Sri Lanka | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Freedom of the Press 2008

2008 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

67

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

31

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

17

Media freedom continued to decline in 2007 as media outlets faced increased censorship and other restrictions on reporting, and journalists faced a heightened level of attacks and intimidation, particularly in the war-torn north and east of the country. Although freedom of expression is provided for in the constitution, a growing number of laws and regulations restrict this right. The 1973 Press Council Law prohibits disclosure of certain cabinet decisions as well as fiscal, defense, and security information, while the decades-old Official Secrets Act bans reporting on information designated “secret.” Those convicted of gathering secret information can be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison; although no journalist has ever been charged under the law, it is frequently used to threaten them. 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 generally use this authority. In 2006, unofficial prepublication censorship concerning issues of “national security and defense” was imposed by the government’s Media Center for National Security. The Emergency (Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities) Regulations, introduced in December 2006, were immediately used to arrest and detain journalists, sometimes for months without charge. In addition, contempt of court laws are used occasionally to punish reporters who investigate judicial misconduct.

The distribution and suspension of broadcast licenses appear to be sometimes arbitrary and politically influenced, as seen in the October license suspensions of five private FM stations belonging to the Asia Broadcasting Corporation, a network perceived to report critically on current events. Official rhetoric has become more unfriendly toward journalists and media outlets perceived to be “unpatriotic” or critical, with high-level officials regularly making statements equating any form of criticism with treason. The government’s attitude was indicated by an attempt in June—introduced by the justice minister and supported by the president but opposed by other cabinet members and later quietly withdrawn—to reinstate criminal defamation legislation repealed in 2002 that would include prison terms for violators. In another aborted effort, in October, an executive order banning the media from covering military operations and arms deals was issued and then withdrawn after several days.

The level of threats and harassment against journalists and media outlets continued to grow in 2007. Journalists throughout Sri Lanka, particularly those who cover human rights issues, corruption, or official misconduct, face regular intimidation and pressure from both senior- and junior-level government officials. Cases included those of Champika Liyanarachchi, editor of the prominent Daily Mirror, who was telephoned by Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in April, and T. M. G. Chandrasekara, news director of the state-run Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation television station, who was physically assaulted by a government minister and a group of his supporters in December. Several other journalists were temporarily arrested. In November, Leader Publications, a major printing house that publishes the Sunday Leader and Morning Leader newspapers, was targeted in an arson attack that completely destroyed its facilities; both papers are known for their critical, pro-opposition views and have faced numerous threats, including a prior arson attack. In several other instances, police or security forces manhandled reporters as they attempted to cover the news, barring access to certain events and deleting or otherwise censoring photographic images. In a growing trend, journalists and civil society groups perceived as being supportive of Tamil interests have also drawn ire from Sinhalese nationalist groups. Several journalists decided to leave the country for short periods of time, including prominent defense correspondent Iqbal Athas, who fled three times during the year following repeated threats. Increased threats coupled with tightened 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.

Media freedom is particularly restricted in the war-torn north and east of the country, where journalists are caught between government forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist rebel group (which does not permit free expression in the areas under its effective control), and other armed political factions and paramilitary groups. As a result, journalists’ ability to cover the news freely has been severely curtailed, and those who do face steep repercussions for doing so. At least five journalists were killed and numerous others were abducted or otherwise intimidated during the year. Despite its calls for protection, the largest-circulation daily in Jaffna, Uthayan, faced repeated attacks and harassment in 2007, including abduction of its staff; accordingly, the paper’s editor and news editor lived semipermanently at the paper’s offices, as they were too afraid to go outside. 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; several independent outlets have closed owing to threats against them. In November, the air force bombed the LTTE-run Voice of Tigers radio station, killing five media workers. Foreign journalists’ ability to cover events in the region was also compromised, with one film crew being expelled from Jaffna in October.

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—are heavily influenced by the government, citing cases of pressure on editors, several unwarranted dismissals of high-level staff, and biased coverage. Cases of overt financial pressure on critical outlets were reported during the year. In March, the government froze the assets of the Standard Newspapers group, publisher of the weekly Sinhala-language Mawbima and English-language Sunday Standard, after they refused to alter their editorial policy; both papers closed shortly thereafter because of the freeze. 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 generally not restricted, but only 1.4 percent of the population used the internet in 2006 because of the high costs involved. However, in June, the government reportedly ordered the country’s two largest internet service providers to restrict access to TamilNet, a pro-LTTE news website; the ban lasted through year’s end. In October, several Sinhala-language websites were singled out for criticism by government politicians, and later that same month, unidentified gunmen wounded internet journalist Kumudu Champika Jayawardana of ethalaya.org, which is linked to the Sinhala-language Sirasa TV channel.