With press council, Sri Lanka revives a repressive tool

By Bob Dietz/Asia Program Coordinator on June 26, 2009 4:44 PM ET

There should be no doubt that the government is continuing its offensive against the media following its military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). On Wednesday, Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena confirmed what had been rumored for more than a week: The defunct Press Council, which was put to rest in 2002, will be revived. 

A "press council" might sound innocuous enough, but it is the sort of tool we've seen in many countries where the government is intent on silencing critics. Search our site for "press council" and you'll see that it's a widespread tactic. In Sri Lanka, as the war with the LTTE was ramping up in 2006 and the government was starting its crackdown on domestic critics in the media, it had threatened to re-establish the council but never followed through.

The threat of a revived council wasn't lost on eight Sri Lankan media rights groups when they wrote a letter this week to the government. Here's an excerpt sent to me by a colleague in Colombo:

It is with a sense of deep concern and disappointment that the media organizations herein under-mentioned have learned of the re-activation of the Sri Lanka Press Council Law No. 5 of 1973, which has the powers to fine and/or sentence journalists and publishers to terms of imprisonment.

A media culture cannot be based on slapping charges against journalists, fining them or sending them to jail. Instead the modern world has accepted a self-regulatory mechanism by media persons as the way forward.

The groups were the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka, the Working Journalists Association of Sri Lanka, the Tamil Media Alliance, the Muslim Media Forum, the Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions, the South Asia Free Media Association (Sri Lanka Chapter) and the Free Media Movement.

A press council? Not to worry, says Media Minister Abeywardena. The Associated Press reached Lakshman, who said the government didn't reactivate the law that organizes the press council with the intention to silence the media. He told the AP that a parliamentary committee investigating waste found that salaries were still being paid to council officials and that office space was still being rented--so it forced the government to reactivate the body.

Don't buy that for a second. Journalists in Sri Lanka tell CPJ that the pressure remains as intense on them as it was during the height of the war with the LTTE. Many of them have stopped writing and, as we said in our Special Report: Journalists in Exile 2009, others have fled the country.


The PTA(Prevention of Terrorism Act1972) and OSA (Official Secrets Act 1956) have been used to muzzle journalists. These apart, successive govts. since 1990 have been complicit in killing dissenting journalsits starting with the murder of Richard de Soysa, an ancor, actor and journalist who sent videotapes to IPS of the 1989/1990 Suppression of Sinhala Marxist uprising when nearly 70,000 Sinhala youth were murdered by the ruling UNP (United National Party) regime was only the tip of the icebeg.
Since then Sri Lanka has earned the dubious reputation of not tolerating media freedom.
To date over 37 journalists have been killed with the overt or covert support of the govt.
It would be naive to say that the govt. only targeted Tamil journalists.
The gruesome murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge,editor of Sunday Leader ( A sinhla journalist editing Engllish national newspaper) proves this govt. does not tolerate dissent.
The impunity the govt. wields would not have been tolerated in any democracy.
It is up to the international media including CPJ and RSF to act now before more voices of freedom are muted.
Right now, in the last few days an astrologer who predicted the president's downfall in a newspaper was abducted and his fate is unknown. Another Tamil journalist was abducted, threatened and was released miles away from her home with the warning she sould not write.

Pearl Thevanayagam June 26, 2009 8:20:18 PM ET

Ultimatum for Jaffna newspaper
Newspaper agents in Jaffna received an unsigned letter yesterday demanding the closure of the Jaffna newspaper “Uthayan” at the end of the month.
The letter said the agents should not sell the newspaper and the Uthayan staff should not report to work after June 30.

Humanity failed in Sri Lanka?

I am not worried about the opinion of the Tamil people... now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion... the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhalese people will be here... Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhalese people will be happy.
J.R.Jayawardene, Former President of Sri Lanka - London Daily Telegraph, 11th July 1983

It is a systematic genocide going in Sri lanka, we cannot tolerate it or we cannot be a silence spectator.
Indra Gandhi Former Prime Minister of India in July 1983.

Injustice to Tamils have been done systematically since independence to this day. When they tried reconciliation pacts with the party in power the opposition always opposed. When they tried peaceful means they were crushed and militarisation of Northeast began in the 60s. The message was: Tamils, you can't agitate for justice. When the youth began armed violence: draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act was enacted and arrests and disappearances have been going on to this day. No genuine investigations except a few 'eyewash' investigations go on for so long that many Tamils don't even bother to file cases and in cases ''tried'' none will be prosecuted:
Law of the country miserably failed to protect the vulnerable Tamils.UN and Amnesty International archives will prove it.
Violence of LTTE is wrong. But the structural violence of successive governments is worse (systematic and slow genocide).
There must be a mechanism whereby when states ill-treat their ethnic minorities, it can be arrested in early stages.
In the last three years the whole of the heavily militarised Northeast has been nefariously cut off from the rest of the country and abduction-murders have run into thousands and no investigations!! Journalist after journalist was killed whenever they tried to question the government.Only military sponsored, embedded excursions are allowed in Northeast.
This is an island and there has been no mass exodus into neighbouring countries which would have attracted more attention much earlier - Unfortunate oppressed and fortunate oppressor.
The dictatorship masquerading democracy Nazi Govt is now robing the Tamil children's life and education in the notorious illegal concentration camps .
Their is a difference between a war ended by an agreement and a war ended by death and destruction.
After cruel and inhuman war ,post war behavior of the Govt in the Northeast is going in full gear for Lebensraum.
Who will come forward to resolve this most vicious Sri Lankan intrastate crisis?
End of armed struggle isn't end of liberation struggle.

It's not just the journalists who are muzzled.

The govt. with its euphoria of wiping out the LTTE has now called upn the INGOs to pack up and leave.

The ICRC which facilitated the escape of civilians from the war zone (officially 300,000 including 5,000 LTTE cadres by the govt.'s own admission) has been asked to scale down its presence.

Meanwhile 1,400 deaths are reported in the largest IDP camp of Manik Farm, an IDP permanent structure which has been fortified with cemented structure foretelling the IDPs are going nowhere.

The doctors who tendered to the injured civilians are being arm-twisted to say they exaggerated civilian casualties. They are incarcerated in the 4th floor of the CID which is notorious for torture.

Many journalists who dared to speak out have been killed and several are in prison.

Today, a SL website disclosed the slain editor of Sunday Leader met his death through a govt. minister in power by his own admission.

Whether this is a canard to exonerate the govt. remains to be seen.

How long should the international community wait before we become the modern Jews post Nazi ethnic cleansing.

The term `eugenics' is not far off the mark.

Many journalists are languishing in jails for no other crime other than to reporting the truth from the frontline.

Please let those who escaped Hitler's Nazi stance and are now in safecustody of democractic countries such as the US and the west notgive up on those who are being targeted by such narrow politics as nationalism Sri Lankan style; which is this island belongs to Sinhala Buddhists.

There is incontrovertible testimony from those who visited the war zone incognito that the SL govt. wants to wipe Tamils off the map of Sri Lanka.

Should we dither over the fate of indigenous Tamils.

Pearl Thevanayagam July 13, 2009 10:07:52 PM ET

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