Sri Lanka moves to silence NGOs, press groups

The Sri Lankan government has taken yet another step to silence critical media coverage, banning non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from holding press conferences and issuing press releases, as well as running workshops or training sessions. The action, announced Sunday by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defense, left the country’s many press groups wondering whether they are even allowed to issue a statement criticizing the decision.

Sri Lankan NGOs were put on notice about the new step on July 1, with a warning letter that declared media-related activities “unauthorized” and “beyond their mandate.” The letter was signed by D.M.S. Dissanayake, director and registrar of the National Secretariat for NGOs, which comes under the Ministry of Defense. It is worth noting that Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa is President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother.

Speaking to the English-language daily Ceylon Today, Dissanayake said, “We have merely taken a precautionary measure in reminding them of the limits.” If the groups do not obey the directive they will be fined, he said. Given the lack of government action to curtail a history of attacks, harassment, and threats aimed at journalists in Sri Lanka, the use of the term “precautionary” by a government official becomes a threatening term.

Sunday’s directive left the country’s NGOs scrambling, including those that represent the media community. Despite the government pressure on its press, Sri Lanka has historically had several media groups, some organized along ethnic lines, including the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance, the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum, and the Federation of Media Employees Trade Union. Together, they operate the umbrella Free Media Movement. Immediately after Sunday’s announcement, there was no indication any of them had protested.

What precipitated the government’s move, and why now? I checked in with a few sources in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. They’re not all in agreement, and some of their reasoning is clearly speculative, but they concurred that this was something the government had wanted to do for a while and probably had more than just one cause. The order comes against a backdrop of other government efforts to control media coverage and disrupt workshops and seminars for journalists organized by NGOs.

One source said in an email message that the Ministry of Defense does not have legal authority under any statute to control freedom of speech and association of citizens, who act collectively through civil society organizations. But then, he added, when did legal issues matter?

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka’s government finds itself in difficulty both internally and externally. Internationally, the country has a growing reputation as an outlier. The United Nations Human Rights Council is set to begin a 10-month investigation into human rights violations by the Sri Lankan Army and Tamil secessionists during the last years of the conflict that ended in 2009–despite strong efforts by Sri Lanka to head off the probe. More recently, Sri Lanka took heat over its treatment of media during anti-Muslim riots in June, with condemnation from a broad spectrum of civil society groups. The government’s image in Muslim nations has been severely damaged.

Internally, Sri Lanka has not resolved the ire of the Tamil or Muslim communities, and increasingly seems intent on suppressing them rather than addressing their complaints. So Sunday’s gag order–as some in Colombo called the notice–came from a government that finds itself a tad shaky as the country prepares for presidential elections. (The date of the next presidential election will be announced on November 15.)

For all its efforts to silence its critics, the government, with its new move to stifle NGOs, may have instead moved one more step toward irrelevance.