New York, June 30, 2000–The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) applauds Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruling today that the government’s system of news censorship is illegal, and that the decisions of the chief censor therefore have no force in law.
A unanimous three-judge panel delivered the verdict in response to a petition brought by the Leader Publications group, challenging the censor’s decision to shut down its English-language weekly newspaper, The Sunday Leader. The court ruled that because the chief censor’s appointment had not been submitted to Parliament for review within seven days, as required by law, his decision to shut down the Leader was “a nullity, and of no force or avail in law.” The judges also ordered the state to pay the Leader group 100,000 rupees (US$1,300) in court costs.
“We congratulate journalists in Sri Lanka for taking every opportunity to challenge these outrageous censorship measures,” said Ann Cooper, CPJ’s executive director. “The Supreme Court ruling is proof of the strength of Sri Lanka’s democracy, and demonstrates that the independent judiciary there can and will stand up for press freedom and the rule of law.”
The government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga imposed strict censorship over all media in Sri Lanka on May 3, as part of a set of emergency regulations issued following critical military advances by rebel forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The government initially required both local journalists and foreign correspondents to submit stories about the war to the censor for approval, although the prior censorship requirement was lifted for foreign correspondents on June 5.
Local journalists have been subject to a censorship regime since June 1998, but the new regulations gave the government the power to arrest journalists, seize their property, block the distribution of newspapers, and shut down printing presses on broadly-defined grounds of “national security.”
Within weeks of issuing the revised censorship restrictions, the government closed three independent newspapers. On May 19, authorities closed the offices of Uthayan, the only Tamil daily published in the northern city of Jaffna. On May 22, police shut down a printing plant belonging to Leader Publications, thus blocking the publication of the Sunday Leader and also its Sinhala-language counterpart, Irida Peramuna.
After today’s Supreme Court decision, the Department of Information promptly suspended its censorship operations, but issued no formal statement in response to the judgment, according to CPJ’s sources. The Leader group has announced that it will begin compiling the Sunday editions of its two papers right away. Uthayan‘s publisher is awaiting word from the government as to whether he too may resume publishing immediately.
During the week of June 12, CPJ sent an emergency delegation to Colombo to discuss the censorship issue with government officials and local journalists. The delegation consisted of CPJ board member Peter Arnett, a Pulitzer prize-winning war correspondent for The Associated Press and CNN; Kavita Menon, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator; and A. Lin Neumann, CPJ’s Bangkok-based Asia consultant. Government officials assured the delegation at that time that they were aware that censorship was “counterproductive,” and were looking for ways to move away from the policy.
Although the government could yet issue a fresh censorship order that complies with the legal requirements, this is unlikely in view of promises made by administration officials to the CPJ delegation that censorship regulations would be lifted by mid-August, in advance of parliamentary elections due by mid-November.
Even without censorship, coverage of the civil war is extremely limited by the government’s refusal to grant journalists regular access to the conflict areas. CPJ is currently working with Sri Lankan officials and local journalists to establish some mechanism that would allow journalists to cover the civil war without further hindrance.