Charles Haviland, the BBC’s correspondent in Sri Lanka, has been denied a visa extension by the government and told to leave the country.
The respected journalist, who has been reporting from Sri Lanka since the final days of the civil war in 2009, applied for a one year renewal to his visa which expired this month, but was refused by the External Affairs Ministry and given a few days to leave the country. Pressure from senior foreign journalists in Colombo led to the Ministry giving Haviland a three month extension, but he will then be forced to leave Sri Lanka for good.
Media Ministry secretary Charitha Herath said that Haviland’s visa extension had been refused because there was a 5 year limit on visas for foreign journalists. Media Minsiter Keheliya Rambukwella said that granting Haviland any further extension would be “unreasonable”.
However, the Foreign Correspondents’ Association said that they were not aware of the rule, which had never been invoked before.
“The FCA is unaware of any time limits on visas issued to foreign journalists posted to Sri Lanka. However, we have noted remarks by the authorities that the Media Ministry will articulate in the coming week their policy on visas for foreign correspondents, and we look forward to seeing it,” FCA said in a statement.
FCA also noted that the existing the policy adopted by Sri Lankan authorities on foreign journalists is available on the External Affairs Ministry website, but it makes no reference to how long a foreign journalist can work in Sri Lanka.
The move to deny the BBC correspondent a visa will both increase worries about the freedom of the press, and also about the country’s visa policies, and what motivates the decision to allow or deny entry into the country. Over the last 12 months, and particularly since CHOGM, foreign companies, NGOs, and even embassies have all reported severe difficulties in obtaining visas and visa extensions for their staff, without clear explanations for the reasons ever being offered.
The ejection of Haviland, who has occasionally been critical of the government, also comes at a time when the authorities in Sri Lanka are stepping up a campaign against what they claim is a “resurgence” of the LTTE. Haviland has frequently reported from the North of the country and has a wide range of contacts there, but he will not now be able to report on the latest developments.