Sri Lanka military to probe blocking of foreign media

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's military promised on Friday to investigate why AFP journalists were prevented from working in the country's former war zone this week by soldiers who said they were under orders to restrict the media.

An Agence France-Presse (AFP) video journalist and a photographer were obstructed in the Northern province by local military officials on Monday who said they were following directions from their commanders.

The problems followed a summit of leaders from Commonwealth countries last weekend that was overshadowed by the country's human rights record.

"You can see the exhibits, but we have been asked not to allow any journalists to take pictures or film here," a military officer told AFP at a site where boats captured from Tiger rebels were on display in the district of Mullaittivu.

AFP staff were also given the same information at a former Tamil rebel base that had been converted into a war-tourism attraction after 2009.

However, the chief military spokesman in Colombo, Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, denied the authorities had imposed any ban on foreign journalists.

"It should not have happened," Wanigasooriya told AFP. "We are very sorry about it. We will look into this and those responsible will be ticked off." He said field commanders did not like their troops being photographed, but there was no prohibition on filming in public places, including the war memorabilia.

Britain's Channel 4 news team, which travelled to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth summit, said it left the country early after days of extensive intimidation and surveillance by security forces.

The organisers of the summit in Colombo had invited visiting foreign journalists to explore news stories outside the summit.

"We also welcome foreign media professionals to explore non-CHOGM-related activities and stories around Sri Lanka," the organisers had said in a letter to all visiting journalists. CHOGM stands for Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

AFP had obtained the required media credentials from the Ministry of Mass Media and Information.

The news agency did not immediately report the obstruction until its staff were safely out of the area.

During the fighting, Sri Lanka prevented independent journalists travelling to the conflict zone, drawing criticism that it was a war without witnesses.

After successfully crushing Tamil rebels, security forces have faced allegations that they killed up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians in the final stages of the war, a charge the military has vehemently denied.

Media rights groups say Sri Lanka remains a dangerous place for journalists despite the end of the war.