Nation & World

In Sri Lanka, harassment of journalists is commonplace

There was one moment for me in Sri Lanka, when I knew my job would be something beyond challenging.

It was early in the morning on my first day. I was in Colombo, the administrative and economic capital of Sri Lanka. A 21-year-old in a raggedy Army uniform was pointing a Kalishnakov (AK-47) at me, telling me I would be unable to get past the checkpoint he was guarding unless I showed him my media credentials.

I had already obtained an official journalist visa to enter Sri Lanka, but was told at the last minute by embassy officials I needed to head to the Foreign Ministry on arrival to "check in," provide a second pile of letters proving I am not a terrorist - which I made up - and get further credentials.

I said to the gun-toting post-adolescent with pimples that I did not have credentials yet, and that I was in fact at that moment in this taxi with my translator on my way to the Foreign Ministry to obtain said credentials.

He said again, "You cannot get past this checkpoint without credentials."

I said, "I cannot get credentials without getting past this checkpoint."

This went back and forth a few more times, and we of course lost our side of the argument, being gunless.

This month is the 25th anniversary of Black July in Sri Lanka, when 1,000 ethnic Tamils were killed in general rioting by the Sinhalese majority. The causes of those riots are under dispute, but their long-term result is not. They touched off a civil war that continues today.

The current president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapkse, two years into power, has taken the official position that all media, local and foreign, are either "with them or against them" in the civil war.

As a result, open season has been declared on local journalists by all sides. They are regularly arrested, beaten, threatened by government officials and, as happened this past March, hacked to death when they report things either the government or the insurgents do not like.

My translator told me that while foreigners are only in the rarest of circumstances harmed, they are often deported and harassed, especially if they do not have credentials.

So we went back to the checkpoint several hours later and mercilessly harassed the deputy minister who was the only one who could help us get the credentials by phone.

We finally got past the checkpoint and got a 5-second meeting with the minister, who says upon arrival that he doesn't have time to sign the letter - that we then have to take to the other ministry to get our laminated, stamped credentials - because he's on his way to a meeting.

He said, "You should come back."

I explain the checkpoint problem to him.

He said, "Yeah, right, well, I'm off." And he leaves.

I got my credentials three days later, but was continually harassed by government officials during the duration of my stay in Colombo and was told I would not be allowed to travel to the part of the country with the worst tsunami destruction because of the war.

There were also plenty of moments where I would walk into a store and someone would follow, pull out their cell phone, start texting furiously, then follow me back into the street without purchasing anything.

I eventually made it to the southern coast - which had plenty of tsunami destruction and was far away from the conflict zones - by riding in the back of a Red Cross car, which flew through checkpoints.

I got a handful of good stories from tsunami survivors, but I wanted to have dozens of stories and more time to spend with each person. Under the stressed, tense circumstances, it was as good as I could've done.

I'm still not sure how much of an accomplishment it was to make it out of there in one piece. A friend with significant experience reporting in some of the world's worst places told me when I got back, "That's life. We usually never know how close we come to death, disability or dismemberment, as they say on the insurance forms. I suppose when we die, there'll be some guy who'll meet us in heaven and say, 'Hey, you know that time in Trenton in 1998 when you stopped at the Gulf station for gas instead of the Sunoco? That saved your life because somebody at the Sunoco was going to blow your brains out.'"