Sri Lanka: Government cancels probe into sexual harassment in the media industry

Sri Lanka’s media minister Keheliya Rambukwella informed reporters his ministry would not launch an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment in media institutions despite a significant number of women journalists sharing their experiences on Twitter. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliates, the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), the Free Media Movement (FMM) and the Federation of Media Employees' Trade Union (FMETU) urge the Sri Lankan government not to delay the investigations into the issue.

#MeToo campaign logo. Credit : AFP

Rambukwella backtracked on the announcement made on July 22 that said his ministry would investigate the reports made on social media of sexual abuse against media workers in newsrooms. On June 24, Rambukwella retracted this and said the government would not recognise complaints of sexual harassment in Sri Lanka’s newsrooms made on social media. According to Rambukwella formal complaint must be filed with the police or the media ministry for the government to begin an investigation.

The initial announcement was made after a female journalist Sarah Kellapatha tweeted about her bitter experience of being sexually abused on June 18 and other female journalists joined in to speak up about their own sexual violence experiences.

Salacious remarks over dresses, body shaming, unwanted kisses and kissing attempts, unwanted expressions, rape threats and other forms of abuses were commonplace in newsrooms according to the comments by women journalists in the online outpouring. Sarah Kellapatha said on Twitter: “I’ve had a male colleague threaten to rape me once during a normal conversation we were having.”

Female journalists shared that the most common sexual predators were their seniors and bosses. Sahla Ilham, another female journalist who spoke out on Twitter, said she was sexually abused by a “famous editor” at a now-defunct paper and that he had pressured her family to keep the incident quiet. One of the journalists behind the online campaign, Aisha Nazim, compiled a list of abusive experiences shared by women media workers on a Twitter thread on June 18.

These posts by female media workers had a different character to the 2019 #MeToo campaign and included more detailed information about the perpetrators. Sri Lankan media fraternities are strongly supporting the campaign, say activists.

According to Sri Lanka’s criminal law, sexual predators may be imprisoned for up to five years, fined or both, and may have to pay compensation for sexual abuse. Ermiza Tegal, a lawyer who spoke to The Hindu, said the criminal law is rarely used due to limited access to justice. Tegal cited “examples of complaints not being recorded, victims being ridiculed, intimidated, and threatened, a failure to initiate legal proceedings, lengthy court cases, continued exposure to the alleged perpetrator and possible reprisal because of prolonged court cases, and procedures such as in-person identification parade.”

SLWJA general secretary, Frank De Zoysa, said: “The SLWJA strongly condemns such crimes taking place in media industry. We urge the relevant authorities to carry out proper investigations on the sexual violence allegations and take necessary legal actions against the culprits.”

FMM convener, Seetha Ranjanee, said: Impartial investigation should be carried out expeditiously, especially regarding incidents in State media institutions. The FMM requests all stakeholders to take an active role in formulating gender policy. Introduction of gender sensitive guidelines in all media outlets should not be delayed any further.”

FMETU general secretary, Dharmasiri Lankapeli, said: “The Government of Sri Lanka, which has signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), must take immediate action against the perpetrators of sexual abuse. The FMETU calls on the government to take immediate action to end the ongoing sexual harassment of women in the English, Sinhala and Tamil medium media houses.”

The IFJ said: “Women journalists in Sri Lanka have called time on abuses that have clearly been endured for too long in silence. Now it is time for serious action, not only by investigators but also by media companies to take full responsibility to eliminate sexual violence in the workplace.”

For further information contact IFJ Asia - Pacific on [email protected]

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries

Twitter: @ifjasiapacific, on Facebook: IFJAsiaPacific and Instagram