COLOMBO, Sri Lanka June 15 — Harsh press censorship in Sri Lanka is increasingly counterproductive, senior government officials told a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) this week, and the government pledged to end the restrictions by mid-August when parliamentary elections are called.
Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera told CPJ during a private meeting that “Censorship has polarized an already polarized situation.” Samaraweera acknowledged that the broad restrictions, which were imposed on both the foreign and local press on May 3, were unpalatable over the long term and contrary to the spirit of free expression in Sri Lanka.
Alarmed by the censorship, CPJ sent an emergency delegation to Colombo this week to discuss the restrictions 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 Asia Program Coordinator; and A. Lin Neumann, CPJ’s Bangkok-based Asia consultant.
“The government was open to what we had to say,” said Arnett. “We agreed to disagree on some issues, of course, since we think censorship is not an effective way of dealing with the press or conflict situations.”
The censorship was put in place by the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga in response to a series of battlefield reversals suffered by government forces on the northern Jaffna peninsula. A bitter civil war between Sri Lanka and separatist rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has raged in the north and east of the country since 1983.
“I take the view that censorship is really counterproductive,” Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgemar told CPJ. “I can see for myself it is being applied in a very heavy-handed way.” The foreign minister said he had urged the president to consider easing the restrictions.
Under existing emergency regulations, the government imposed formal censorship on war news in June 1998, but it was enforced only sporadically. The current restrictions are the harshest seen in Sri Lanka for over a decade. On June 4, the government lifted the restrictions on foreign media, but local press curbs remain in force. The government has banned live television and radio news programming and required all local newspapers to submit copy which might affect national security to an official censor — the “Competent Authority” in Sri Lankan parlance — prior to publication.
Samaraweera told the CPJ delegation that the government was committed to lifting the regulations no later than August 21, the date by which parliament must be dissolved in advance of elections.
While he defended the censorship as necessary in a crisis, Samaraweera acknowledged that changes were needed in the government’s approach to war coverage.
Even prior to the current round of censorship, there has been virtually no first-hand reporting of the war for years, because the government refuses to grant access to conflict areas except under tightly controlled circumstances. As a result, most reporting is based on press releases from either the government or the rebels.
Local editors told CPJ that the censorship is so broad – it bans news that officials think will create public disturbances or harm the national interest, including criticism of government ministers, military and the police – that they are unable to effectively cover a wide range of issues.
“There are no guidelines. There is nothing systematic on what they censor and what they don’t censor,” Lalith Allahakone, editor of the Mirror newspaper, told CPJ.
Sinha Ratnatunga, editor of the Sunday Times newspaper, said, “The censorship is political and nothing else. The government just doesn’t want embarrassing news to come out in the press.” For example, coverage of military procurements, a source of frequent scandal and controversy in Sri Lanka, has been banned, according to local defense correspondent Iqbal Athas, who reports for the Sunday Times and CNN.
As a result of the regulations, two newspapers have been forcibly barred from publishing and their premises locked by police. One of these papers, The Sunday Leader, poked fun at the censorship in a front page article. The other, Uthayan, is the only Tamil language daily published in the northern city of Jaffna. The official censor accused Uthayan of “acting maliciously and detrimentally in publishing information that is biased to the LTTE,” but local journalists say that the editors of Uthayan had taken great pains to report fairly in a tense, often dangerous atmosphere.
Ten editors of national newspapers have petitioned the Supreme Court to order the government to lift the emergency restrictions. The editors called the censorship a flagrant violation of freedom of expression, and complained that it was being enforced in a manner that was discriminatory, unreasonable and arbitrary. In their petition to the court, the editors cite numerous instances of non-military copy being banned, including editorial cartoons critical of the censor himself.
The CPJ delegation attended preliminary hearings on the editors’ petition. The court has agreed to hear full arguments on the merit of the petition on July 19. It has the power to order the government to lift the censorship.
In three days in Colombo, the CPJ delegation held extensive discussions with local journalists, editors and diplomats, in addition to government officials.