For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Press release/ 20 July 2012
The NfR condemns the recent actions taken by the Ministry of Mass Media and Communication in Sri Lanka to curtail the dissemination of ideas and information through websites, imposing registration fees, including the blocking of certain websites, raids on the office of two websites and the arrest and detention of staff at the office.
In November 2011, the government blocked 5 websites and asked all those websites carrying any content relating to Sri Lanka or the people of Sri Lanka, uploading from Sri Lanka or abroad to apply for ‘accreditation’. Following this, many websites did in fact seek and obtain the said ‘accreditation’.
On 11 July 2012, Mr. Keheliya Rambukwella the Minister of Mass Media and Communication, proposed to the Cabinet that the Press Council law be amended to make provision for the registration of newscasting websites. The Press Council (Act No. 5 of 1973) was reintroduced to Sri Lanka in June 2009, in the face of many protests from media freedom groups in Sri Lanka and abroad, who pointed to the fact that nothing about its arbitrary nature had changed in the years when it had been held in abeyance.
According to the Cabinet press release that followed, it was announced that a first off registration fee of Rs. 100,000 would be levied from each website, and that there would be a 50,000 rupee annual fee on all news casting websites including those that had registered in January 2012. There is no registration fee for any print media in Sri Lanka.
The Cabinet press release stated that the main objective of this amendment was ‘to ensure that the contents of the websites do no harm to defenseless individuals’. Minister Rambukwella went on record saying that this step was necessary ‘ to maintain dignity and decorum in the media’.
It is clear that without a clear definition of what constitutes a ‘news casting’ website this amendment and the regulation of websites imposed by the process of paid registration could become a tool for silencing democratic dissent and restricting the freedom of opinion and expression which is guaranteed by the Sri Lankan constitution as well as by international human rights law. In an environment in which repression of media freedom, intimidation and attacks of journalists and media activists and ‘hate’ campaigns against media freedom organizations have resulted in an exodus of journalists and media persons from the country, this new step can only be seen as a further erosion of media freedom and the right to democratic dissent in Sri Lanka.
NfR strongly opposes all attempts to suppress people’s right to opinion, information and expression in order to control abuse of the internet and reiterate that the Sri Lankan Penal Code contains sufficient laws to control defamation if so required.
NfR maintains its position that working with the media community to develop tools and mechanisms of self-regulation guided by universal principles of media ethics remains the only acceptable path to prevent any abuse of media freedom.