Sri Lanka

Vulnerable
Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
Notable
34 85
Local Resilience & Response
Low
27 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key findings

  • Increased influence efforts amid political change: The Chinese party-state’s media influence efforts intensified during the coverage period of 2019-21. Pro-Beijing influencers have increased their activities in the social media space—particularly their outreach to younger Sri Lankans—and new agreements with elites, including in the think tank space, have shaped conversations in the media. The return of the Rajapaksa family to power in 2020 and protests ousting them in 2022 increased restrictions on press freedom and attacks on journalists.
  • Mixed public response: China is sometimes viewed as a friendly power that can act as a balancing force against Western influence and which provided much needed COVID-19 aid. At the same time, public backlash and concern over its economic influence has grown since a Chinese state-run company was awarded a 99-year lease to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port in 2017 (see Impact).
  • Close ties with elites: High-level ties between the Sri Lankan and Chinese governments have led to political and business leaders parroting Chinese propaganda points, in both domestic and international forums, including on adopting the Chinese governance model and the human rights situation in Xinjiang. State-owned paper Daily News, national business paper the Daily FT, and some elite-run cultural organizations and think tanks have been consistent vessels for Chinese state content and narratives (see Propaganda).
  • Aggressive diplomatic push on social media: Chinese diplomats have adopted “wolf-warrior” tactics, regularly pushing back against criticism on social media platforms. Chinese diplomatic accounts in Sri Lanka have also benefited from amplification by fake accounts (see Propaganda).
  • China Radio International: China Radio International has content targeted to Sri Lankan audiences in the dominant local language Sinhala on FM radio. It is also available in both Sinhala and Tamil on social media, with over 1.4 million followers for one of the Sinhala accounts (see Propaganda).
  • Social media influencers target youth: Since 2020 especially, Facebook influencers affiliated with Chinese state media have increasingly pushed content targeting young adults in local languages including Sinhala. These accounts have up to 1.2 million followers and promote content that showcases the positive, apolitical sides of China while occasionally pushing pro-Chinese Communist Party content. Social media platforms have struggled to keep up with labeling them as Chinese state-controlled sources (see Propaganda).
  • Embassy efforts to silence criticism: Journalists and news outlets in Sri Lanka that report unfavorably on the Chinese government or its involvement in the country have been pressured by the Chinese embassy or other Chinese state-linked actors into issuing apologies or removing content. Such incidents have contributed to some self-censorship among journalists (see Censorship).
  • No local Chinese-language media: There is no local Chinese-language media, reflective of the small size of the Chinese diaspora in the country (see Diaspora media).
  • Limited China expertise but growing civil society attention: Sri Lanka has limited expertise on domestic Chinese politics and Chinese Communist Party influence mechanisms. However, there is a vibrant press freedom community and a growing contingent among civil society drawing attention to Chinese state propaganda, covert social media manipulation, and infrastructure projects involving China such as the Colombo Port City. Media literacy is relatively high in the country, serving as another buffer to Chinese state influence (see Resilience and response).
  • Media self-regulation gaps: Media professionalism in Sri Lanka is notably low, with little culture of investigative reporting. There is, however, a growing number of journalist training and government initiatives to tackle these gaps (see Resilience and response).
  • Lack of safeguards against political influence: While there are laws enhancing ownership transparency and limiting foreign ownership, there are no laws against cross- ownership and partisan ownership, putting Sri Lankan media at risk of undue political influence—especially given strong governmental ties with China and the tendency for media outlets to have political affiliations. The government has also intensified its targeting of journalists in recent years, increasing the risk of self-censorship on perspectives that counter the government line (see Resilience and response).

header2 Background

Sri Lanka is a constitutional democracy and has a status of Partly Free in the 2022 edition of Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties.1 The country also has an internet freedom status of Partly Free, according to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report.2 Sri Lanka experienced improvements in political rights and civil liberties after President Maithripala Sirisena came into power in 2015, ending the more repressive rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The election of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president in November 2019 and their party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s (SLPP) victory in the August 2020 parliamentary polls re-emboldened the Rajapaksa family, which took steps to empower the executive and crackdown on media freedom and rule of law.3 In March 2022, protests erupted against the Rajapaksa leadership, leading the government to impose several states of emergency in the ensuing months that severely limited freedom of speech.4 In May 2022, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned, and in July 2022, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa too resigned and fled the country. As of August 2022, the country is in a state of great economic and political uncertainty, suffering its worst financial crisis since independence from British rule in 1948.5

