CPJ calls on Sri Lanka to improve press freedom

March 3, 2015 10:34 AM ET

March 3, 2015

President Maithripala Sirisena

Presidential Secretariat

Galle Face

Colombo 1, Sri Lanka

Via fax: (+94) 11 2340340

Dear President Sirisena,

As your government's post-election 100-day agenda nears completion the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedom organization, recognizes your early endeavors in keeping promises to ensure media freedom, including the unblocking of critical websites and the passage of the Witness Protection Bill in Parliament.

As Sri Lanka prepares for parliamentary elections, CPJ would like to request a meeting with you and your government to discuss the problems that persist for the country's media. After discussion with several Sri Lankan journalists and media rights activists, we would like to suggest the following:

There is a pressing need for expeditious investigations of all murders and abductions of journalists, beyond the high-profile cases of Lasantha Wickranatunga and Prageeth Eknelygoda. CPJ's experience in other countries has been that special investigations and tribunals, as you have suggested, tend to circumvent the judicial process and result in findings and recommendations that do not bring the perpetrators of crimes against journalists to justice, which fosters a climate of impunity and further attacks. The investigations should be carried out in a transparent manner, using the court system to deliver justice.

Greater autonomy for state media is important for press freedom and long overdue. Under previous governments, state-run media were used as tools of attack on political opponents. Globally, there are many public service broadcasting models available for Sri Lanka to emulate. CPJ recommends that Sri Lanka considers establishing an independent commission to oversee the transition of state-controlled media to a public-service model. This change should be made quickly.

The Sri Lankan government should work for passage of the Right to Information Bill, in a form that will make it as effective as possible. The right to access information held by public bodies is recognized in international law as a fundamental human right. A law guaranteeing Sri Lankans the right to information held by the government will be instrumental in helping the country move forward after years of autocratic rule. Within the Bill are provisions for the creation of an independent media commission with a representative of the Sri Lanka Press Institute on its board. A similar affiliation under the bill for the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka will go a long way toward garnering credibility for the commission.

The registration fee arbitrarily imposed on news websites under the previous government should be lifted immediately.

The Sri Lankan government should facilitate the reintegration of journalists in exile. Your government should actively reach out to those who have been able to establish lives outside of the country and who remain wary of Sri Lanka's commitment to a free press. Sri Lanka's society will be richer with their return.

Sri Lanka's press corps, particularly young journalists, would benefit from training beyond what they have received in universities or on the job. A concerted effort to revitalize the Sri Lanka Press Institute would be a good way to encourage professionalism in media outlets. In addition, the press institute could work toward defending editorial independence and advise the government on media development and related issues, as well as fostering media literacy among the public.

Many of the media organizations promoting and working on freedom of expression issues have suffered heavily in recent years, CPJ research has found. The government should find a mechanism to revitalize them without compromising their independence.

President Sirisena, to discuss these matters further we propose that a CPJ delegation visits Sri Lanka for meetings with you, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Minister of Mass Media and Information Gayantha Karunathilaka near the end of March.

We look forward to hearing from your office.

Sincerely,

Robert Mahoney

Deputy Director,

Committee to Protect Journalists

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