Hundreds of protesters have blocked a train taking a Channel 4 News television crew, in Sri Lanka to cover the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, from travelling to the north of the island.
A team of six journalists left their Colombo hotel to catch an early-morning train to the city of Kilinochchi, in the heart of the former conflict zone.
The team had been tailed by Sri Lankan state intelligence agents on to the train. Five hours north of Colombo, in the city of Anuradhapura, a large mob of pro-government demonstrators met then train and then blocked the tracks, preventing the train – which had hundreds of passengers on board – from continuing. Sri Lankan police say that demonstrators have now also blockaded all the stations between Anuradhapura and Kilinochchi.
The crowd, which accused Channel 4 of accepting funds from the proscribed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (popularly known as the Tamil Tigers), demanded that the journalists return to the capital.
A stand-off ensued, which has now continued for two hours. The demonstrations come two days before Commonwealth heads of government, including David Cameron, arrive in Colombo for a biennial summit.
All protests were banned by the Sri Lankan government in the run-up to the meeting.
The British high commission in Sri Lanka has been informed of the situation. The editor of Channel 4 News, Ben de Pear, who is on the train, also informed the office of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is reported to have personally invited Channel 4 to visit any part of the country.
“It would seem entirely contrary to the promise of free access to all parts of Sri Lanka, which the president has repeatedly made,” said Mr de Pear. “I do not know why the authorities do not want us to travel north, but we are hearing reports that families of some of the thousands of people who have disappeared in this country have been held in northern Sri Lanka and are reportedly being assaulted by the military. “All this on the day that the foreign secretary, William Hague, arrives in this country.”
On Tuesday, I questioned the president and asked if he was concerned about the allegations of war crimes that have dogged him and his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defence secretary, since the violent end of the civil war four years ago.
This encounter was reported in state-owned newspapers on Wednesday, but the reports misquoted President Rajapaksa as having asked Mr Miller “to visit any part of the country and see for himself the progress made in the post-war period.” On this occasion, the president did not say this.
The senior deputy inspector-general of police in Northern Central Province, Ravi Wijegeinawardena, was informed of the president’s reported invitation when he arrived to request that the Channel 4 team return to Colombo, but he continued to insist that the journalists disembark and turn back.
‘Freedom of expression’
Channel 4 News has reported on the allegations that at least 40,000 Tamila were killed in the final few weeks of the war and on subsequent allegations of serious human rights abuses by Sri Lankan security forces.
Channel 4 has also made and broadcast three documentaries which examined in detail the alleged war crimes by both the Tamil Tigers and government forces. Last week, David Cameron described the latest of these films, No Fire Zone, as “chilling”. He addressed a tweet to President Rajapaksa saying he had “serious questions” to ask him.
The director of No Fire Zone, Callum Macrae, who is among the Channel 4 journalists trapped on the train, said: “The British government made clear that one of the conditions for its attendance at the Commonwealth summit was that the international media be free to do its job.
“The Commonwealth is bound by core values which include respect for democracy, human rights and freedom of expression and it is extraordinary that the host nation and future chair of the Commonwealth is openly flouting every one of those principles.”
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