The government-controlled Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation (SLBC) censored the BBC Sinhala and Tamil service programmes broadcast on November 27, five press freedom groups have said.
Sections of the programme on Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader V Prabhakaran’s "Hero’s Day" speech and a Defence Watch press conference were censored, making them inaudible to listeners. Defence Watch is headed by former Foreign Minster Mangala Samaraweera and provides opposition viewpoints, other news and information on the ongoing war.
This act of censorship by SLBC authorities is a clear violation of the people’s right to information and is an interference with the democratic entitlement to the free exchange and contest of alternative perspectives on a key issue of public policy, the four organisations said. "War is one of the major issues that affect the lives of all Sri Lankans, who have a right to obtain news and information on the war from different perspectives."
The Five Media Collective comprises the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), the Federation of Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU), the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF), the Sri Lanka Tamil Journalists Alliance (SLTJA), and the Free Media Movement (FMM).
BBC local language programmes are transmitted through SLBC under an agreement between the two institutions. BBC pays nearly 40 million Sri Lankan rupees (approx. US$365,000) annually to SLBC for this ability. This censorship, the collective said, was deliberately put in place by the authorities of SLBC and is not an accident. On a number of previous occasions, the same method has been used to block certain sections of BBC Sinhala and Tamil programmes.
SLBC is an institution which was established as a public service radio broadcast institution. Even today is it supported by public funding. However, the "SLBC has been reduced to a mouthpiece for the ruling party, where no editorial freedom or media ethics are respected. Transforming the SLBC, and its television counterparts, such as the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, into genuinely pubic service broadcasters is one of the key challenges in democratising the media landscape in Sri Lanka," the organisations said.
Independent war reporting is virtually nonexistent in Sri Lanka today. For instance, none of the Sri Lankan electronic media covered the speech by the LTTE leader. Figures of war causalities are a closely guarded secret of both sides. In such a situation, it is natural that many Sri Lankans would have to tune in to external sources such as the BBC local language services to get information on the LTTE leader’s speech. Although the BBC local language programmes and Defence Watch reports, as well as the LTTE leader’s speech, are available online, this censorship affects the vast majority of Sri Lankans who are not connected to the Internet.