FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION SRI LANKA

For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya

US state dept report 2011: Freedom of Speech and PressStatus of Freedom of Speech and Press in Sri Lanka

The law provides for freedom of speech, including for members of the press, but the government did not respect these rights in practice. Government officials criticized, pressured, harassed, and arrested members of the media, and most journalists practiced self-censorship.

The LLRC report stated that it was “deeply disturbed by persistent reports concerning attacks on journalists and media institutions and killing of journalists and the fact that these incidents remained to be conclusively investigated and perpetrators brought to justice…[a]ny failure to investigate and prosecute offenders would undermine the process of reconciliation and the [r]ule of [l]aw.” The LLRC recommended steps be taken to prevent harassment and attacks on media personnel and institutions and priority be given to investigate and prosecute those responsible for such incidents.

Freedom of Speech: The constitution protects the right to free speech. However, it is subject to a host of restrictions including public morality and national security. The government attempted to impede criticism through the year, including through harassment, intimidation, violence, and imprisonment. The government monitored political meetings, particularly in the north and east. There also were credible reports that civilian and military officials questioned local residents and groups who met with foreign diplomats regarding the content of their meetings.

Freedom of Press: The government owned one of the country’s largest newspaper chains, two major television stations, and a radio station. However, private owners operated a variety of independent newspapers, journals, and radio and television stations. The government imposed no political restrictions on the establishment of new media enterprises. However, the government restricted the construction of transmission towers in the north. It built a new tower in the Vanni but blocked private stations from building towers.

Violence and Harassment: National and international media freedom organizations and journalists’ associations expressed concern over restrictions on media freedom and were sharply critical of the government’s role in harassing and intimidating journalists.

Senior government officials repeatedly accused critical journalists of treason and often pressured editors and publishers to print stories that portrayed the government in a positive light. This pressure reportedly was exerted sometimes directly through threats and intimidation. For example, international media reported that President Rajapaksa personally telephoned the chairman of The Sunday Leader, Lal Wickrematunge, on July 19, about an article reporting that China had given money to the president and his son to be used “at their discretion.” Approximately 100 posters with the words “Do not lie!” and “The gods will punish you” appeared on the walls of the newspaper’s headquarters.

Although no journalist was reported killed or abducted during the year, frequent threats, harassment, and attacks on media personnel continued. Statements by government and military officials contributed to an environment in which journalists who published articles critical of the government felt under threat.

At an event in Katunayake on November 20, Public Relations and Public Affairs Minister Mervyn Silva stated that there were “lowly so-called journalists who insult important persons” and that they should book coffins for themselves.

In a September 1 telephone conversation, UPFA southern provincial council member Aruna Gunaratne threatened to kill Daily Mirror Matara correspondent Krishan Jeewaka Jayaruk if he published a story about Gunaratne. Jayaruk recorded the conversation and filed a complaint regarding the death threat with the Matara police.

On July 29, unidentified men attacked news editor Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan of the Jaffna-based Uthayan newspaper with iron rods. On August 15, police arrested two suspects, including one described as a “major underworld figure,” although some expressed doubts about the suspects. The case was filed in the Jaffna Magistrate’s Court, and at year’s end the Attorney General’s Office was considering filing charges against the suspects. Uthayancame under attack repeatedly in past years, and several of its journalists were killed.

On January 31, unknown perpetrators firebombed the premises of pro-opposition news Web site Lanka-e-news. While numerous observers implicated government agents in the attack, state media suggested that the staff of Lanka-e-news was responsible. Authorities arrested Lanka-e-news editor Bennet Rupasinghe and journalist Shantha Wijesooriya and subsequently released them in the following months, and a magistrate’s court suspendedLanka-e-news operations from April 28 to May 12 because of a contempt case pending against Wijesooriya.

There was no progress in the investigation of the July 2010 arson attack on the Siyatha television premises.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Police, under the authority of the Ministry of Defense, reportedly maintained a special unit to monitor and control all references in the media to members of the Rajapaksa family. Official pressure reportedly was exerted sometimes through orders to government and private firms to cease advertising in critical newspapers. While media could operate freely, independent and opposition media practiced self-censorship. Media freedom suffered from severe government pressure throughout the island, and most journalists practiced self-censorship, particularly on the issues of accountability and criticism of government officials.

A popular Sinhala language political satire, And Company,which portrayed the government as a company, received threats early in the year. The producer and main actor were threatened by a group in a white van and subsequently removed the character Chinthana (representing President Rajapaksa) from the program.

Libel Laws/National Security: In 2009 the government officially reactivated the Press Council Act of 1973. This act, which includes power to impose punitive measures including fines and lengthy prison terms, proscribes the publishing of articles that discuss internal communications of the government, decisions of the cabinet, matters relating to the military that could affect national security, and details of economic policy that could lead to artificial shortages or speculative price increases.

Nongovernmental Impact: Progovernment paramilitary groups/gangs inhibited freedom of expression, particularly in the north. Members of the EPDP allegedly were involved in harassment and attacks on journalists, including the July 29 attack on Uthayan’s Kuhanathan.

Internet FreedomThe government restricted access to the Internet, including Web sites it deemed pornographic as well as Web sites it deemed critical of the government. There were suspicions that the government was behind the blocking of Internet access to several Tamil news Web sites, including the pro-LTTE TamilNet. On October 18, major Sri Lankan telecom companies Sri Lanka Telecoms and Mobitel blocked access to lankaenews.com, a sensationalist news Web site critical of the government. On June 20, the government temporarily blocked citizen journalism site groundviews.org; groundviews’ Sinhala partner site, vikalpa.org; Transparency International Sri Lanka’s Web site; and news aggregator infolanka.com. Some observers believed the one-day shutdown to be a warning to the sites. On November 5, the Ministry of Mass Media and Information announced that it requires all Web sites carrying Sri Lankan news to register. It based its action on “complaints” about material published by certain Web sites that were “injurious to the image of the country, the head of the state, ministers, senior public officials, and other important persons.” The ministry began blocking sites carrying news critical of the government. Of the five sites blocked, four remained blocked at year’s end.

Academic Freedom and Cultural EventsThere were allegations that university officials, in many cases from the ranks of academia, prevented professors from criticizing government officials. Some academics noted that the environment of intimidation led to self-censorship. There also were concerns of military encroachment into universities. For example, on September 22, a group of academics issued a statement protesting a decision by the Higher Education Ministry to hand over the security of universities to Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd, a government-owned commercial security venture established under the Ministry of Defense and under the direct supervision of the defense secretary. Observers also expressed concerns regarding a mandatory week-long leadership training program held in army camps around the country for students who qualified to enter universities. The training program began May 23 and was conducted by the military under the supervision of university authorities. On June 3, the Supreme Court rejected without trial five petitions that requested the annulment of the leadership training program.

On October 16, in Jaffna an unidentified group assaulted Jaffna University Students’ Association leader Subramaniyam Thavapalasingham with iron rods. The attackers reportedly asked him whether he wanted a separate state. Another student, Rajavarothayan Kavirajan, who had protested against the assault of Thavapalasingham, was allegedly attacked by a military intelligence unit in Kilinochchi October 24. He was seriously injured and admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of the Jaffna Teaching Hospital. At year’s end the investigation into the attack had identified no suspects.

Read the full report is here

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