Sri Lankans most frequently consume news from television, radio, word of mouth, and newspapers, respectively, with television regularly consumed by 96 percent of the population in 2019.6 With over 50 percent of the population active on the internet,7 news media have embraced digital publishing and social media platforms are a growing source of news.8 Facebook is the most popular social media platform, used by 80 percent of internet users in 2019.9 However, there is higher trust in traditional media, especially television, when compared to social media. 10 There is also greater trust in private media compared to state media.11 Privately-owned networks, which attract the bulk of the television audience, thus play an especially influential role in Sri Lanka’s media landscape.12

China and Sri Lanka normalized relations in 1950. Available data ranks China as Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner for goods13 and second largest source of imports.14 China is also Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral creditor, and according to recent estimates, accounts for approximately 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt.15 In recent decades, China has made investment in several mega projects in Sri Lanka, including the Hambantota Port in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home constituency starting in 2008, the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) starting in 2009, and the Colombo Port City, a city expansion project proposed in 2012 and the largest foreign direct investment project in the country to date.16 Notably, when a Chinese state-owned operator took control of the Hambantota Port in 2017 on a 99-year lease as a result of Sri Lanka being unable to meet interest payments, it sparked concerns of sovereignty infringement and “debt-trap diplomacy” and even local protests against Chinese investment.17 The controversy surrounding the port had a major impact on how China was viewed in the country and its ability to project influence. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, China has provided significant support to Sri Lanka, offering over $2 billion in loans, a currency swap, and donating over a million Sinopharm vaccine doses.18

The Chinese government has continually emphasized that it views itself as a friend of Sri Lanka regardless of who is in power. From 2008 to 2015 Chinese officials cultivated a close relationship with the Rajapaksa family that was in power, and then from 2015 to 2019 with their rival Maithripala Sirisena. China has been an especially useful ally for the Rajapaksas, since many in the international community kept them at arm’s length and sought accountability for human-rights violations committed during the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).19 A good relationship with the Rajapaksas has paid off for China as well. In 2015, the Sri Lankan government reportedly did not permit the Dalai Lama to visit the country in an effort not to upset China’s ruling regime.20 With the return of the Rajapaksas in 2019, a controversial bill approving the Colombo Port City project was passed in May 2021.21

Given Sri Lanka’s political volatility, the Chinese government began a strategy of long-term outreach across the political spectrum, including coordinating events and funding people-to-people organizations such as the Sri Lanka-China Friendship Association and the Sri Lanka-China Youth Friendship Association. Taking advantage of the two countries’ common Buddhist heritage, China helped establish the Sri Lanka-China Buddhist Friendship Association in 2015 and contributed funds to a Sri Lankan Buddhist television station.22 In December 2021, the Chinese ambassador made an unprecedented three-day trip to the Tamil-dominated Jaffna region.23

There are approximately 3,000 members of the Chinese diaspora living in Sri Lanka.24 Among the broader population, 87 percent speaks Sinhala, followed by Tamil and English at 29 and 24 percent respectively.25

header3 Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

 

Key narratives:

Chinese state narratives in Sri Lanka follow the standard Chinese propaganda package: a mixture of rapport building, positive promotion of China, its ruling regime, and the Chinese governance model, as well as counternarratives to international criticism. Chinese state media emphasize close political and financial ties with Sri Lanka,1 with a focus on infrastructural projects, and since 2020, Sinopharm vaccines provided to Sri Lanka.2 Sinopharm was highlighted for its effectiveness, and China was framed as the provider of a global public good by donating vaccines. The vaccine development and dissemination narratives are situated within a broader narrative of China as a symbol of innovation and progress.3 In addition to promoting positive narratives, Chinese state media also frequently rebuts criticism related to its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its origins,4 human rights violations in Xinjiang5 and Tibet,6 and Beijing’s coercive diplomacy,7 including via misleading or false claims. A lot of ire is directed towards the United States, with topics ranging from American reluctance to talk about Syria and Afghanistan to racial inequities in US COVID-19 death rates.8

