By Fred Carver
Sri Lanka is disrupting BBC broadcasts in an apparent attempt to censor reports of a United Nations resolution that criticises escalating violence against the island’s ethnic Tamils.
The Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) interrupted transmissions by the BBC’s Tamil language service as a high level UN human rights session in Geneva prepared to criticise the government for failing to investigate war atrocities or stem ongoing persecution.
The move echoes similar interference by Sri Lanka’s national broadcaster in 2009, just as the government launched its final assault to defeat Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for control of the country’s north. That disruption prompted the BBC to suspend transmissions in protest.
The UN’s Human Rights Council on Thursday passed a resolution urging Sri Lanka to properly investigate atrocities committed during the final stages of the civil conflict. It also expressed concerns about continued killings, torture, religious persecution, attacks on activists and journalists.
But BBC Tamil programmes on the issue, which would normally be broadcast via a partnership with the SLBC, were replaced with alternative transmissions that either pushed the government’s point of view or focused on unrelated issues. Interference began on March 17 and ended on March 20.
“The replacement of the BBC coverage constitutes a direct infringement of the right to information of the Tamil population,” said Bashana Abeywardane of the journalists collective JDS Lanka. “In doing so, the authors of this censorship have once again demonstrated their unwillingness to change the repressive policies towards the Tamils. Their continuous disregard and flagrant attack on press freedom is callous and shocking.”
Tensions between Sri Lanka’s ethnic Sinhalese population, who are mainly Buddhists, and other minority groups including Tamils, Muslims and Christians, appear to be increasing daily in Sri Lanka. The government has denied encouraging attacks, arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture.
But even as the UN prepared to vote on its resolution, there was evidence that the government is seeking to stifle or silence those trying to shed light on the situation. Earlier this month security forces stopped 700 mainly female Tamil protestors from travelling to the Sri Lankan capital Colombo.
(READ MORE: UN rights body urges tougher Sri Lanka probe)
The group had been planning a legal demonstration to demand justice for relatives who have disappeared or been detained since the end of the war.
There have also been recent claims of a secret government plan to arrest Tamil and other activists who have travelled to Geneva to assist the United Nations in formulating its resolution. Under the plan the activists will be detained if they expressed support for Tamil separatism.
Such moves come despite the government’s own expressed commitment to a reconciliation process following its own widely-criticised investigations into the 27-year war and its aftermath.
The UN resolution urged Sri Lanka to reopen investigations with “an independent and credible” examination of crimes said to have resulted in the deaths of up to 40,000 people, mainly Tamil civilians, at the hands of government forces in the final weeks of conflict. It also called on the government to address “continuing reports of violations of human rights” in Sri Lanka.
Such requests come at a sensitive time for Sri Lanka, which is trying to restore its international reputation in the wake of the conflict. Tens of thousands of tourists are now returning to the island and the country has been named as host of a major Commonwealth heads of state meeting later this year.
Fred Carver is campaign director of the Sri Lanka Campaign