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Fears for press freedom in Sri Lanka

[guardian.co.uk, Thursday, 25 June 2009 07:04 No Comment]

Outcry as government reactivates press council with powers to jail journalists

The Sri Lankan government has provoked concern among press freedom groups with its decision to reestablish a powerful council with the authority to jail journalists.

Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, the Sri Lankan media minister, confirmed the government was in the process of reactivating the press council, which ceased operation in 2002. During its tenure, the council had been criticised as an anti-democratic tool to suppress criticism of the government.

Today’s move comes after increasing pressure on any reporters who were seen as critical of the Sri Lankan government in the closing months of the war against the Tamil Tigers and the methods used to root out the last of the rebels from their stronghold.

Sri Lanka publicly warned foreign media and aid agencies that they faced being expelled from the country if their reporting of the closing stages of the war was deemed sympathetic to the Tamil insurgents, who were making a last stand in the north-east of the state.

Reporters have come under fire in incidents in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, with a number of high-profile journalists assassinated in recent months.

According to Amnesty International, at least 14 journalists and staff at news organisations have been killed by suspected government paramilitaries and rebels since the beginning of 2006.

A joint statement was sent to Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa earlier this week from eight media rights groups protesting about the restoration of the press council.

"A media culture cannot be based on slapping charges against journalists, fining them or sending them to jail," the groups said in the statement.

The Associated Press, in Colombo, reported activist Dharmasiri Lankapeli as saying that re-establishment of the council would give the Sri Lankan government the legal framework to control the media as it had authority to hear allegations of defamation, inaccurate reporting and the ability to fine or jail journalists.

However, Lakshman said the government was prepared to discuss any changes to the council suggested by rights groups.

[Full Coverage]

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