Key avenues of content dissemination

Chinese state media content reaches audiences in Sri Lanka through a variety of channels, sometimes directly and other times filtered through local actors. Chinese state media is available in Sri Lanka on cable and satellite television. CGTN, the international arm of China’s state broadcaster, is available in English on Dialog TV (satellite),9 and the Chinese-language version China Central Television (CCTV) is available on Peo TV (cable).10 China Daily, an English-language daily owned by the CCP, is available in print, and Chinese state news agency Xinhua had a bureau in Colombo for at least part of the coverage period and at least one local journalist working as a correspondent.11 The audience reach and influence of these channels is unclear, but does not appear to be significant. More notable are the following avenues through which content produced or influenced by Chinese party-state actors reaches local audiences:

Active diplomatic communications: China’s diplomats in Sri Lanka have been active in the media, publishing op-eds while cultivating a social media presence. During the coverage period, ambassador Cheng Xueyuan, who left his post in October 2020, and ambassador Qi Zhenhong published at least 10 op-eds in various national outlets, mostly in the business paper Daily FT and occasionally the English-language online outlet Sri Lanka Guardian and the Daily Mirror, one of the largest English language dailies in Sri Lanka.12 The Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka, which joined Twitter in March 2020, had a following of approximately 21,000 in December 2021, with most posts published in English. In addition to posts highlighting COVID-19 and other aid provided to Sri Lanka, it has taken a “wolf warrior” approach to diplomacy, using confrontational language toward social media users who respond critically to its tweets, and tagging elected Sri Lankan leaders in its posts.13 The account produces a high volume of posts; according to one study, in just the first month of operation, it published six hundred tweets, compared to the United States embassy’s average 68 monthly tweets in the last eleven years.14

China Radio International (CRI) on radio and social media in local languages: China Radio International is available on FM channel 97.9 throughout the country. It has programming in Sinhala, the country’s dominant language, and maintains a website and social media accounts in the language.15 CRI also appears to reach a relatively large audience on Facebook and YouTube, with followings on three separate accounts ranging from approximately 25,000 to over 1.4 million by the end of 2021.16 The high follower count is partly attributed to the fact that some of these accounts have existed since 2014 and 2015. User engagement appears to be quite high on one of the Facebook accounts, though it is likely this is due to a significant number of bot accounts.17 The account in question (Cheena Sinhala Handa) pushes Sinhala news content on cultural and soft diplomacy topics.18 CRI also has a Tamil-language YouTube channel with 388,000 subscribers and a Tamil-language Facebook page with over eight million followers, although it is unclear how many of those are in Sri Lanka versus other countries like India.19 Adding to the potential local attractiveness of CRI content is that they frequently feature contributors speaking in Sinhala and Tamil.

Chinese state-affiliated social media influencers targeting local audiences: Several Sinhala and English language Facebook accounts affiliated with Chinese state outlets like CRI and CGTN have been created in the past two years. To the casual viewer they would appear as personal pages rather than accounts affiliated with the Chinese party-state.20 These accounts, apparently belonging to young, attractive Chinese women, have between 80,000 and over one million followers. Though they are identified as “state-controlled content” on some social media platforms, they are not labeled on all of them. 21 An investigation by researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa revealed that many of the accounts were running Facebook ads targeting audiences in Sri Lanka, coinciding with their increased following in what he suspects to be a coordinated effort to expand local reach.22 Most of these accounts posted largely apolitical content, covering topics like similarities between Chinese and Sri Lankan culture (Buddhism, traditional medicines), food, and travel advice, while occasionally sprinkling in political content, such as during major anniversaries like the centennial of the CCP’s founding.23 Perhaps due to their apolitical and more personal presentation, these accounts appeared to garner more genuine engagement from users than clearly labeled state media accounts.24

Partnerships with local pro-Beijing groups and publications: In 2016, Xinhua signed a content sharing agreement with the state-owned Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (also known as Lake House).25 At least one of its papers, the English-language Daily News, regularly reprinted Xinhua content between 2019-2021.26 The Daily FT, which does not appear to have a formal agreement with Chinese state media, has also occasionally published articles from state media during the coverage period.27 The Island is part of the Asia News Network—a regional content sharing alliance that includes the China Daily—, but had no record of China Daily articles appearing in its publication during the coverage period (though it did publish articles regularly from the China Daily from 2009-2011).28 A broader review of top English and Sinhala language outlets in Sri Lanka reveals that content from Chinese state media did not regularly feature in the outlets.29

