Calls for Repeal of Criminal Defamation Laws

New York, September 5, 2000 — The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the sentencing today of Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of the English-language weekly newspaper The Sunday Leader, on charges of criminally defaming President Chandrika Kumaratunga. A judge from Colombo’s High Court sentenced Wickrematunga to two years in jail, but suspended the sentence for five years.

“No journalist should ever face the threat of jail for something he or she writes,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “With a potential jail term hanging over his head for the next five years, Mr. Wickrematunga is bound to think twice before writing anything critical of the government.”

If Wickrematunga is convicted of any other criminal offense within the probationary five years, he will have to serve this two-year sentence in addition to any other penalty. The editor told reporters today that he would appeal today’s decision.

The criminal defamation charge was filed in response to a September 1995 Sunday Leader article that criticized the president for not making good on election promises. State prosecutors alleged that the article, headlined “Promising Government,” implied that President Kumaratunga was corrupt.

“The press should be given the widest possible latitude to criticize public officials,” said Cooper. “If criminal defamation laws can be used by a president to silence journalists, the media will not be able to play its watchdog role.”

Another Sri Lankan journalist is currently appealing his conviction on defamation charges. Sinha Ratnatunga, editor of the English-language weekly The Sunday Times, was convicted of criminal defamation in July 1997 for publishing a gossip item about the president, and also given a suspended sentence. He is awaiting a verdict on his appeal.

Although President Kumaratunga came to power in 1994 on a platform that championed press freedom, her administration has made no serious efforts to repeal Sri Lanka’s archaic criminal defamation laws. Meanwhile, the president has also enacted one of the harshest censorship policies ever imposed in Sri Lanka, severely limiting journalists’ ability to cover the 17-year-old civil war.

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