Police officers carry an injured officer during a protest near Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's residence in Colombo on March 31, 2022. Police and security forces arrested at least six journalists covering the protest. (Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte)

CPJ calls on Sri Lankan government to respect press freedom amid nationwide state of emergency

New York, April 4, 2022 – The government of Sri Lanka should respect press freedom, ensure unrestricted access to social media and communication platforms, and allow the media to work freely and independently during a nationwide state of emergency, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.

On Friday, April 1, the Sri Lankan government declared the emergency, which allows authorities to conduct warrantless arrests, and imposed a curfew to contain protests after violent demonstrations over the country’s economic crisis erupted last week, according to news reports.

On the evening of March 31, Sri Lankan police and security forces arrested at least six journalists covering a protest outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence in the Mirihana district of the capital Colombo, according to a report by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), an advocacy group run by exiled journalists; a statement by the Federation of Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU), a local network of trade unions for journalists and media workers; news reports; and a JDS representative, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity due to fear of government reprisal.

Police arrested over 50 people at the protest, used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the demonstrators, and filed a complaint against over 50 individuals, including the six journalists. According to the JDS representative, the six have been accused of violating Section 120 of the penal code, which makes it an offense to “excite feelings of disaffection” against the president or government. If convicted, the journalists could face up to two years in prison.

“Sri Lanka must not use the state of emergency as a pretext to muzzle press freedom during this critical moment in the country’s history, when access to information is vital for all citizens,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Washington, D.C. “Authorities must cease detaining and harassing journalists, allow the media to report safely and independently, and ensure unrestricted access to social media and communication platforms.”

The Gangodawila Magistrates’ Court in the Nugegoda municipality, a suburb of Colombo, granted bail for the six journalists on April 1, according to the JDS representative.

On Sunday, April 3, authorities restricted access to a number of social media and communication platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Viber, and YouTube, which was largely restored after 16 hours, according to NetBlocks, a watchdog organization that monitors internet censorship.

CPJ was unable to immediately identify contact details for the six journalists and confirm their exact job titles due to country-wide power shortages caused by the ongoing economic turmoil. CPJ is continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding the arrests and detention of the six journalists.

The following six journalists were detained while covering the protest, according to the FMETU and JDS:

  1. Chatura Deshan, who was reporting for the privately owned Sinhala-language television network Sirasa TV.
  2. Sumedha Sanjeewa Gallage, who was reporting for the privately owned Sinhala-language television network Derana TV, was seen being escorted into a police vehicle in a Facebook Live video taken by a bystander circulated on social media on April 1. Gallage told Sri Lanka’s  Sunday Times that he was assaulted by officers with the Special Task Force, an elite paramilitary unit of the Sri Lankan police, at the protest after repeatedly identifying himself as a journalist and showing his media identification card. He appeared to have sustained significant bruising to his face and his shirt appeared to be covered in blood in a photo circulated on social media. Gallage said he was assaulted by another unidentified individual before he was taken to the Mirihana police station and received medical treatment at a hospital after he was released on bail, according to The Sunday Times. Gallage says he lost partial vision in his right eye due to the assault and will require further medical treatment.
  3. Awanka Kumara, who was reporting for Sirasa TV. Kumara’s video camera was smashed during a police baton charge, according to JDS. “I never thought that journalists would be assaulted in such a manner because they know us. We have been reporting on these events for a long time,” Kumara told LankaFiles.
  4. Waruna Wanniarachchi, who was reporting for the privately owned Sinhala-language daily newspaper Lankādeepa.
  5. Nishshanka Werapitiya, who was reporting for Derana TV, appeared to have sustained bruising to his face in a photo shared by JDS on Twitter.
  6. Pradeep Wickramasinghe, who was reporting for Derana TV, appeared to have sustained several bruises to his right arm in a photo shared by JDS on Twitter.

CPJ is investigating reports that Nisal Baduge, who was reporting for the privately owned English-language daily newspaper Daily Mirror, and Lahiru Chamara, who was reporting for Derana TV, were also assaulted while covering the March 31 protest.

On Sunday, April 3, 2022, the Tamil National People’s Front, a political alliance representing the ethnic Tamil minority, reported that police stopped journalists from entering its office in the Kokkuvil suburb of the northern city of Jaffna, where they arrived to cover its media conference, harassed them, and turned them away after registering their names. CPJ was unable to immediately confirm the identities of those journalists.

CPJ is also investigating reports that a group of individuals who presented themselves as members of the president’s media division threatened and intimidated Tharindu Jayawardena, editor-in-chief of the privately owned news website medialk.com. Jayawardena lodged a complaint at the Mirihana police station in response to the incident, according to the FMETU.

In July 2021, a collective of media organizations wrote a letter to Chandana Wickramaratne, inspector-general of the Sri Lankan Police, after Deshabandu Tennakoon, senior deputy inspector-general of the western province of Sri Lanka, threatened Jayawardena for “publishing fabricated news items” after the journalist shared a medialk.com article on Facebook, which reported that Tennakoon had received a salary increase following the 2019 Easter bombings.

Sri Lanka police spokesperson Nihal Thalduwa did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment sent via messaging app. The office of President Rajapaksa did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.

[Editors’ Note: The third paragraph has been updated to reflect the correct description of Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka.]