Some weeks ago, I wrote in this column that the times were not good for local journalists, especially those with an independent and critical streak of thought.
A report last week said at least 11 journalists, under direct physical threat for criticising government policies, had quietly left the country after Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was shot dead in January.
There is some ‘good news’. Journalists are not alone any more in facing the government’s wrath for criticising its policies. International aid agencies and NGOs are facing the heat too.
The same people who were welcomed with open arms after the December 26, 2004, tsunami, are now being vilified as LTTE supporters. Allegations by top officials are flying thick, fast and almost every day that the NGOs were throwing a lifeline to cornered rebels in the name of helping thousands of displaced Tamils.
The UN and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) are under the government glare.
Both have repeatedly brought up the issue of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), Sri Lankans caught between the military and the Tamil Tigers and consequently struggling with food and medicine shortages. The IDP issue is an uncomfortable one and the government’s unease is beginning to show.
Last week, the ICRC office, located in a quiet, upmarket residential Colombo colony, was attacked by 150-200 people with stones and slogans. Window panes were smashed as bricks flew into the compound.
Earlier, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, also President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, warned of “dire consequences’’ for anyone suspected to be helping the LTTE. The list of suspects included aid agencies, journalists, even two ambassadors. He said they would be “chased away’’ from Sri Lanka. On Tuesday, he again warned the heads of aid agencies and NGOs to be careful about the content of their field reports.
Friends working with NGOs admit as much, that at times it is impossible to avoid contact with the rebels when working in areas controlled by them. What is also true is that the LTTE has often seized material, even vehicles, meant for civilian use and used them against the military.
But to assume that all the international NGOs have the hidden agenda of propping up the LTTE boggles the imagination.