BBC concern over Sri Lanka's questioning of reporter

Ponnaiah Manikavasagam
Image caption Ponnaiah Manikavasagam has reported for BBC Tamil for many years

The BBC has expressed concern over the questioning of a BBC Tamil reporter by anti-terrorist police in Sri Lanka.

Ponnaiah Manikavasagam was questioned in Colombo on Monday over phone conversations he had with two Tamil prisoners. He was not allowed a lawyer during the interview.

The BBC added it was "confident that all his activities were carried out in pursuit of normal journalistic duties".

Press freedom groups also issued statements condemning his treatment.

In a joint statement Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) said: "The authorities trying to intimidate and behave in a threatening manner should be seen as a serious assault on the already worsened media freedom and freedom of speech in Sri Lanka."

The BBC statement said: "The BBC was concerned that Ponnaiah Manikavasagam was asked to appear for interview by the Terrorism Investigation Division and gave him legal support.

"Mr Manikavasagam has reported for the BBC World Service for many years and we are confident that all his activities were carried out in pursuit of his normal journalistic duties."

Sri Lanka is one of the world's most dangerous places to be a journalist. Earlier this year, Sri Lanka was placed 162nd out of 179 in a Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

Prisoner 'grievances'

Monday's questioning of Mr Manikavasagam came after the UN's human rights chief Navi Pillay lambasted Sri Lanka for becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Ms Pillay also said that although she was allowed to travel freely during her recent week-long visit, the Sri Lankans who came to meet her were harassed and intimidated by security forces. Sri Lanka dismissed her comments as "prejudiced".

Terrorism Investigation Department officials in Colombo questioned Mr Manikavasagam over phone conversations he had with two prisoners who are under trial and being held at Colombo's Magazine prison.

The prison is known for holding hundreds of Tamil prisoners suspected of links with Tamil Tiger rebels.

Human rights groups say these inmates are being held without due process and have called for them to be put on trial or immediately released.

Mr Manikavasagam told the officials that as a journalist he would receive calls from prisoners and their families. As many of these prisoners had been in custody for years, they generally discussed their grievances.

He said that he returned missed calls in accordance with his journalistic duties and that many people had access to his number.

He has reported for BBC Tamil for more than 15 years from northern Sri Lanka.

It is unclear if any case will be registered against him or if he will be summoned for questioning again. The authorities have made no statement about the case.

Sri Lanka's army defeated separatist Tamil rebels after a brutal 26-year war in 2009. It is the final phase of that war which has come under particular scrutiny as well as the government's rights record since then.

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