UN rights chief should push Sri Lanka on press freedom

When the human rights watchdog for the United Nations visits Sri Lanka this weekend she should forcefully address the government’s problematic record on press freedom.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka August 25-31 ahead of next month’s regular session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

She plans to meet with government leaders and members of civil society. Given the abysmal state of press freedom in Sri Lanka, we hope she will also meet with journalists and press freedom advocates, including groups like Sri Lanka’s Media Alliance. They will offer a very different view of Sri Lanka than the picture President Mahinda Rajapaksa projects to the world.

Rajapaksa has a record of relentlessly obstructing the independent press. Earlier this month, CPJ reported on government’s effort to control media coverage of an ugly attack by security forces on people protesting what they feared was industrial contamination of their drinking water.

The incident underscored how the space for critical and independent reporting is quickly shrinking in the country. That does not bode well for accountability on human rights, a concern surely shared by Pillay.

This year, the government introduced a draft media code in Parliament that would impose harsh restrictions on journalists’ ability to report freely. It was later withdrawn, following criticism. In March, the country’s national broadcaster interrupted transmissions of BBC’s Tamil service, and the local Tamil press continues to face attacks. In June, CPJ included Sri Lanka on the list of top countries from which journalists were forced to flee in the past year.

We also remain deeply concerned about whether critical journalists–both local and international–will be accredited to cover the upcoming biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in November. Meanwhile, interest has waned in the case of the missing columnist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknelygoda, who disappeared in January 2010. The government has been uncooperative and even destructive to the case.

The climate for press freedom looks increasingly bleak in Sri Lanka. When Pillay assumed her position as the U.N. rights chief, she told the BBC in an interview that her position is the voice of the victim everywhere. The victim here–independent journalism–needs Pillay’s intervention and support more than ever.