Media repulsed in battle of Jaffna

Colombo clampdown: Press kept at bay as civil war reaches showdown

TIM MCGIRK

Colombo

Photographers and platoons of television crews who left Bosnia for Sri Lanka could only curse their luck and go down to the swimming pool at one of Colombo's hotels.

Geography and the Sri Lankan censors have conspired to make this war impossible for newsmen. Over 70 foreign journalists and 10 television crews rushed here in mid-October to report on a decisive phase in Sri Lanka's 13-year war against against Tamil Tiger rebels: the siege of the rebel fortress-city of Jaffna. But cameras went unclicked, and punchy war reportage delivered by television newsmen fell flat against the cheery backdrop of Colombo's seaside promenade, where lovers eat pineapple and boys fly kites. The fighting was hundreds of miles away.

The besieged citadel of Jaffna lies on a long peninsula jutting from the northern tip of Sri Lanka. On one side it is the sea, patrolled by the Indian navy, which is helping the Sri Lankans because India blames the Tamil Tigers for murdering Rajiv Gandhi. So no sailor has been found willing to hire his boat to journalists and sail into the war zone.

On the other side is a wide lagoon and beyond that, rice paddies and then jungle, all still under Tiger control. A dangerous no man's land of jungle separates the rebel territory from the army's front lines. The military refuses to let any journalist into the Tigers' area.

An Indian television crew was held for five hours yesterday for venturing up to an army checkpoint in Vavuniya, still several miles away from the front lines. Earlier, an army patrol in the eastern jungles stumbled on a British film crew waiting for a Tiger contact who was supposed to guide them up to Jaffna. They were arrested and made to leave Sri Lanka.

The geographical obstacles to journalists suit the government: officials have promised to fly journalists to the war zone, but only when Jaffna has been conquered. The army yesterday thrust deeper inside the city but has encountered stiff resistance and booby-traps laid by the rebels. One Tiger trap set off a string of explosions that blew up 19 houses, killing and wounding many soldiers.

Colombo officials say journalists will only be allowed north when it is safe but privately some army officers concede it might prove unsettling for Sri Lankans to view on television the full horror of the war. So far in the present campaign 320 soldiers and 1,500 rebels have died, according to the government. Journalists are also barred from crossing through government lines to report on the plight of some 300,000 Tamil civilian refugees.

Sri Lankan newspapers are subject to military censorship. Chunks are hacked out, and one pastime is to puzzle out what details might have been cut.

The censor's job is to delete any information that might possibly help the Tigers or inflame hatred between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils in Colombo and elsewhere.

But the censor sometimes wields his scissors absurdly. The road distance between Colombo and Jaffna, contained in every tourist brochure, was banned, along with the name of the army commander.

These dispatches, often cut into nonsense, are all that are available.

Without accurate news, Colombo has become a city that feeds on rumour and fear. Tamil suicide bombers have killed many politicians and generals in Colombo, and the danger exists that they might strike again at any time.

Ordinary Tamils are now branded as suspect. Since the cease-fire with the Tigers broke down in April, over 1,000 Tamils have been rounded up in Colombo and jailed.

Neelan Tiruchelvam, a Tamil MP, said: "There's been tremendous harassment of Tamils."

Human-rights activists claim that Tamil priests have been dragged from Hindu temples and put in prison, and that police often raid Tamil cinemas, arresting 30 to 40 people at a time.

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