Doubts as Sri Lanka says Commonwealth meeting open

As Sri Lanka prepares to host the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in November, some journalists have wondered whether they will be able to access the summit given the island nation’s abysmal press freedom record.

On Saturday, a subcommittee of the government taskforce organizing the summit issued a press release stating that “Sri Lanka is committed to providing full media access” and that it “welcomes all journalists to cover this very important summit.”

In a recent letter to the Commonwealth Secretariat, CPJ expressed concern about the accreditation procedures amid press reports that the Sri Lankan government will conduct stringent background checks on foreign journalists covering the meeting, with the apparent intention of denying permission to enter the country.

Richard Uku, spokesman for the Secretariat, responded to CPJ’s executive director via Twitter, stating that the Secretariat is the final authority on media accreditation procedures for international journalists.

But the signals are still mixed. Since then, local media have raised the issue of whether journalists like Callum Macrae, producer of the bold Channel 4 documentary, “No War Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,” will be allowed into the country. Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella responded by saying the government will have final say over who is allowed in, underscoring the lingering concerns. Some journalists predict that Sri Lanka will find ways to deny visas to journalists who have been critical of the country, even if they are granted accreditation from the Secretariat.

This week, Bandula Jayasekara, Sri Lanka’s consul-general in Sydney, vowed to block Macrae’s entry, according to press reports­–after referring to him in a Twitter tirade as a “mercenary with blood money” and “the Chief Propagandist of the LTTE terrorists overseas,” referring to the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam:

Sri Lanka has a long track record of obstructing the independent press. In the past year, Colombo has introduced a draft media code in parliament that would impose harsh restrictions on journalists’ ability to report freely (it has been withdrawn for now, under criticism) and interrupted transmissions of BBC’s Tamil service while the ethnic Tamil press continues to face attacks.

Sri Lanka’s intentions will soon be tested. Registration for accreditation is now open for international and local journalists.