CPJ Denounces Sri Lankan Censorship

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New York, N.Y., June 9, 1998 --The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) denounced new restrictions on press coverage of the Sri Lankan civil war today, calling on President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's government to lift censorship rules imposed on the media.

In a letter to Kumaratunga, CPJ Executive Director William A. Orme, Jr. said, "This kind of sweeping censorship is incompatible with democratic governance." The group reminded Kumaratunga of her government's earlier support of press freedom and asked that she immediately rescind the censorship action.

The harsh regulations introduced on June 5 effectively ban independent coverage of the civil war in Sri Lanka by both the foreign and local media. The regulations require that all reports, photographs and video tape pass through the hands of a military censor. The media are also barred from discussing the actions of police and military officials. No reason was given for the regulations.

It is the first time that a military censor has been appointed in Sri Lanka; similar press restrictions on war coverage were administered by civilians for several months in 1996 before being lifted.

The censorship is an abrupt about-face for Kumaratunga's government, which in recent months had been negotiating with publishers, editors and press freedom advocates over new constitutional guarantees for free expression. In April, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator A. Lin Neumann visited Sri Lanka to attend a conference on "Media Freedom and Responsibility" at which government representatives and opposition leaders met with journalists to hammer out press freedom initiatives.

"The relative openness of the Sri Lanka government has been suddenly reversed," said Neumann. "It would be tragic for the country if censorship became the order of the day."

CPJ's letter to Kumaratunga cited widespread denunciation of the regulations by Sri Lankan newspapers and journalists. In an editorial, the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka said, "We hope this is not the first step towards martial law." In protesting the censorship, Sri Lankan newspapers left columns blank over the weekend.

"It is our belief that a free and vibrant press is the cornerstone of democracy," CPJ wrote to Kumaratunga, "We call on your excellency to act immediately to restore press freedom in Sri Lanka."