Sri Lanka Makes Gains in War, but Won't Let Its Media Tell the Public

As the international media spotlight the Sri Lankan Army's latest offensive against separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, the island nation's own media is coping with censorship.

Front-page reports here are less noted for their news content these days and more for ominous blank spaces, each marked with the word "CENSORED."

"It's an absurd situation," says Lasantha WIckramatunga, editor of The Sunday Leader, a leading weekly newspaper. "The government says we local journalists must be censored because we might pass critical information to the Tigers. But then why are there no such reporting restrictions being placed on the foreign press also? The Tamil Tigers are an international organization and can read the foreign newspapers if they want this so-called information."

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a separate state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka in a 13-year civil war that has cost tens of thousands of lives. In recent weeks, government forces have made dramatic territorial gains against rebel strongholds in the northern Jaffna Peninsula, the heartland of the Tamil Tigers' would-be state. "Press restrictions are an unfortunate necessity in our campaign against the terrorists," says Anaruddha Ratwatte, Sri Lanka's powerful deputy defense minister.

Each day, tens of thousands of newspapers roll off the island's printing presses. In a country with one of the world's highest literacy rates - more than 85 percent - newspapers are the main source of information about the civil war.

Although foreign journalists are exempt from the censorship, all local newspapers and broadcasts have to submit their reports about military movements, arms purchases, and security matters to the Information Ministry for approval, even if the stories do nothing more than quote military spokesmen or official communiqus.

"If a senior military officer gives us an interview and tells us things he feels are safe to reveal, even his remarks will be censored," Mr. Wickramatunga says. "If we receive a press release from the government information department, they, too, will be subject to this irrational scrutiny. The government is even censoring its own press releases!"

The government recaptured the former rebel stronghold of Jaffna Town last December, but its victory was hollow: Most of the 300,000 people there fled to rebel-held territory before the government forces arrived. As fighting continues, the parliament is debating measures to appease the Tamil separatist demands by granting limited autonomy to areas where Tamils are in the majority. But without people to turn over power to, those proposals would be meaningless.

The Jaffna peninsula has been sealed off from the mainland, and tens of thousands of people are returning to their homes around Jaffna Town. Many have lived in areas under rebel control for more than six years. Last week the government allowed a small group of journalists into Jaffna Town. For the last six months, no independent journalist had been allowed to visit the area to witness the return of civilians.

THE Tamil Tigers claim that behind this media blackout, government forces are indulging in widespread human rights abuses. Rebel press statements speak of killings, abductions, and sexual assaults against Tamil civilians who are in government hands for the first time in six years.

The few independent accounts, however, broadly confirm what the government is claiming. "Large numbers of Tamil civilians do appear to be returning to government territory of their free will," says Michael Schubert of the British charity Medical Emergency Relief International.

"Many of the buildings in Jaffna Town have been damaged in various offensives, but the town is still there, and the government troops appear to be handling the returning civilians with care, distributing food and water rations."

The apparent success of the government in securing the return of the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians, coupled with the generally positive accounts of their treatment, make it hard to understand why the government is reluctant to allow independent journalists into the region. "It is an outright assault on the freedom of the Sri Lankan press," Wickramatunga says.

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