More Thrills Than Skills – A Half-Life in Journalism, Part 102

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is to be published March 1 next year, by Kennedy & Boyd, Glasgow, and available from

With three days to go, on Wednesday October 6, I appealed to the President, Mrs Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Much maligned in the local press, I always found her a brisk, no-nonsense lady of great charm and presence. Fools are not suffered gladly and she uses her tongue scathingly on those who try to put one past her. She is the sort of woman I can deal with. She reminded me of Margaret Thatcher.

Her press spokesman, Harim Pieris, picked me up in his car on the edge of Galle Face Green, just across the road from my apartment. I walked over to await him and deliberately placed myself beside two characters who had been lounging underneath a palmyrah tree since shortly after 8am. I greerted them cordially. “Good morning, gentlemen.” One, wearing a flowing white shirt and black trousers and sporting the obligatory bulge of an automatic pistol, smiled wanly at me.

The president gave every appearance of genuine concern. She had previously asked to see me to discuss the security situation in the country. She told me that the commander in chief of the army had given her my article from the May issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review. As she is constitutionally the commander of the armed forces, I could see no threat to national security in meeting with her.

The President duly rattled the bars on the cages in the Foreign Ministry but even she could not extract the necessary paperwork. The President and the government were from two different parties.

The Ministry at no stage contacted me or explained the situation. With a day to go, I publicly asked Cabinet press spokesman, Minister G L Pieris, what was happening and if he could guarantee my security. He said he knew nothing, and said he could not. Unsurprisingly, I was tackled by several local journalists at the end of the press conference. I went public on what was happening with just 36 hours to go.

That afternoon, the President told the nation: “The President’s Office takes serious note of the government’s decision not to extend the visa of journalist Mr Paul Harris . . . The President’s Office recalls that Mr Harris had accurately at the start of this year predicted certain developments with regard to the LTTE in the peace process: specifically, the use of schoolchildren and civilians to storm security forces’ camps. Further, we recognise that Mr Harris has freely reported on matters potentially embarrassing to the government and definitely embarrassing to the LTTE, namely the human rights violations in the north and the east subsequent to the ceasefire MOU, specifically that of child conscription, extortion and security issues of the Muslim community in the East.

“Freedom of expression and the right of dissent are bedrock requirements for a democratic and free society and this insidious silencing of an often lone voice against the conventional wisdom of the government is a serious erosion of media freedom and a setback for democracy in Sri Lanka . . . The President has received no valid or acceptable reason from the Foreign ministry for refusing to extend Mr Harris’s visa and has informed the Government that it is not correct to refuse a visa for a journalist from a friendly country who has done no wrong.”

The next morning the telephone started to ring at 6.30. One newspaper carried the front page headline, ‘British journalist forced to leave Lanka’. The Island newspaper also headed its editorial for my last day, Friday, Hands off Paul Harris. I was moved by its support: “Mr Paul Harris undoubtedly is not a run-of-the-mill foreign correspondent. He has exposed LTTE violations of basic human rights in areas under LTTE control and brilliantly exposed the fascist nature of LTTE with the photograph of thousands of LTTE cadres delivering the fascist Hitlerite salute to LTTE leaders.”

Nanda made one of the dozens of telephone calls which came in. “What you have never understood about this country, Paul, is that it is based around rumour, not humour.”

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