In mid-October 2006 a delegation from the International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression Mission undertook a fact-finding and advocacy mission to Sri Lanka to assess the current media situation in the country and the impact of the escalation in fighting between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the media.
While the International Mission examined the current situation of the Sinhala, Tamil and English language media, it paid particular attention to the repression of the Tamil language media, which has come under heavy and sustained attack, especially in areas affected by the fighting. This situation has restricted the free flow of information in the North and East hindering public awareness both within these areas, as well as throughout the country. This also leaves local communities vulnerable to rumours and language that excites hostility, which in turn fuels instability and conflict. In the LTTE controlled areas, media practitioners are prevented from reporting freely and as a direct consequence press freedom and freedom of expression are severely restricted.
Findings Relating to Safety
The International Mission found that there has been a serious deterioration in the security situation for the Sri Lankan media with threats, abductions and attacks committed by all parties to the conflict, and particularly paramilitary and militia groups. Nine media practitioners have been killed since August 2005 and there have been numerous death threats and incidents of harassment, including violent attempts to stop the distribution of newspapers. Moreover, even in cases where evidence exists of the identity of the alleged killers, the relevant authorities had apparently taken little or no action. Those supporting a negotiated settlement are often labelled as “traitors” and supporters of one or the other combatant parties and there appears to be a widespread acceptance of the use of threatening language to intimidate or endanger individuals. As a consequence, many media practitioners are in hiding, some for up to six months, while in other cases threats have been made to the families of media practitioners.
Findings Relating to Informal Censorship
The mission found that censorship exists, although it is applied largely through indirect means. Those refusing to toe the Government’s line may be labelled as spies or traitors. The willingness of politicians and others to denounce the media reinforces self-censorship and makes the free expression of opinion a life threatening activity. In August, the President reportedly told editors that the military were keen to censor the media and a letter sent by the Ministry of Defence to media institutions on 20 September 2006, requesting that “news gathered should be subjected to clarification and confirmation”, has been viewed as an attempt to impose censorship, whether or not this was the intention. Furthermore, the provision of official information to media outlets is often conditioned upon the extent to which they support the Government.
The closing down of satellite television services as a result of Government actions has hindered public access to foreign news programmes. The selective banning of films and television dramas, obstruction of films being shown abroad, and interference in certification processes is of serious concern for freedom of expression.
Findings Relating to Media Policy Reforms
Emergency regulations established on 18 August 2005 give the Government wide powers of prior restraint against the media, although these are yet to be applied. The Official Secrets Act (OSA) makes it an offence to disclose “official secrets,” which are loosely defined. In addition, the Press Council Law 1973 (PCL) prohibits the disclosure of cabinet decisions, cabinet documents, certain defence and security matters, as well as a range of fiscal issues.
In June, the Government approved the reintroduction of state-controlled regulation of the media through the Sri Lanka Press Council, although this has not yet been enforced. On 6 December, the Government introduced the ‘Emergency (Prevention of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities) Regulations’, which have been widely criticised by civil society for their impact freedom of expression.
The Government has yet to enact a freedom of information act, despite having approved a draft version of the law at a cabinet meeting in 2003. The legislative framework for broadcasting in the country fails to ensure independence of both public and private broadcasters. Public broadcasters lack editorial independence and are not required to serve established public service values. Although the Government has been urged to broadbase or otherwise divest itself of ownership in the print media sector, and despite several committee reports reflecting this view, it retains control of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon (also known as ANCL or “Lake House”).
Report in Sinhala
Press freedom report in Sinhala
Report in Tamil
Press freedom report in Tamil
Report in English
Press freedom in English