Sri Lanka: CPJ concerned by move to reinstate state-controlled Press Council

New York, June 23, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern today about the Sri Lankan government’s reinstatement of a politically appointed Press Council with the authority to penalize news outlets and journalists for their reporting. Mass Media and Information Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa announced on Thursday that the cabinet had approved the restoration of the media regulatory body, according to news reports.

The Sri Lanka Press Council, established under a 1973 law, became dormant in 2002 after local media organizations formed an independent Press Complaints Commission, according to the Colombo-based Free Media Movement (FMM).

Local journalists told CPJ that the decision to reinstate the body was made without consulting the media, and they expressed concern that it signaled a government attempt to inhibit media coverage of public issues. The Press Council Law of 1973, for example, also prohibited publication of cabinet decisions and some defense and fiscal matters.

In a statement issued today, FMM called the move “a step backward on safeguarding the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.” Yapa justified the reinstatement of the council by saying said no other agency could handle such administrative duties as renewing press licenses, according to a local news report. He said the council would work with the Press Complaints Commission.

“This apparent attempt to exert greater government control over the press is ill-timed and troubling,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “At a moment when violence between security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is intensifying, it is crucial that the Sri Lankan press be free to cover all sides of the conflict without official restraint.”

Tensions between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE have been on the rise. A mine explosion killed 64 people on a bus earlier this month, and dozens more died in subsequent clashes between security forces and rebels.