Photo courtesy Asianews.it
Sri Lankan government has announced that it had dispatched emergency supplies and support personnel to Nepal a day after the devastating earthquake and that there would be further materials and personnel in the coming days. The government also announced that Sri Lankans who had been in Nepal, can come back in the same flight. The solidarity towards a neighbor in distress and duty towards some Sri Lankan citizens is admirable.
Ever since the new President came into power, there have been public statements inviting exiled journalists to return home. But what the government has actually done to assist those who want to return is not clear. In particular, it’s not clear what the government and the Sri Lankan Embassy in Nepal had done to assist exiled journalists in Nepal to return to Sri Lanka, especially to those who had made it clear they want to return immediately after the new government came into power in January. I have been in touch with three such journalists throughout this period, till today. Despite numerous appeals by them and on behalf of them by media freedom organizations, friends and colleagues, there was no clear response within the 100 days of the new government. Appeals to assist them to return intensified after the earthquake. The question whether the journalists exiled in Nepal are treated in the same way as other Sri Lankans was raised in parliament on 27th April, with an allegation that the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Nepal was not in favor of assisting exiled journalists to return to Sri Lanka, but the Foreign Minister assured that steps have been taken to bring them back within this week. Although the Foreign Minister claimed that the reason for the delay is the expiry of the validity of their passports, the journalists I have been in touch with assured me that their passports are valid. I hope that at least now, these commitments will result in concrete actions, and they will be able to return home.
A particular challenge that exiled journalists / human rights defenders (or any UNHCR recognized refugee) in Nepal face in returning home was to pay “overstay visa fees” and associated penalties. Although they have been recognized by UNHCR as refugees, Nepali government simply consider them as tourists who overstayed their visas and thus, expect them to pay the overstay visa fees. All three of them had to sacrifice their careers, their income. I have known them in Sri Lankan when they were at serious risk, visited them each time I visit Nepal, have been in regular touch with them and know that they lived very difficult lives in Sri Lanka and then in Nepal. When they went to Nepal, they were dependent on adhoc financial support from friends and colleagues. They are legally barred from being employed. They were later recognized as refugees and received a meager allowance of less than USD 60 per person per month from UNHCR. There is no way the three of them could pay about USD 15,000 and also find costs of tickets and other expenses.
Three case studies of journalists / human rights defenders in Nepal waiting to return:
Each person in exile has a different story, some may even have abused the situation to seek better lives overseas. But the stories of my three friends can serve as indication of the large issues. Shantha Wijesooriya is a Sri Lankan investigative journalist who had been detained, threatened and the news websites he was working for have been subjected an arson attack and Police raids. One of his former editor lives in exiles due to death threats and his colleagues had been arrested. He finally left the country after narrowly escaping an abduction attempt in 2012. Jayampathy Bulathsinhala is a Sri Lankan human rights defender who ran a printing press, publishing many human rights and social justice oriented materials. He has been involved in human rights and social justice work for decades. In 2010, the Sri Lankan government enacted an anti democratic law strengthening presidential powers and weakening independent institutions. In support of opposition parties and civil society campaigns against this, Jayampathy published a poster painting the then president as a dictator. He, his wife Kumudu, and colleagues were arrested and when they tried to file a fundamental rights case, they faced threats, and were compelled to go into exile. Kumudu has also been working for a news website while in exile. When Shantha escaped an abduction attempt and fled the country, he was working for Lanka X News, a website run by the United National Party (the the opposition party) and the present Foreign Minister, Mr. Mangala Samaraweera, was reported as the Chief Executive Officer / Coordinator. Mr. Samaraweera had also accepted that the poster printed by Jayampathy that led to his arrest and exile was done so on his instructions.
Even as I’m happy about the Sri Lankan government’s emergency support towards Nepalese and to assist other Sri Lankan citizens who were in Nepal to come home, I hope the Sri Lankan government (in Colombo and the Embassy in Nepal) will also assist Shantha, Jayampathy and Kumudu to come home, by taking into consideration the particular challenges they face, their unique contributions to promoting democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka and the sufferings they had undergone. In the short term they may need basic needs like accommodation, food, medicine, clothing and communication facilities for them to contact immediate relatives in Sri Lanka. It has been reported that the Sri Lankan Prime Minister has been in touch with his Nepali counterpart and the Acting Nepali Ambassador in Colombo. All foreign missions with their citizens in Nepal are likely to be in touch with Nepalese authorities, including the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Nepal. Undoubtedly, Nepali authorities are overwhelmed with the emergency situation. But I hope the Sri Lankan government in Colombo and the Embassy in Nepal will also bring up the situation of my three friends (and others) in the conversations with Nepali authorities, work out modalities, and offer any assistance needed, and facilitate their long overdue return back to Sri Lanka soon.
I have focused this article only on three journalists / HRDs who I have been in close touch with me, before they went into exile and till today. But there are also human rights defenders and journalists in other countries (and possibly even in Nepal) who have expressed interest to return. I hope the Sri Lankan government will go beyond rhetoric and seek more proactive ways to assist exiled journalists and human rights defenders to return home.
 http://www.mea.gov.lk/index.php/en/media/media-releases/6059-sri-lanka-condoles-with-nepal-on-the-tragic-loss-of-life-and-damage-to-property-from-the-earthquake-and-dispatches-emergency-relief-assistance and http://www.news.lk/news/business/item/7367-second-sri-lanka-army-coningent-to-leave-for-nepal-today
 http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=56252,http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2012/07/08/govt-s-website-registration-call-under-scrutiny/ and http://www.ft.lk/2012/07/02/mangala-to-file-fr-petition-against-raid-on-news-websites/