For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
An international rights group on Saturday called on Sri Lanka to stop “harassing” media organisations, a day after police shut down opposition news websites and arrested nine workers.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said Friday’s crackdown against two websites linked to the island’s main opposition signalled that Colombo did not tolerate dissent.
“Friday’s raid shows that President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government remains determined to silence opposition voices,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia programme co-ordinator.
“Authorities should heed the many public appeals urging them to reverse this years-long policy of quashing media criticism of the government and military. The CPJ calls on Sri Lanka to immediately stop harassing news outlets.”
An opposition spokesperson the nine of the websites’ employees were detained by police overnight and told they were being held on suspicion of a “conspiracy against the government”.
They were released on bail on Saturday, a court official said.
Seven local media groups, including the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association, also condemned the closure of the Sri Lanka Mirror and Sri Lanka X News.
“The government action in using its security apparatus to crack down against the websites shows there is no media freedom in the country and there is no scope for independent journalism,” the groups’ statement said.
The two websites shut down have been highly critical of Rajapakse’s government.
The government is already facing international censure over its human rights record and a string of unsolved murders of journalists and attacks on independent media.
“The criminal investigations department sealed the offices of two websites carrying false and vulgar reports,” the government said on Friday.
“People responsible for feeding information to the Internet through this office are being investigated,” it added, without giving details.
Rights groups and employees said the Sri Lanka X News was the official news organ of the opposition United National Party (UNP), while the other website was closely linked to the UNP. They both shared the same office in Colombo.
Sri Lanka’s defence ministry said the website offices were raided and shut down after officials obtained a court order to conduct searches and seize computers.
The latest police crackdown comes three months after the defence ministry ordered all mobile phone operators to clear any security-related news reports before issuing them as SMS alerts.
Sri Lanka lifted a state of emergency last year, but media rights groups have said journalists have been forced to self-censor their work amid fear of physical attacks.
Around 17 journalists and media employees have been killed in Sri Lanka in the past decade, pro-opposition websites have been blocked and media organisations opposing government views have been attacked, according to rights groups.