Although there were few examples of clearly labeled content or inserts from Chinese state media appearing in local outlets, many pro-Beijing articles did appear in print and online publications. Notably, the Daily FT frequently gave voice to Chinese state narratives.30 In addition, the Chinese government has built up various partnerships with domestic groups that take a friendly stance and publish their own inserts, statements, or whole magazines, which occasionally appeared in local media. For example, the Association for Sri Lanka - China Social and Cultural Cooperation (ASLCSCC), a pro-China Sri Lankan organization founded by an ex-Sri Lankan civil servant, prints The China Mirror magazine. For notable PRC holidays and anniversaries during the coverage period, the magazine supplied content to The Daily Mirror.31 During the 100-year anniversary of the CCP, which occurred in July 2021, a full copy of the magazine was inserted into the paper.32 It remains unclear if there was an exchange of payment in that case, but according to one interviewee, The China Mirror is known to approach media houses requesting that they include the publication as a supplement in exchange for payment.33

Another notable local partner for the Chinese embassy and government is the Sri Lanka-China Journalists Forum (SLCJF),34 established in 2001 by Sri Lankans to promote bilateral media exchange with China. It has published its own Sinhalese magazine focused on China affairs since 2008. Among other activities, the forum reports on its website that for the last 15 years, it “has successfully coordinated the national press supplement in all major national newspapers in both Sinhalese and English languages on the Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China [in October].” In 2018, the organization signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese state-affiliated All China Journalists Association and later became a member of the Belt and Road News Network, a People’s Daily-led membership organization aimed at disseminating favorable content and serving as a centralized source of information on the BRI.35 The SLCJF runs its own regularly updated website in English, Chinese, and Sinhala; the size of its readership is unclear.36 Along with the Colombo-based Chinese Cultural Centre, the Chinese government’s first overseas cultural center in South Asia, it sponsors the pro-Beijing bi-monthly magazine Mahajana Cheenaya (People’s Republic of China), which is available both online and in print. The publication was reportedly delivered to then-President Maithripala Sirisena.37

Other Beijing friendly organizations include the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, which publishes the quarterly magazine Subhasara jointly with China Radio International.38 On June 1, 2020, five “friendship” organizations, including the SLCJF and the ASLCSCC, issued a joint statement supporting China’s stance on Hong Kong’s national security legislation.39

Subsidized journalist trips: The Chinese government has arranged visits to China for journalists since at least 2010.40 The total number of attendees and number of trips from the coverage period is unknown.41 In December 2018, the Sri Lanka-China Journalists Forum signed an agreement with Chongqing Normal University to establish journalist exchanges. In October 2019, the first batch of journalists from Sri Lanka under this agreement, along with scholars and government officials were invited to a month-long media training hosted by Chongqing Normal University, for a total of 18 participants.42 Separately, at least three journalists from the Daily News, a major state-owned English daily, traveled to China in 2019. One of the three noted that he had visited Shanghai and Nanjing for two weeks as part of a youth delegation in June 2019 and described it as “nothing political, more on the cultural side…” Following his trip, he published a lifestyle article.43 Two journalists who went to China in 2019 declined to be interviewed, including a freelance journalist, who noted that she was afraid of having to give up free trips.44 Journalists who spoke to the Colombo Gazette in February 2020 said that it was an unspoken rule that visiting a country at the government’s expense meant that one was expected to promote it. They clarified that this was not the case only with China, but also applied to other countries they visited in a similar capacity.45

Local political leaders: Since the conclusion of its civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has looked to China for both investment in reconstruction and political cover against international war crimes investigations. In recent years, the Chinese government has expended effort in wooing Sri Lankan political leaders at various forums, including by funding visits to China,46 and Sri Lankan leaders have echoed Beijing’s preferred talking points to the public. Before being unseated in 2015, President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited China six times. As Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa praised China’s “enormous” support for Sri Lankan development, noninterference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, and the Communist Party’s rule.47 Meanwhile, Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s president from November 2019 until July 2022, thanked China for supporting Sri Lanka at the United Nations and maintained that the controversial Hambantota Port is “progressing satisfactorily”48 in response to widespread complaints from other politicians.49 Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also defended China’s treatment of Uyghurs at the United Nations.50 This defense is set in a context of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism (the dominant ideology for Rajapaksa supporters) that has been explicitly anti-Muslim; the country saw two periods of major anti-Muslim violence in 2014 and 2018.

