Sri Lankan president should ensure improved climate for press freedom

January 30, 2015 2:14 PM ET

January 30, 2015

His Excellency Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena
President, Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
Presidential Secretariat
Colombo-1
Sri Lanka

Via facsimile: (202)-232-7181; +94 11 2 340340

Dear President Sirisena,

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedom organization, is writing to congratulate you on your recent victory in Sri Lanka's presidential election. As Sri Lanka readies itself for a new chapter in its history, we urge your government to take concrete and meaningful steps to improve the climate for press freedom.

In the past decade, critical and opposition journalists have faced intense intimidation in Sri Lanka. Since 2009, at least 14 journalists have fled into exile, a devastating loss for the Sri Lankan community. And although work-related killings in Sri Lanka have declined in recent years, the murders of nine journalists in Sri Lanka have gone unpunished in the past decade. The country ranked fourth on CPJ's 2014 Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go free.

One Sri Lankan journalist whose killers have never been brought to justice is Lasantha Wickramatunga. In 2009, the editor-in-chief of the weekly The Sunday Leader died after being beaten to death by assailants with iron bars. In an open letter to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa earlier this month, Wickramatunga's widow, journalist Sonali Samarasinghe, wrote, "Impunity is rampant in Sri Lanka. ... At no time in the history of our country has the freedom of expression so brutally been repressed as it is now."

Similar to Wickramatunga's case, no progress has been made in the investigation into the disappearance of cartoonist and columnist Prageeth Eknelygoda. The journalist for the news website Lanka eNews went missing in January 2010, two days before the 2010 presidential election. He had reported on alleged corruption among members of the Rajapaksa family, according to his wife, Sandhya Eknelygoda.

Your predecessor, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, showed little political will to address the country's record of impunity in journalist murders that occurred during his leadership. We urge you to ensure that your administration opens fresh and credible investigations into press murders, as well as the disappearance of journalists, and brings their perpetrators to justice.

We hope you also continue to expand the space for critical voices in the country--a space that must include the Internet, where a wide, varied, and tenacious network of online voices does what the mainstream media cannot. And while we are pleased to see your administration restore access to several news websites, including the Colombo Telegraph and the exile-run TamilNet, which had been previously blocked in connection with their political coverage, there is still a long way to go.

Local journalists have called for an independent reform commission to be created as part of a series of commissions set up to bring much-needed reforms to the judiciary, police, and public services. We also eagerly await progress on pledges your government made to introduce a robust Right to Information bill in parliament. Such measures are essential to promote a culture of transparency and to help end corruption--key goals you identified before assuming office.

During your candidacy, you pledged to follow a "100-day programme," which would implement measures to "safeguard the independence of media personnel and institutions" and strengthen the right to freedom of expression. Now, as president, you can take concrete steps to meet these commitments.

President Sirisena, you have the opportunity to write a new chapter in your country's history. Under your leadership, Sri Lanka can regain the confidence of its journalists by undertaking serious reforms that promote press freedom and an open and free press.

Thank you for your time. We look forward to your engagement on these matters.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

CC List:

Karunarathna Paranawithana, Secretary to the Ministry of Mass Media and Information

Rajitha Senaratne, Cabinet spokesman and Health Minister

H.E. Prasad Kariyawasam, Ambassador for Sri Lanka to the United States of America and Ambassador (designate) to Mexico

Andrew C. Mann, Chargé d'Affaires ad Interim, U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka

Allison Areias-Vogel, Acting Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka

H.E. David Daly, European Union Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Nisha Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs

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