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Sri Lanka 10 February 2009

Open letter to media minister Yapa about the BBC suspending its programmes

Mr. Anura Priyadarshana Yapa
Media and Information Minister
Colombo
Sri Lanka

Paris, 10 February 2009

Dear Minister,

We are dismayed to learn that the BBC World Service felt obliged today to stop supplying news programmes in English, Sinhala and Tamil to Sri Lankan state broadcaster SLBC for local FM retransmission because the SLBC, for which you are responsible, was constantly and illegally censoring them despite being bound by a commercial contract allowing millions of Sri Lankans to listen to the BBC’s programmes in the three languages every day.

The British public broadcaster has for 11 years being offering Sri Lankan listeners quality news programming that is in stark contrast to the SLBC’s often very official programme content.

As a result of the SLBC’s censoring of parts of these programmes for the past several months, the BBC World Service today issued a statement in London announcing that: “We have no choice but to suspend broadcasts until such time as SLBC can guarantee our programming is transmitted without interference.”

The BBC said it had noted 17 instances of interference to BBC Tamil and eight instances of interference to BBC Sinhala broadcasts between late November and early January. Sometimes whole current affairs segments of BBC programming were not broadcast on SLBC.

For your information, here are some examples of the censored segments. At the end of December, the SLBC censored an interview in Sinhala with opposition politician Mangala Samaraweera. In early January, it censored a report on civilian victims in the north. Three Tamil segments were censored on 20 December when journalists raised the issue of censorship of the BBC’s programmes. An interview with defence correspondent Iqbal Athas was censored on 2 January. Reports about the military offensive and relations with India were censored on 5 January. A few days later, a BBC interview about the murder of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga was censored.

We would also point out that journalists working for the BBC’s Sinhala service are often the targets of hate attack on Sinhala nationalist websites.

We have already publicly criticised that the fact that, since August 2008, the SLBC had been following its retransmission of the BBC’s programmes with its own programme given the official take on what the BBC’s journalists reported.

Sri Lankans will still be able to listen to the BBC on the short wave, on the Internet, and via a Sri Lankan commercial FM station but the suspension of retransmission by the SLBC means the number of listeners will be greatly reduced.

We must therefore again lament the fact that the hostility of certain government sectors to the free flow of information is depriving your country’s population of a source of independent current affairs coverage.

The media and information minister has a duty to guarantee press freedom at a time when fighting is raging in the north and Tamil civilians are the victims of both a military offensive and acts of terrorism by Tamil Tiger rebels.

Extremists in both camps with undoubtedly be delighted by the BBC’s decision as it gives them even more scope to incite hatred and spread the wildest rumours.

We therefore urge you to give a clear undertaking that the BBC World Service’s programmes will no longer be subjected to illegal censorship. These broadcasts, which are much appreciated by your country’s population, will otherwise not be restored.

We trust you will give this matter your careful consideration.

Sincerely,

Jean-François Julliard Secretary-General




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