News outlets close to the ruling party and Rajapaksa family have also echoed talking points and aired programs aligned with Chinese government positions. In April 2020, TV Derana, one of the country’s most popular privately-owned television stations with close ties to the ruling regime,51 aired a questionable documentary in Sinhala about Xinjiang that framed widespread human rights abuses there as a positive example of countering terrorism.52 The Chinese embassy was accused of providing funding for the program.53

Local think tanks: While pro-Beijing views do not dominate the academic space, a notable development from 2020 was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the non-partisan Sri Lanka-based think tank Pathfinder Foundation and the China Reform Forum (CRF), an academic research institution affiliated with the Party School of the Central Committee of the CCP.54 The MOU set up a China-Sri Lanka Cooperation Studies Centre. After establishing ties, Pathfinder’s publications began to reflect this alignment with China, such as by downplaying concerns over the Colombo Port City and Hambantota Harbor.55 Likewise, the Belt and Road Initiative Sri Lanka, a Colombo-based think tank that started becoming active on Twitter in January 2019 has produced tens of thousands of tweets in both Sinhala and English supporting the Chinese line on the BRI.56 Sri Lankan think tanks are becoming increasingly important in policy debates but remain underfunded, leaving them vulnerable to economic influence.57 In March 2022, an online dialogue between nearly 200 think tank affiliates in China and Sri Lanka was held, displaying China’s continual potential for influence in Sri Lanka’s think tank space.58

Disinformation campaigns

For the purposes of this report, disinformation is the intentional dissemination of false or misleading content, especially by engaging in inauthentic activity (such as via fake accounts) on global social media platforms. The Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka’s Twitter page displays this pattern of coordinated inauthentic behavior: dozens of Twitter bot accounts like and retweet posts regardless of the topic, in both Sinhala and English, creating a false impression of public support for the embassy’s attacks on its critics.59 Additionally, several Sinhala newspapers and websites have carried false stories promoted by Chinese state actors globally, such as claims that COVID-19 came from a US or Canadian biomedical lab and that international reporting about Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet are a Western conspiracy.60

Censorship and intimidation

Journalists and commentators in Sri Lanka critical of the Chinese government or its involvement in the country have reported multiple attempts by the Chinese embassy or other PRC-linked and pro-PRC actors to intimidate them into issuing apologies or removing content. On several occasions from 2019 to 2021, the Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka issued press releases or tweets from its official Twitter account that had strong or intimidating language. For instance, the embassy mocked comments made by researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa about social media shutdowns.61 The embassy also wrote letters to the owners of specific newspapers about their so-called “irresponsible” reporting. On April 8, 2020, the embassy wrote to the Chairman of Wijeya Newspapers Ltd accusing its papers of stirring up hate speech over articles arguing that Sri Lanka should request compensation from China over the initial cover-up in Wuhan of the COVID-19 outbreak. 62 In a similar case, a news website founder shared how he was asked by someone he suspected to have affiliations to the Chinese state to change or take down articles that were critical of Beijing.63 Finally, pro-Beijing social media accounts like that of the Belt and Road Initiative Sri Lanka are often aggressive in responding to critical comments.64 Such incidents have contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship, as was on display when journalists who went on trips to China contacted for this report declined to be interviewed (see Propaganda section).

There have also been a few instances where local officials or media workers were suspected of pressuring or otherwise influencing local outlets’ coverage of China in a direction favored by Beijing, as revealed through interviews conducted for this report. In the above case regarding Wijeya newspapers, the Chinese embassy reportedly called the editor of the Daily Mirror, involving the Prime Minister and his son, who then asked the editor to issue an apology.65 The editor declined and asked the embassy to issue a statement instead, which was published the next day.66 In another case in 2021, according to the public interest outlet Colombo Telegraph, a journalist who was close to the Rajapaksa brothers was reportedly hired at an unnamed major English newspaper and, because of her inside stories and proximity to the government, began changing stories to be more favorable to the Rajapaksas and minimize criticism of China's involvement in Sri Lanka.67 In 2018, lawmakers close to the Rajapaksas unleashed a media campaign against reporters that wrote a report critical of the Hambantota Port.68 Other media outlets, such as the business outlet Daily FT, refrain from posting negative coverage of China, but it is unclear whether there is political influence.69

