The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is appalled by reports that the Sri Lankan government intends to reintroduce criminal defamation laws.
According to an IFJ affiliate, the Free Media Movement (FMM), an emergency cabinet paper, backed by the Sri Lankan president, on the reintroduction of criminal defamation was submitted to a cabinet meeting on June 27.
The paper is reportedly on hold as three ministers opposed bringing back the laws.
“The IFJ is firmly opposed to criminal defamation laws, which are so often abused by those in power to silence journalists and stifle dissent,” IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said.
“Re-introducing criminal defamation laws would be another terrible setback for the press freedom situation in Sri Lanka which is already suffering from human rights abuses against journalists and unfair censorship,” Park said.
The IFJ has just returned to Sri Lanka as part of the International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression Mission, where it was dismayed to find that editorial pressures and safety threats for journalists have only worsened.
“This is another damning blow against a government who has virtually done nothing to protect the lives and freedom of journalists in Sri Lanka,” Park said.
The UNP government repealed criminal defamation law in a unanimous vote in 2002, after national and international campaigns for its abolishment.
Prior to this, criminal defamation was used extensively to silence critical reportage and suppress investigative journalism on corruption and independent media institutions.
For instance, a few months before the decriminalisation of defamation laws, five lawsuits were filed against Victor Ivan, editor of the Ravaya newspaper in the High Court of Colombo. Four other mainstream newspaper editors were facing criminal defamation charges during the same period.
The IFJ fears that re-criminalising defamation will only empower those seeking to silence critical and investigative reporting into corruption in Sri Lanka.
“This would be an enormous leap backwards for Sri Lanka if the government was to reintroduce these archaic laws,” Park said.
“The IFJ implores the government to retract this proposal from cabinet, and make good on its promises to commit to press freedom.”
For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0919
The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 115 countries