Sri Lanka tries new ways to crush independent media

In Sri Lanka, where there has seldom been good news for the media in recent years, things have taken a further turn for the worse, as well as a turn for the bizarre. With President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government secure in its 2010 electoral mandate, its leaders have made fresh moves to tighten their control of the press. There is a plan afoot to re-criminalize defamation, and legislation has been proposed for a code of ethics that threatens to give the government a legal basis to quash journalism it deems “unethical.” All this comes ahead of November’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo, which seems sure to go ahead despite calls for boycotts from several quarters because of the government’s poor human rights record.

First, the bizarre: In a tactic we have seen in other countries, the government has used a low-level ally to question the validity of claims made by Sandhya Eknelygoda that her husband, cartoonist Prageeth Eknelygoda, is feared dead after vanishing in January 2010, two days before the elections that swept Rajapaksa to power. Prageeth Eknelygoda is alive and well, according to MP Arundika Fernando, who spoke in Parliament on Wednesday. CPJ regularly deals with allegations like this: A government ally will state publicly and provocatively that demands by spouses or other family members for information about the fate of their loved ones are a ruse. The families’ demands drag on publicly; their moral stature reaches uncomfortable heights; and the government decides to try to undercut them.

This time around is no different. Fernando said Eknelygoda is living in France in disguise, using an alias. Several other journalists who have disappeared are there with him, Fernando said. What’s more,  “Their wives go on staging protests, hold press conferences, and blame the government for their disappearances,” while their husbands are leading the expat high life. Fernando said he knows this because he spoke with colleagues of the exiles when he was in France recently, though he hadn’t seen any of the disappeared journalists himself. You can watch a video of his speech and read the Daily Mirror’s coverage.

It gets stranger: When questioned by journalists on Thursday, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said he had asked Fernando about his allegations and whether he had actually seen Eknelygoda. Rambukwella said that Fernando said he saw Eknelygoda somewhere in France but could not remember exactly where. Rambukwella also pointed out that since Fernando made his claim while speaking in Parliament, he cannot be forced to tell police about his findings.

Knowing a smokescreen when she sees one, Eknelygoda’s wife Sandhya has responded with sardonic aplomb: “I request the government to bring my husband to Sri Lanka through the Embassy of France,” she told newspapers in Colombo, calling the government’s bluff. It’s the government’s responsibility to bring him back to Sri Lanka, she pointed out.

This is not the first time the “Prageeth is alive and well” tactic has been used by the government. In the early days of his disappearance, some pro-government journalists dismissed his absence as a publicity stunt. Some stooped to suggesting marital infidelity was the motive. But former Attorney General Mohan Peiris made the biggest splash when he answered questions at a press conference after testifying at the U.N. Committee Against Torture in November 2011, in Geneva. Peiris, now the chief justice of the Supreme Court, said Eknelygoda had taken refuge in a foreign country and that the campaign to resolve his disappearance was a hoax. He failed, then and ever since, to provide information about where Eknelygoda had supposedly fled. At the time, we referred to the whole affair as “Sri Lanka’s savage smokescreen.” No one was fooled by Peiris then, and no one is fooled by Fernando now.

For all its absurdity, an important subtext can be discerned in Fernando’s claims. All those journalists who have left the country did so with the help of foreign embassies in Colombo, Fernando told Parliament. As the government further isolates itself internationally, it is striking out at critics in the Colombo diplomatic corps. Many, though definitely not all, have been openly critical of the increasingly restrictive, anti-democratic, and anti-ethnic-minority policies they see falling into place. “Sri Lankans must reject foreign pressure” is one of Fernando’s, and the government’s, mantras.

Turning from the world of bizarre parliamentary speechifying to legislative maneuvering, two new issues have arisen that do not bode well for the media in Sri Lanka. First, the ground work seems to be quietly being laid to bring back the criminal defamation law that was repealed in 2003. The law had been used extensively to silence critical reporting and to persecute editors and journalists. When President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet considered trying to re-introduce it in 2007, the idea met with stiff opposition. Colombo reporters tell CPJ that MP Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, who is close to the president, has proposed trying to get it through parliament again. There has been no official movement yet, but Vass’s thinking most likely reflects the Rajapaksa mindset.

Seen in that light, there is also cause for concern about a proposed piece of legislation for a government-written Code of Ethics for the Media. A draft has been given to the political parties, but no date has been set for a parliamentary debate. It was written by the Ministry of Mass Media and Information. You can find a PDF here. That copy was supplied to CPJ by several journalists in Sri Lanka; it can’t be found yet on a government website. They got it from opposition politicians. With the government’s imprimatur, the proposed code would most likely supersede the Code of Professional Practice (Code of Ethics) of The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka adopted by the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka. That code is supported by nine media organizations.

CPJ supports codes of ethics when they stem from journalists organizations and are voluntary. We generally see them as a path to raising professional standards. But when governments enact codes telling journalists how to behave, alarm bells go off. What can soon follow are legal arguments, punishments, fines, and jail sentences to enforce the code. As it is written, the proposal hits high-sounding notes like striving “for accuracy and professional integrity, and to uphold the best traditions of investigative journalism in the public interest.” But much of the proposal’s language is vague enough to put anyone in danger of legal punishment. Here is the proposed preamble:

All Electronic and Print media institutions including Websites and journalists shall adhere to this code of Media Ethics which aims to ensure that the Electronic and Print media and Websites in Sri Lanka are free and responsible and sensitive to the needs and expectations of the receivers of the message it sends out whilst maintaining the highest standards of journalism.

Who decides what is “responsible” and which media haven’t been “sensitive to the needs and expectations of the receivers of the message?” And what happens to those media which don’t meet those criteria? All that is undefined.

What is clear, if not defined: The Rajapaksa government has been successful in cowing Sri Lanka’s media and intends to continue going down that track. Journalists’ murders and assaults continue to go uninvestigated; arson attacks and bombings of media offices are unpunished; journalists disappear and the government discredits the families of those who are missing. Those who haven’t been killed or disappeared often flee into exile. Sri Lanka is one of the world’s worst offenders on all those counts. Many journalists still working speak frankly to CPJ of practicing self-censorship out of fears for their personal safety. A government-mandated code of ethics, no matter how lofty in tone, is just another tool to crush what is left of the country’s independent media.