There were two instances of cyberattacks potentially linked to China-based sources. On April 27, 2021, the Colombo Gazette, an online paper which throughout the coverage period has published articles critical of China, including of the situation in Xinjiang, 70 experienced a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack that was traced to an IP address in China.71 The incident was reminiscent of a similar attack that occurred in March of 2020 that was also linked to a Chinese IP address. However, some experts say it cannot be definitively concluded that the attack was linked to Chinese government actors, as geographic location of the IP address link may have been a coincidence since the closest server for the type of technology used (CloudFlare) was in China.72

Control over content distribution infrastructure

Sri Lanka does not have a presence of China-based companies in its digital television infrastructure, but other PRC-based firms with ties to the CCP have been gaining a presence in the social media and mobile phone sectors, creating potential vulnerabilities to future manipulation. In 2019, TikTok, a global subsidiary of the Beijing-based social media company ByteDance, was the ninth most used social media app in Sri Lanka, and one of the fastest growing.73 Several local media outlets or journalists had also created accounts on the platform.74 In recent years there have been documented cases around the world of TikTok removing or downplaying politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines, although the company has subsequently reported correcting errors.75

Huawei, another privately-owned company with strong ties to the CCP and a record of providing censorship and surveillance technologies to foreign governments,76 was responsible for approximately 18 percent of the mobile market in Sri Lanka as of September 2021 (though this had decreased from the previous year).77 Huawei also partnered with Swedish company Ericsson on viability tests for 5G tech in Sri Lanka from 2017-2019.78 During the coverage period, there was no evidence in Sri Lanka of political censorship or content manipulation on TikTok or devices using Huawei technology.

Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance models

As the country’s democratic governance has slid backwards in recent years, the attractiveness of the CCP’s authoritarian model, including its control of the media sector, appears to have increased among Sri Lanka’s leaders. In March 2021, the country’s president reportedly told Chinese President and CCP leader Xi Jinping that he wanted to learn from the Chinese governance experience.79 In August 2021, Labor Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva, who joined other parliamentarians on a tour of China in 2019, suggested that a mechanism should be introduced to regulate or ban social media to address child abuse concerns, claiming that “no [global] social media was operating in China.”80

Chinese diaspora media

There are approximately 3,000 diaspora residents in Sri Lanka and approximately 100,000 Chinese nationals working in the country.81 Given the low numbers of long-term Chinese speakers in Sri Lanka, there is limited presence of media in Chinese, and no locally produced Chinese-language media.82

header4 Resilience + response

Underlying media resilience

  • Robust press freedom community: Sri Lanka has a good foundation of human rights and press freedom groups, as well as think tanks with expertise relevant to countering Chinese influence. There are 35 recognized media associations, 17 of which are national.1 This includes The Free Media Movement, an active, non-partisan group of journalists, editors and media workers promoting freedom of expression, the Media Law Forum, a consortium working for media reform,2 and several ethno-linguistic media groups like the Tamil Media Alliance and Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum. The Sri Lanka Press Institute (the management and advocacy arm of Sri Lankan Journalist College and the press self-regulatory body) has been active in partnering with different organizations, including educational institutes, in providing journalist training. Finally, think tanks like the Centre for Policy Alternatives and Verite Research have done research on democratic governance and media ethics, which could be expanded to foreign interference in the media.
  • Strong public media literacy: According to a Sri Lanka Media Audience Study conducted in 2019, Sri Lanka audiences have a high awareness of media biases. Many media users routinely turn to multiple sources to verify news and other information. Audiences also supposedly have a strong sense of what good journalism is, identifying characteristics such as evidence-based, balanced, unbiased, detailed, and drawn from multiple sources as journalistic ideals.3 There is also an abundance of media literacy programs, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,4 including ones targeted at increasing awareness of disinformation on social media, including for youth.5

