Associated Press, Thu May 8, 2008 10:05 EDT . – – VALAICHCHENAI, Sri Lanka – (AP) The Sri Lankan government said Thursday it was barring foreign journalists from covering weekend elections in the Eastern Province, but backed off hours later following a wave of protests by journalists and rights groups.
The election pits a coalition of the ruling party and former rebels against opposition parties in a region the government said it had freed from the control of Tamil Tiger rebels last year.
Opposition officials and rights groups say the former rebels are terrorizing voters and opponents and accuse the ruling party of using state resources to ensure its victory Saturday.
On Thursday, an Associated Press reporter and a photographer were stopped at a checkpoint in the eastern town of Valaichchenai and ordered to leave the province and head straight back to the capital, Colombo. Their license plate was then distributed to checkpoints in the area to ensure they complied.
Maj. Gen. Palitha Fernando, a senior official in the Defense Ministry, said any foreigner not registered as an election observer was barred from the volatile province during the polls.
Fernando said the barring of journalists and other foreigners was for their own protection.
“It could be dangerous. If something happens and a foreigner gets injured it will create problems,” Fernando said.
Media rights organizations protested the ban.
“Discouraging foreign media groups from covering the Eastern Province election shows the sorry state of our people’s right to information,” a coalition of five media rights groups said in a statement.
“We call for an investigation as to why there was an attempt to keep foreign media away from an election closely followed by the country and which many groups fear could be marred by violence and malpractice,” the statement added.
Fernando later said there was a misunderstanding, journalists would be allowed to cover the election, and the reporters were allowed to return to the east.
Saturday’s first-ever elections for the Eastern Provincial Council are seen as a referendum on the government’s performance since it drove the Tamil Tigers out of the region, which they had ruled for 13 years