The Australian‘s foreign editor Greg Sheridan has defended accepting the Sri Lankan government’s offer of paid travel and accommodation to report on the state of the country four years after the end of a brutal civil war.

The Australian Tamil Congress has described Sheridan’s series on Sri Lanka — which painted a glowing picture of the country’s progress — as an “advertisement” for the government that ignored the continuing oppression of the country’s Tamil minority.

Sheridan produced four stories totalling 5000 words from the trip, which was the brainchild of the Sri Lankan government. These included “Sri Lanka holds back the tide” (which argued Sri Lanka is Australia’s best friend on tackling people smuggling) “Sri Lanka: a nation at peace” (in which Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa accused the Tamil diaspora of bribing Western politicians) and last Friday’s “Sri Lanka’s path to peace“.

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Sheridan’s pieces carried a declaration saying he travelled as a guest of the Sri Lankan government.

Sheridan’s trip coincided with a week-long visit by Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said:

“I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction … It is important everyone realises that, although the fighting is over, the suffering is not.”

Pillay’s comments were not reported in The Australian and received little attention from other Australian media outlets.

Sam Pari, spokesperson for the Australian Tamil Congress, told Crikey: “The government is still conducting horrendous structural genocide against the Tamil people. It’s immoral and unethical for a senior journalist to be writing articles just based on one side when it’s clear that side has a vested interest. It’s embarrassing because they [the Sri Lankan government] are using an Australian media outlet to do their propaganda for them.

“It’s basically a free advertisement in the paper; instead of paying money to advertise Sri Lanka, they spend money on a journalist to advertise Sri Lanka.”

But Sheridan, who has long taken aim at the Tamil Tigers in his columns, told Crikey accepting sponsored travel did not affect his independence. “I’m a very opinionated writer,” he said. “I certainly try to inform opinions partly through travel. I don’t think they have ever been influenced improperly by sponsorship.

“I’d say there are two obligations when taking a trip funded by a foreign government: the first is disclosure; the second is not to be intellectually corrupted by the sponsorship, that is, not to form a judgement, or write anything, which is contradictory to what you would have written had it not been for the sponsorship.”

Sheridan says it is common for governments to fund trips by journalists — including the Australian government, which brings reporters to Australia under the Special Visitors Program. Earlier this year, Sheridan visited China as a guest of Chinese telco giant Huawei.

Human Rights Watch last year claimed the Sri Lankan government has:

“… continued its assault on democratic space and failed to take any meaningful steps towards providing accountability for war crimes committed by either side during the internal armed conflict that ended in 2009. The government targeted civil society through threats, surveillance and clampdowns on activities and free speech.”

Earlier this year Reporters Without Borders placed Sri Lanka 162nd out of 179 nations in a press freedom index.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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