China-specific media resilience

  • Growing commentary and civil society attention to Chinese influence: There are some civil society members who are very vocal about problematic aspects of CCP influence in Sri Lanka. Researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa has conducted specific research into the covert role of Chinese social media influencers and the role of Chinese diplomatic media in Sri Lanka.6 In January 2021, the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, run by Hattotuwa, hosted an event with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on Chinese influence on social media.7 There are also NGO initiatives focused on monitoring Sri Lanka’s resilience to hate speech as well as Chinese infrastructure projects, such as the BRI,8 many of them spearheaded or funded by international organizations working in collaboration with local actors. Several civil society members, along with members of the political opposition and of the influential Buddhist clergy, made critical public statements or filed petitions against proposed Colombo Port City laws perceived as lacking independent oversight.9 In the media, too, there is growing attention. The Daily Mirror’s Kelum Bandara, as well as some commentators like researcher Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, write regularly on bilateral relations in the media, sometimes on the problematic sides of Chinese influence.10 There was also widespread media coverage related to controversies surrounding Taiwan, a diplomatic spat regarding Chinese fertilizers, and Colombo Port City,11 as well as some reporting on Chinese media influence.12 Long term observers of Sri Lanka media note that journalists also provide mutual support when a member of the media is chastised online by Beijing-affiliated actors.13
  • Diversity of sources used for China coverage: Sri Lanka journalism is heavily reliant on foreign sources for international news. Content from international sources like CNN, Quartz, Radio Free Asia, The Atlantic, and Reuters is frequently republished in Sri Lankan outlets, including ones that also republish Chinese state content like the Daily FT and Daily News. As a result, pro-Beijing views do not dominate commentary on China. Moreover, given the relatively insular nature of Sri Lankan media, China is featured less frequently on television and radio than in the press, meaning that Chinese state media content does not typically reach large swathes of the population, decreasing its potential for influence. In addition, those living in the north part of the country largely only access news from southern India due to the nature of cable monopolies in the area, meaning that in those areas, Sri Lankan viewers will be exposed to how Indian media cover China. 14
  • Critical and ambivalent statements from political leaders: There appears to be a strong appetite in the political establishment to not be dominated by foreign powers of any kind.15 Despite the governing leadership’s attempts to build a strong relationship with China, the stance on China among Sri Lanka’s political elite is fairly diverse. In January 2022, ahead of the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka, ruling party parliamentarian Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe wrote a letter criticizing China’s influence, accusing Chinese President Xi Jinping of pushing Sri Lanka into a debt trap.16 The ruling government itself has shown that it does not simply capitulate to China in all circumstances, as demonstrated with their ban of a major Chinese shipment of inorganic fertilizer (though ultimately the government paid compensation to the Chinese company for a contract violation). 17 The largest opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), has criticized how the Rajapaksa government has dealt with the Chinese government, vowed to change the current pro-China port policy by considering involving a greater diversity of actors like Japan and India in development projects18 while insisting that it is not against China.19

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • Low media professionalism and gaps in self-regulation: While numerous efforts are being made to improve the level of media professionalism in the country,1 journalism in Sri Lanka still leaves a lot to be desired. There exists a quid pro quo culture in terms of advertising and reporting, news is often pulled from social media with little verification, and there is a “he said, she said” culture of quoting politicians without fact-checking.2 This is the result of many factors, including fear of political reprisals, a highly competitive media landscape that has evolved to prioritize speed and quantity over quality, and low remuneration and financial troubles in the media industry leading to easy manipulation through economic incentives—particularly by countries like China that have a lot to gain from a sympathetic local audience.3 Several outlets reviewed, including The Island, Daily News, and Sunday Times, did not have clear labelling of the authorship of news stories, including those on China.4 Tamil and Sinhala-language outlets reportedly have especially low standards, largely only quoting sources that cater to their audience.5 A former editor and writer for the Sunday Morning notes that most Sinhala media focus on sensationalizing news. Despite some access to foreign funding and a Center for Investigative Reporting that supports journalists,6 investigative pieces are rare, even in English media and there is a long way to go before a culture of watchdog journalism can be established.7 Sri Lanka has various media self-regulatory bodies. A long-time observer of the Sri Lanka media notes that both the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka and the Broadcasters’ Guild of Sri Lanka have not been very sensitive to the Chinese embassy’s threats to media freedom—possibly because senior office-bearers of both bodies have been regular beneficiaries of Chinese governmental gifts including study tours and fellowships to China.8 The Editor’s Guild has a code of ethics, but it does not address issues that would be particularly relevant to combating foreign influence, such as the importance of labeling the source of articles.9
  • Lack of legal safeguards against media monopolies and political influence: Partisan influence over the media and other restrictions on free expression remains a problem. The government periodically blocks social media sites arbitrarily and journalists continue to experience pressure when it comes to reporting news on religious or cultural issues.10 Sri Lanka has no laws against partisan ownership of the media, and as a result over half of the outlets have political affiliations, making them vulnerable to potential Chinese party-state influence given the relationship between the political leadership in both countries.11 High media concentration is another impediment to diverse discourse. In the print media, the top four owners have a combined readership share of 75 percent. The gap between the market leader and the remaining outlets is exceptionally high, with the Wijewardene family alone reaching almost half of all readers. Similarly high concentrations can be observed in the radio and television sectors, where the top four owners account for 74 and 77 percent of the audience, respectively.12 There exists no anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) legislation, and no legislation on cross-ownership that would help dissemble some of these monopolies. Media ownership transparency is also limited, as access to information is often costly, cumbersome, time-consuming, and occasionally outdated despite the existence of disclosure transparency requirements for public registration.13 Meanwhile, the statutory Press Council lacks independence and suffers from other structural challenges that limit its effectiveness in protecting media freedom in the country.14
  • Dearth of Chinese-language research and expertise: Despite some available expertise on bilateral relations and expanding presence of young researchers focusing on China,15 in-country expertise on domestic Chinese politics and research done using Chinese-language sources are still limited. Some consequences of this include little published expertise of the exact workings of the United Front Work Department--the CCP agency responsible for coordinating foreign influence operations among other duties, which also produced several Chinese ambassadors to South Asia.16 Prominent commentary on China in widely read sources generally do not appear frequently and original reporting is even less common. This may lead to a lack of nuanced local coverage, or conversely, coverage that considers China only in the context of highly localized issues and misses broader dynamics. There is already a tendency by commentators to use racist language or use legitimate concerns over CCP influence to fuel anti-Chinese sentiment.17

