Freedom of the Press
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Status change explanation: Sri Lanka’s status changed from Partly Free to Not Free to reflect new restrictions on media coverage as well as a rise in attacks against journalists, particularly ethnic Tamils.
Media freedom was one of the main casualties of Sri Lanka’s slide into war in 2006, as increasing numbers of journalists, particularly ethnic Tamils, were targeted and media outlets faced censorship and other restrictions. Although freedom of expression is provided for in the constitution, a growing number of laws and regulations restrict this right. Contempt-of-court laws are occasionally used to punish reporters who investigate judicial misconduct. However, in June the Supreme Court refused to pursue a case against three journalists, including the editor in chief of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, who had been charged with five counts of contempt. The Official Secrets Act bans reporting on information designated “secret.” Although those convicted of gathering secret information can be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison, no journalist has ever been charged under the act. Emergency regulations reintroduced in August 2005 allow the government to bar the publication, distribution, performance, or airing of any print or broadcast material deemed likely to cause public disorder; however, it did not use this authority during 2006. In September, unofficial prepublication censorship concerning issues of “national security and defense” was imposed by the government’s Media Centre for National Security. The Emergency (Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities) Regulations, introduced in December, contain excessively broad language that local rights activists noted could restrict media freedom. Within a month of the new regulations’ enactment, several journalists were summoned for questioning and asked to reveal their sources, one was detained, and a senior correspondent openly admitted to self-censoring his column. Official rhetoric has become more unfriendly toward journalists and media outlets perceived to be “unpatriotic” or critical. In June, the government announced that it planned to reconstitute the state-controlled Press Council in order to regulate the media.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist rebel group, which controls parts of the north and east of the country, does not permit free expression in the areas under its control and continues to terrorize a number of Tamil journalists and other critics. The government and a breakaway rebel faction in the east led by Colonel Karuna have also been responsible for abuses. A sharp increase in tension and violence during the year—both between the government and the LTTE, and between the LTTE and the Karuna faction—severely curtailed journalists’ ability to cover the news freely, particularly in the troubled north and east. A number of Tamil newspapers have been banned or seized by various factions, and distributors have been attacked or warned not to sell certain papers. According to a report by the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, over two dozen Tamil journalists were abducted, severely assaulted, or killed during the year. Despite its calls for protection, the largest-circulation daily in Jaffna, Uthayan, faced repeated attacks and harassment in 2006, including killings of staff by unidentified gunmen in May and an arson attack on its printing facilities in August.
Journalists throughout Sri Lanka, particularly those who covered human rights issues or official misconduct, continued to face intimidation and threats from the security forces and government officials. In several other instances, police or security forces manhandled reporters as they attempted to cover the news. In a growing trend, journalists and civil society groups perceived as being supportive of Tamil interests have also drawn ire from Sinhalese nationalist groups. Increased threats coupled with expanded legal restrictions have led a growing number of journalists to practice self-censorship. Previous cases of attacks and killings of journalists have not been adequately investigated or prosecuted.
While numerous privately owned newspapers and broadcasters scrutinize government policies and provide diverse views, private outlets have become more polarized, shrinking the space for balanced coverage. The Colombo-based Free Media Movement has noted that state-run media—including Sri Lanka’s largest newspaper chain, two major television stations, and a radio station—remain heavily influenced by the government, citing cases of pressure on editors, several unwarranted dismissals of high-level staff, and biased coverage of the November 2005 elections. Business and political interests exercise some control over content through selective advertising and bribery. Owing to the closure of a major road, newspapers on the Jaffna peninsula faced shortages of newsprint and other key supplies, hindering their production abilities. Access to the internet and to foreign broadcasts is not restricted, but only 1.4 percent of the population used the internet in 2006 because of the high costs involved.