The government of Sri Lanka has gone to extraordinary lengths to attack our film, No Fire Zone.
It has denied the evidence we presented — carefully evidenced and authenticated as it is. It has accused me — absurdly, given my criticisms of them, of being a Tiger apologist (I accused the Tigers of war crimes, of using child soldiers, of shooting civilians). It has objected (unsuccessfully) to screenings in places ranging from the European Parliament, to the U.N. in Geneva and the Australian parliament.
But it has also put pressure on other governments, particularly in Asia, to stop the film from being shown.
In Malaysia a screening of the film was raided by some 30 members of the Malaysian Censorship Board and police officers and an organizer, Lena Hendry of the Malaysian human rights organization Pusat Komas, was charged under censorship laws. She faces a maximum of three years in jail if convicted.
The Nepalese authorities gave the organizers of the Film Southasia Festival in Kathmandu 24 hours notice not to show No Fire Zone and two other Sri Lankan films planned for the festival.
Film Southasia issued an immediate statement: “We announce with great regret that the Sri Lankan Government has pressurized the Nepali authorities to stop the screening of all three documentaries.” They described the attempted ban as “an action that goes against the freedom of expression and the right of documentary filmmakers to exhibit their work.” Towards the end of 2013 we applied to the Indian Central Board of Film Certification for certification for our film to allow a theatrical release. They refused it.
But their grounds for refusing it were shocking. Although one reason they gave was simply that the images were “of a disturbing nature” – which indeed they are, though that has not stopped it being shown elsewhere – the next reason was more surprising. They said the film “may strain friendly relations with Sri Lanka.”
Perhaps I should not have been so surprised. After all last year the Indian government refused me a visa to travel to India for the premiere of the film. That ban still stands.
But this was clearly nothing other than a ban made for political reasons. That, in my view, constitutes nothing other than straightforward censorship. There was no suggestion that this was because the film was wrong in it what it says. The accuracy of our journalism has been vindicated at every stage by independent examination – and by the continuing emergence of more video evidence backing our contentions.
For that reason we have taken the decision to respond to all these bids to ban our film, by releasing it, for free streaming, to everyone with access to the internet in India, Malaysia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. As of this weekend, the film can be viewed in those countries in English and in a version with Hindi subtitles. We will soon be posting a version in Sinhala.
Why have we done this? Partly as an act of defiance of course. We cannot accept censorship. But also because India is the most important country in this whole equation after Sri Lanka itself. Of course I can understand India’s conflicting concerns in this situation – and the many sensitivities involved. But equally India’s obligations in this situation cannot be ignored. India — a country whose independent history is rooted in the struggle for democratic rights and free speech — needs to show clear leadership.
It is lesson of history that without truth you cannot have justice – and without justice you cannot easily move forward to peace, political solutions and reconciliation. And despite the difficulties for India, as the leading power in the region, it has to take the lead here. If by banning this film India becomes part of preventing the truth coming out – of denying what happened – then it will actually be slowing progress to justice, political solutions and the possibility of lasting peace in the region. That is not in India’s interest — nor is it in the interests of ordinary decent Sri Lankans, of all ethnic backgrounds, who just want to live in peace and harmony.
This debate is not academic. Next month, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva will consider calls for the creation of an Independent International Commission of Inquiry. The Sri Lankan government — under the control of the Rajapaksa brothers — is engaged in a brutal continuing repression of the Tamil people of the north and east — using land-grabs, systematic sexual violence and the denial of economic and political rights. And in the country as a whole we see the suppression of human rights, endemic corruption and the silencing of critics.
Some voices internationally still call for the regime to be given more time to investigate the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity themselves. The problem is that the Rajapaksa government has shown that after five years it is neither willing nor capable of mounting a proper investigation into what happened — a real attempt to get to the truth and bring those responsible for war crimes to justice. Indeed with every day that passes it is proving itself less capable of doing that — the attacks on the independence of the judiciary are a clear illustration of that.
That is why there are growing calls for an Independent International Commission of Inquiry that can get to the truth and start a genuine process leading to truth, justice, political progress and peace.