With press council, Sri Lanka revives a repressive tool

There should be no doubt that the government is continuing its offensive against the media following its military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). On Wednesday, Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena confirmed what had been rumored for more than a week: The defunct Press Council, which was put to rest in 2002, will be revived. 

A “press council” might sound innocuous enough, but it is the sort of tool we’ve seen in many countries where the government is intent on silencing critics. Search our site for “press council” and you’ll see that it’s a widespread tactic. In Sri Lanka, as the war with the LTTE was ramping up in 2006 and the government was starting its crackdown on domestic critics in the media, it had threatened to re-establish the council but never followed through.

The threat of a revived council wasn’t lost on eight Sri Lankan media rights groups when they wrote a letter this week to the government. Here’s an excerpt sent to me by a colleague in Colombo:

It is with a sense of deep concern and disappointment that the media organizations herein under-mentioned have learned of the re-activation of the Sri Lanka Press Council Law No. 5 of 1973, which has the powers to fine and/or sentence journalists and publishers to terms of imprisonment.

A media culture cannot be based on slapping charges against journalists, fining them or sending them to jail. Instead the modern world has accepted a self-regulatory mechanism by media persons as the way forward.

The groups were the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka, the Working Journalists Association of Sri Lanka, the Tamil Media Alliance, the Muslim Media Forum, the Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions, the South Asia Free Media Association (Sri Lanka Chapter) and the Free Media Movement.

A press council? Not to worry, says Media Minister Abeywardena. The Associated Press reached Lakshman, who said the government didn’t reactivate the law that organizes the press council with the intention to silence the media. He told the AP that a parliamentary committee investigating waste found that salaries were still being paid to council officials and that office space was still being rented–so it forced the government to reactivate the body.

Don’t buy that for a second. Journalists in Sri Lanka tell CPJ that the pressure remains as intense on them as it was during the height of the war with the LTTE. Many of them have stopped writing and, as we said in our Special Report: Journalists in Exile 2009, others have fled the country.