India’s film censors have refused permission for the general release of a film chronicling the violent closing months of the civil war in Sri Lanka because the documentary may strain friendly relations between the two countries.
The Central Board of Film Certification also said in a letter to the director of “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,” reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, that it would not grant a certificate to allow the documentary to be shown in theaters because “most of the visuals are of a disturbing nature and not fit for public exhibition.”
In response, the documentary’s director Callum Macrae has decided to make the film available free online on the film’s website starting Sunday.
The censor board could not be reached immediately for comment.
The film is a collection of footage recorded in the northeast region of the island nation by doctors, civilians, Tamil rebels and Sinhalese soldiers on cell phones and hand-held cameras as the Sri Lankan government allegedly bombarded areas filled with refugees fleeing the fighting.
“This is an explicit admission that India doesn’t want the film to be seen for political expediency,” Mr. Macrae said in a telephone interview with the Journal. “India is denying access to evidence of war crimes, and participating in a process to prevent the truth from getting out,” he added.
The film premiered at private screenings in Mumbai and Delhi in November, at which time the Indian government did not grant Mr. Macrae a visa to visit India. The Ministry of Home Affairs told the Wall Street Journal at the time that Mr. Macrae’s visa was denied because he had violated visa norms in 2011, but has not provided an explanation to the British director for their refusal to grant him a visa.
Attempts to screen “No Fire Zone” in Nepal and Malaysia have also met with government opposition and censorship, said Mr. Macrae. In Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, police and censor board officials raided a film screening to prevent it from being shown. The government of Nepal also came under pressure from the Sri Lankan government to change venues for a screening in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, according to Mr. Macrae.
But India’s reluctance to show the film is most concerning given the country’s tradition of free speech and democracy, said Mr. Macrae. “It is India’s moral duty to allow the truth to come out,” said Mr. Macrae.
“India is the most important country in this conflict after Sri Lanka itself… It is the leading power in the region, the rest of the world looks to India for leadership on the [Sri Lankan conflict],” said Mr. Macrae.
The decision to ban the film is the most recent example of curtailment of freedom of expression in India. Earlier this month, publishing house Penguin agreed to withdraw and pulp copies of a book about Hinduism written by a prominent American scholar after a legal battle with a nationalist group.
Mr. Macrae’s 93-minute documentary contains eyewitness accounts and personal testimonies from U.N. workers and Sri Lankan civilians who were in Vanni province and other areas of the north east where the fighting was fiercest.
The film pieces together this footage as evidence that the government failed to honor the “no fire zones” it created for civilians seeking shelter. Between January and May of 2009, Sri Lankan forces repeatedly opened fire on these “safe zones” and makeshift hospitals, the film alleges.
Mr. Macrae says that the footage has been verified by forensic experts who analyze evidence in British courts.
A United Nations panel in 2011 said that up to 40,000 people, mainly ethnic Tamil civilians were killed as the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war came to an end in 2009, while members of the U.N.’s in-country team and humanitarian agencies claim that over 70,000 people are unaccounted for.
The Sri Lankan government estimates that fewer than 10,000 civilians were killed in the war, according to a November 2012 internal U.N. report.(WSJ)