Freedom of the Press
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Media freedom continued on a downward trajectory in 2008, as outlets faced increased restrictions on covering the intensifying conflict between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels, and journalists encountered heightened attacks and intimidation, particularly in the war-torn north. Although freedom of expression is provided for in the constitution, a 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 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 generally did not 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. Senior journalist J. S. Tissainayagam, editor of the North Eastern Monthly magazine, was detained in March 2008, and after being held without charge for five months, he was indicted under the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), marking the first time the law was used against a journalist. Two of his colleagues were also being held on related charges at year’s end.
The distribution and suspension of broadcast licenses sometimes appear to be arbitrary and politically influenced. New rules announced in October, entitled the Private Television Broadcasting Station Regulations, classified stations and services; laid down procedures for the issue, duration, and revocation of licenses; barred broadcast ownership by individuals who have formal political affiliations; and banned content deemed to be “detrimental to national security,” with violations punishable by suspension of the broadcaster’s license. Following criticism of the new regulations from local groups, the government decided to delay their implementation.
Journalists throughout Sri Lanka, particularly those who cover human rights or military issues, faced regular intimidation and pressure from both high- and low-ranking government officials. Official rhetoric has become quite hostile toward journalists and media outlets perceived to be “unpatriotic” or critical, with top officials, including Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa and army commander Sarath Fonseka, regularly making statements that equate any form of criticism with treason. State-controlled media and the Defense Ministry website were regularly used to smear individual journalists and other activists. As a result, levels of self-censorship have risen considerably. In one case, prominent defense correspondent Iqbal Athas stopped writing his weekly column as a result of the verbal abuse. In December, the Sunday Leader group of newspapers was banned from making any reference to Rajapaksa pending a judicial inquiry into his allegations that it had published defamatory material.
The level of threats and harassment against journalists and media outlets continued to rise during the year. In addition to verbal and physical attacks from official sources, journalists and press advocacy groups perceived as supportive of Tamil interests have drawn the ire of Sinhalese nationalist vigilante groups. Attacks by unidentified assailants in 2008 included the May beating and abduction of Keith Noyahr, a deputy editor and defense columnist for the Nation newspaper, and a July assault on Namal Perera, a project coordinator at the Sri Lankan Press Institute and a freelance defense writer. In August, Labor Minister Mervyn Silva and several accomplices beat two television journalists. In an unusual development, Silva and three others were indicted in November and settled the case in December. In several other instances, security forces manhandled reporters as they attempted to cover the news, barring access to certain events and deleting or otherwise censoring photographic images. A number of journalists fled the country as a result of threats. Previous cases of attacks and killings of journalists have not been adequately investigated or prosecuted, leading to a climate of impunity.
The sharp increase in violence in the northeast since 2006 has severely affected journalists’ ability to cover the conflict there. The Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE) have terrorized a number of Tamil journalists and other critics, while security forces and the government-allied guerrillas known as the Karuna faction have also been responsible for abuses. At least two journalists were killed and numerous others were attacked or otherwise intimidated during 2008. 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 due to threats. Mounting bans on physical access to the conflict zone have further hampered journalists’ work.
Several privately owned newspapers and broadcasters continue to scrutinize government policies and provide diverse views. However, media outlets have become more polarized, shrinking the space for balanced coverage. In recent years ownership has also become more consolidated, with many private outlets now owned by figures who are closely associated with the government or who hold official positions. 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. 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 capacity.Access to the internet and to foreign broadcasts is generally not restricted, but foreign outlets came under pressure during the year, with reports that the British Broadcasting Corporation was being jammed intermittently by the state-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation (SLBC). Just 3.7 percent of the population used the internet in 2008, with most residents deterred by the high costs involved. In June 2007, the government ordered the country’s two largest internet service providers to restrict access to TamilNet, a pro-LTTE news website; the ban remained in place at the end of 2008. In May, the editor of an online news website, Lanka Dissent, alleged that the site had been disrupted by cyberattacks.