TWO Australian journalists believe Sri Lankan authorities detained them to send a message ahead of a Commonwealth leaders meeting.
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia-Pacific director Jacqui Park and her deputy Jane Worthington arrived home on Saturday after two harrowing days being questioned by Sri Lankan authorities.
The pair met local media at a press freedom event in Sri Lanka before authorities confiscated their passports and grilled them on Wednesday.
The Sri Lankan government took issue with the Australian duo participating in the event when they were in the country on tourist visas.
Ms Park and Ms Worthington were relieved to be on Australian soil when they arrived at Sydney International Airport on Saturday morning.
Ms Park said they were questioned in a hotel room with a lawyer present but said it was intimidating.
She said local journalists had concerns ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo later this month.
“I think it was talked about in the interviewing and referenced very much,” Ms Park told reporters at the airport.
“We were told we were potentially making trouble for them in the lead up to CHOGM.”
The Australian women believe the treatment they received was about sending a message to others about the kind of treatment they could expect if they campaigned for freedom of expression. The Australian Government should take a “very close look” at the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, Ms Park said.
The call comes after Canada boycotted CHOGM in a sign of protest against Sri Lanka’s questionable human rights practices.
Despite having their passports confiscated and being told they could not leave, Ms Park said the focus was on Sri Lankan media.
“From the kinds of questions that we had over the two days it was clear it was kind of a witch hunt against the local media, local journalists and media freedom activists who are really trying to create some free space for freedom of expression in Sri Lanka,” she told reporters.
Sri Lankan Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told local journalists on Thursday the two Australians arrived in the country as tourists but were instead engaging in “anti-government activism”. “We have no personal interest in the two individuals but they have broken the visa conditions,” the minister said on Thursday. “We are treating them according to the law.” Ms Park said she was surprised to see authorities with a dossier of her approximately 15 visits to Sri Lanka in the past 15 years.
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance federal secretary Christopher Warren, who is also Ms Park’s husband, said the situation showed how difficult it was for journalists in Sri Lanka.
“And it demonstrates how important it is for journalists around the world to stand together and work together,” he said.
The International Federation of Journalists condemns the detention of Asia-Pacific Director Jacqui Park and Asia-Pacific Deputy Director Jane Worthington in Sri Lanka. The two have recently been allowed to leave after being detained without charge since Wednesday October 30.
Ms Park and Ms Worthington were detained at a press freedom meeting in Colombo and have been held in their hotel since and subjected to lengthy interrogation by defence and immigration officials and the Criminal Investigation Department.
They were taken from the meeting to their hotel against their wishes. Their passports were confiscated and they were not allowed to leave to board their planned flight at 2.45pm on November 1. A device was inserted into Ms Park’s laptop and interrogating officers appeared to download files.
They have not been charged with any crime and cooperated fully with authorities at every stage of the lengthy questioning process. They have not been physically harmed.
Media reports have suggested the Sri Lankan government was alleging Ms Park and Ms Worthington had conducted journalistic activities without obtaining media accreditation.
According to the Sri Lankan Government-operated Electronic Travel Authorisation system website, attending workshops is not prohibited under the conditions of the Sri Lankan tourist visa. The IFJ is adamant that no breaches of visa conditions have occurred.
AFP and local media have reported that Ms Park and Ms Worthington were accused by Sri Lankan Minister of Mass Media and Information Mr Keheliya Rambukwella of engaging in “anti-government activism” in breach of their visa conditions. The IFJ unequivocally denies this has occurred.
At the beginning of the questioning by Sri Lankan officials, Ms Park was confronted with an extensive dossier covering in detail her 17 visits to Sri Lanka over 15 years. She has been subjected to lengthy interrogations of up to nine hours focusing on her movements in Sri Lanka and her associations with local media personnel.
The IFJ believes this move by Sri Lankan officials is an attempt to intimidate and harass journalists inside and outside Sri Lanka to prevent reporting on the realities of life in Sri Lanka in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, CHOGM, which begins in Colombo on November 15.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has declined to attend CHOGM due to concerns about human rights abuses under the Rajapaksa regime.
The IFJ has been working in Sri Lanka for almost 20 years to protect media rights and promote and foster a culture of ethical, independent, public service journalism.
The IFJ has grave concerns about the safety of media personnel inside Sri Lanka arising from this incident. The IFJ is also deeply concerned about the safety of media personnel in Sri Lanka over the long term, most immediately once international leaders leave the country after the CHOGM meeting ends on November 17.