Human rights in Sri Lanka take center stage at the United Nations

Sri Lanka has captured attention recently for a deteriorating situation around human rights. International Crisis Group researcher Alan Keenan explains why the Human Rights Council review is so important, and why the world should care.

Read more about the current situation in Sri Lanka and my Q&A with Keenan at Public Radio International.

Detained without charge in Sri Lanka

I’m a regular subscriber to Jurist, a legal news site run at the University of Pittsburgh. They write excellent explanations and backgrounders of the most interesting legal happenings around the world. This afternoon, I got news that Sri Lanka will be easing emergency regulations and reducing how long the terrorism suspects can be held with out charge. A few days ago, Sri Lanka’s president pardoned a journalist, J.S. Tissainayagam, who was arrested in 2008 under the country’s stringent anti-terrorism laws.

I wrote a piece in the Far Eastern Economic Review last year about Sri Lanka’s broken judiciary — the the emergency rules that extend executive power, violence against attorneys, and the inaccessibility of legal counsel, particularly for those from the embattled North. Much has changed on the island since the end of major conflict between the Sri Lankan Army and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) last year, but judicial and constitutional problems still plague the country. The piece I wrote about this was a bit long [PDF] so here’s an excerpt:

A courtroom drama unfolds in Sri Lanka

J.S. Tissainayagam is a journalist who wrote magazine articles critical of the government. Now he faces 20 years in jail. He was arrested on Mar. 7, 2008, and was convicted on Aug. 31, 2009, of causing ethnic disharmony and for collecting money for the purpose of furthering terrorism. He became the first person to be sentenced under Sri Lanka’s terrorism laws explicitly because of his writing.

How Tissainayagam’s journalistic work translated into offenses punishable under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations has been difficult for many Sri Lankans, journalists in particular, to understand. The International Commission of Jurists released a report last week that might clear up some of the details.

A journalist’s role in reporting on conflict

Two Sri Lankan bloggers who I read regularly have recently had interesting things to say about the reporters who write about the long conflict on their island. They raise fundamental questions about the role of journalism in society, a debate that is heightened in conflict zones.

Blogger-turned-columnist Indrajit Samarajiva gave this quick bit in a recent post:

“I don’t get why the international media wants to come in and gawk when Sri Lankans are suffering and the pictures are bad, but doesn’t want to see or help actual improvement. Wait, I do get it.”

Is journalism a civic engagement? James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly has argued for “civic journalism” since his book Breaking the News came out in 1997. Here’s how he sums up his argument in Slate:

“The main argument of the public journalism advocates was that reporters and editors should think of themselves as being inside society, affecting through their coverage the way other people thought and behaved, rather than being wholly detached observers from outside. When viewing a society somewhere else in the world, members of the American press accept this point immediately. They know that the existence and quality of information flow will have a huge impact on other aspects of that society—whether people can hold their government accountable, how realistic a picture they have of other cultures, how unified or divided they seem.”

Journalist-turned-blogger Nalaka Gunawardene has a different take on journalists’ roles:

“What we lack – and urgently need – is plain good journalism that covers development, conflict and other issues as an integral part of human affairs. Noble intentions of saving the planet, or making world peace, sound good at beauty pageants. But these catch-all lines don’t give anyone the license to engage in shoddy journalism that lacks accuracy, balance and credibility – the core tenets of the profession.”

Gunawardene cites remarks by Javier Solana, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy:

“The reporter is there to report. We should be careful not to weigh down the media with additional responsibilities over and above their primary task of providing information. A healthy media environment is diverse and plural; it is there to explain but not take sides. The profession of journalism needs no justification and no sophisticated qualification.”

I’ve written about access to information in Sri Lanka for the Far Eastern Economic Review and continue to delve into the issues surrounding journalism in wars. I’ll be participating in a panel about reporting from hot spots in July at the South Asian Journalists Association’s annual convention, so I am culling ideas for framing the conversation. Are the main questions practical — how can journalists access information and stay safe? — or is it important to focus the discussion on the role of journalism in violent conflicts? Send me your thoughts, especially if you plan to be at the convention.

silver linings

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for about a month to pursue projects and travel. (Lucky for me, slow blogging is in for 2009.) For most of the last few weeks, I have been in Sri Lanka, meeting people and learning about their lives. For its beautiful sunsets, delicious varieties of tea and wild elephants, there is little escaping the fact that this is an island at war. Colombo’s one-way boulevards are littered with army and police checkpoints, where heavily-armed “vigilance committees” question travelers and check ids. Sometimes the soldiers and officers are serious and to-the-point; sometimes they are conversational, like a welcoming committee with machine guns.

On the first day of the new year, even on the heels of a year marred by bloody wars and financial crises, it is customary to look for a silver lining. After all, we have our health. When you are on a tropical island, the impulse is the same. We’re here — why not sun bathe?

One weekend, I was lucky that some friends of a friend took me along to a villa retreat in the south of the island. The drive along the west coast takes you past small towns and resorts and some of the most untouched beaches you can imagine. Our hosts rented out a three-bedroom house, a beautiful property with beach access and a pool on a cliff overlooking the ocean. We had strong coffee and grilled fish and lounged in an outdoor living room, where the walls facing the ocean are forgone in favor of natural breezes and a spectacular view. Reading gave way to naps on the veranda, regulated by the rhythym of the ocean. A dip in the pool followed by a glass of chilled wine cooled the afternoon heat.

But on our first afternoon of relaxation, the quietness of our light conversation by the pool was cut by a large crash and the sound of speed breaking through the air. Our heads turned up; I didn’t see anything between the tips of the coconut trees that framed the sky. My better-informed companions said the sound was a MIG fighter jet from a nearby airforce base. Seven minutes later, I read on my phone that there was an air strike up north, where the heaviest fighting is taking place.

While I was in Sri Lanka, beach-going tourists were stuck at Bangkok’s airport, cordoned in or out by yellow-clad protestors, and globe-trotting visitors to Mumbai were struggling with terrorist attacks on hotels. I went for a holiday in Kuala Lumpur in 2007, and ran into some pretty big protests that took place along a row of popular hotels. I watched the crowds of sign-wielding dissentors and riot-gear-ready police with an elderly Japanese woman who had emerged from her hotel confused and scared about the sirens and the surprisingly loud crashes that come from canisters of teargas.

The absurdity of tourists in the middle of conflicts not their own is exceeded only by the absurdity of so many acts of violence happening in the world today. Still, we seek that silver lining, the chilled wine on the patio that gives us respite from a war or a crashing housing market or a political battle. We celebrate a new year to help us get through the serious tragedies or mundane hardships of the last one. And we hope that the next time we celebrate, things will be better.

boating around Borocay

So happy new year, wherever you are. (Boating in the Philippines, around Borocay.)