Media Freedom Needs Closer Attention in Sri Lanka’s Post-War Politics

The International Federation of Journalists

(IFJ) joins partners and affiliates in Sri Lanka in calling for closer attention

to be paid to media freedom issues in the post-war process of reconciliation in

the country. Consultations carried out by the IFJ and its affiliates with key

actors in the country suggest hopes that the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in

May 2009 would quickly improve conditions for the country’s media practitioners

are fading fast.


In June 2012 the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL)

announced a “National Action Plan” (NAP) to give effect to the recommendations

of a commission on national reconciliation, appointed at the end of the civil

war. Recommendations included steps to prevent attacks on media personnel and

institutions, the investigation of such events from the past and deterrent

punishment where appropriate. It also urged the restoration of full rights to

free movement for media personnel and the enactment of a right to information

(RTI) law.


The IFJ and its partners are concerned that

the NAP does not set down any time-line for the passage of an RTI law and does

not address the climate of impunity for attacks on the media. Indeed, the

Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by Sri Lankan

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had voiced its outrage at the attack on G.

Kuhanathan, news editor of the Tamil daily Uthayan,

even as its deliberations were taking place.


Kuhanathan has since been granted political

asylum in Switzerland, along with Uthayan’s

Jaffna based reporter S. Kavitharan, who was also repeatedly attacked by unidentified



There is a widespread popular belief that the

attacks on Uthayan and its staff have

been orchestrated by Douglas Devananda, leader of the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic

Party (EPDP) a contender for power in the northern province of Sri Lanka, and a

close ally of President Rajapaksa. Diplomatic cables from the U.S. State

Department published by Wikileaks, reveal that the President’s brother and

senior minister, Basil Rajapakse informed the U.S. embassy in Colombo that the

EPDP and elements of the Sri Lankan navy may have been behind at least one

major attack on the newspaper in 2006.


Uthayan was issued with a defamation suit by

Devananda for having published this news report.


Progress in the investigation of newspaper

editor Lasantha Wickramatunge’s murder in January 2009 and the disappearance of

cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda in January 2010 has been negligible.


Meanwhile, efforts by journalists’

professional bodies – including IFJ affiliates, the Free Media Movement (FMM)

and the Sri Lanka Journalists Association (SLJA) – to highlight the issue of

impunity have been attacked by official spokespersons as akin to high treason.


The IFJ and its partners observed that

state-controlled media, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, the Sri Lanka

Rupavahini Corporation, Channel ITN and the Lake House publications, have

become forums for verbal abuse and vilification of independent journalists and

human rights defenders, often with dangerous implications for their physical

safety and wellbeing.


Journalists and human rights defenders who

have joined national and international platforms calling for justice and

accountability for human rights abuses committed during the quarter-century

long civil war, have been at particular risk. The large group of journalists in

exile are continually named by official spokespersons, especially over

state-owned media, as “anti-national” elements working against their



News websites hosting content on Sri Lanka

have been subject to arbitrary rule changes and frequent obstruction. In

December 2011, the Media Ministry in the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL)

introduced a rule requiring the registration of all websites hosting news

content on the country. An FMM petition challenging this notification under fundamental

rights clauses was dismissed by the Supreme Court in May on grounds that the

petitioners had no locus standi in

the matter, since the websites themselves had complied with the registration



On June 29, Colombo city police raided the

offices of two news websites, took staff into custody and impounded their

equipment. A fortnight later, the Media Ministry issued a directive reaffirming

the registration requirement for news websites and announcing an additional

requirement to pay an annual fee for renewal.


Following a fundamental rights petition by website

owners in September, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court warned against any misinterpretation

of its ruling regarding registration and ordered all the equipment confiscated

from the websites’ offices be returned.


The website staff taken into custody  were released after one day in detention, on

the orders of a city magistrate.


The IFJ and its partners are also concerned at

the reactivation of the long dormant Sri Lanka Press Councils Act of 1973. This

is an act which incorporates several draconian provisions, including the power

to prosecute under criminal law for any perceived violation of the laws in



The Sri Lanka Press Complaints Council – the

self-regulatory body set up by the newspaper industry -- has enjoyed a

reaffirmation of commitment by its stakeholders, although a withdrawal of donor

support over the next two years could threaten its continuing relevance and



Provincial journalists, whose role should be crucial

in the post-war context, continue to suffer from unequal wages and working

conditions, seriously impacting their motivation and ability to work.


The IFJ and its partners have highlighted the

following steps for a free and active media through the months ahead, when

reconciliation processes in Sri Lanka will be tested:


  • - The restoration of independence and accountability to the state-owned media, if necessary by initiating the process of conversion to public service media;
  • - The enactment of a law covering working conditions of all journalists and news-gatherers, in line with other South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal;
  • - The enactment of a right to information law;
  • - Prosecution, on the basis of credible evidence, of all who have been guilty of attacking journalists and news gatherers in the recent past; and
  • - An effort to bring back to Sri Lanka all the journalists in exile, with the assurance that their safety would be guaranteed by the GoSL.


As an immediate priority, the IFJ urges the

GoSL to order a halt to the stream of hostile rhetoric over state-owned media

channels, which has now targeted the nation’s highest judiciary, leading to the

possibility of contempt action.




further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +612 9333 0918



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