Australian media rights activist accuses Sri Lanka of 'witch hunt'

SYDNEY (AFP) - An Australian media rights activist accused Sri Lankan officials of a "witch-hunt" against local journalists as she arrived back in Sydney on Saturday after being detained in Colombo for two days.

International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia-Pacific director Jacqui Park was detained on Wednesday along with her deputy Jane Worthington at a media freedom meeting in Colombo. The IFJ said Ms Park was subjected to lengthy questioning of up to nine hours a day which focused on her movements in Sri Lanka and her associations with locals working in the media.

"From the kinds of questions that we had over the two days, it was clear it was kind of a witch hunt against the local media, local journalists and media freedom activists who are really trying to create some free space for freedom of expression in Sri Lanka," Ms Park said from Sydney. "We know from our work this is not an isolated incident but really a pattern of behaviour of intimidation and threats against journalists in Sri Lanka."

The IFJ said it believes the move was "an attempt to intimidate and harass journalists inside and outside Sri Lanka to prevent reporting on the realities of life in Sri Lanka" ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting later this month.

Ms Park and Ms Worthington were not physically harmed, but were prevented from returning home on their planned flight. They were expelled on Friday after the authorities ordered them out for "anti-government" activities.

The pair had travelled to Sri Lanka on tourist visas, and the IFJ said attending workshops such as the one they had was not prohibited under the conditions of this visa.

"The IFJ is adamant that no breaches of visa conditions have occurred," it said.

Sri Lanka has blacklisted many foreign journalists over their reports on the country's human rights record and alleged war crimes in the final stages of the Tamil ethnic war in 2009. Local journalists have also been the victims of crimes and many say they practise self-censorship.

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