header6 Impact and Public Opinion

There is limited public polling of Sri Lankan views on China. However, interviews with key stakeholders offer some insights. 1 There is some evidence that COVID-19 related donations have led to public goodwill towards China, although perceptions are mixed regarding China’s investment in Sri Lanka. There are university academics who uncritically sing praise of Chinese investments and loans to Sri Lanka, but also civil society groups who are cautiously critical of becoming overly reliant on Chinese investment. Experts believe most Sri Lankans trust China and are happy about its many investments in the country but there is also growing backlash from the public against China’s involvement in Sri Lanka, particularly regarding Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Port, the latter of which has been the subject of intense public scrutiny since 2017.2 The public also becomes riled up when narratives or activities imply the encroachment of Chinese cultural hegemony, as seen when a Tamil language sign was reportedly replaced by a Mandarin sign for government projects.3 Still, there is reportedly less unease about China than other countries that have traditionally exerted greater influence in Sri Lanka—namely India and the United States.4 Overall, the public appears to have a mixed perspective on China, viewing it positively for some aspects of its activity in the country and more cautiously on others.

header7 Future trajectory

Key areas to watch for related to Beijing’s media influence in Sri Lanka:

  • Chinese state focus on social media influence: Given the relative success to date of their activity on global social media platforms, Chinese state outlets may continue or increase investment in the coming years to expand this avenue of influence. This may include additional outreach targeting youth in local languages and covert tactics like seemingly unaffiliated influencers, reinforcing the importance of international platforms keeping pace with identifying the Chinese state affiliation of popular online accounts, where relevant.1
  • Change of government and political influence of the ruling regime on the media: Given the resignation of the Sri Lankan prime minister and president after protests in 2022 and broader political uncertainty, watch for how any new government balances the role between India and China, and how Chinese financing affect Sri Lankan perceptions of China. The attitude of any new government will be crucial, including whether its actions lead to greater deterioration of press and internet freedom broadly, as well as how much it exerts pressure on local media to cover China in ways that align with its own and Beijing’s interests.
  • Greater Chinese state attention to Tamil areas: In December 2021, the Chinese ambassador made an unprecedented three-day visit to the Tamil-dominated Jaffna region. This signaled a greater desire to connect with people outside of the Sinhala-majority heartland, which may also be reflected in future media influence efforts.
  • Post-COVID financial troubles in the media: Financial troubles in the media industry exacerbated by COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may increase the attractiveness of paid advertorials, free content, or subsidized press trips, providing opportunities for increased Chinese state media influence.
  • 1Popular account of Seda Mali was not labeled as of December 21, 2021 despite having her account up since at least August 2020. Another check conducted on June 5, 2022 revealed that she was labelled. See: Seda Mali, Facebook Account, https://www.facebook.com/sedamali2020/ (Sinhala).

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