not extending visas to their journalists was big news. But there is little coverage of how Colombo, fast emerging as Beijing’s client, is using its own methods of manipulating visa regulations to suppress freedom of expression.

There has been unremitting advice from international community that the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka should work towards reconciliation. However, working for sustainable reconciliation will be impossible if the government is using all available methods to control its citizens’ thinking. Therefore, the international community must persuade Colombo to accommodate dissenting ideas and other expressions of political protest to test if actual reconciliation is possible.