Reform’s Key Moment: Sri Lankan Journalists Face Off with the Military

Dangerous Assignments

The amiable banter on a sweltering late spring evening in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, turned suddenly serious when a handful of journalists pressed their point on Information Minister Mangala Samaraweera inside his gracious home. Will you drop charges of criminal defamation against journalists? Will you allow the press to cover the civil war freely? Is the government serious about reform?

The courtly Samaraweera told a group of Sri Lankan editors and foreign guests that the government wanted to work with the press to reform a repressive record of censorship. But he wasn’t ready to give in to a completely free press. Not yet. “We have to have limits,” he said. “The press has to be responsible.”

In the face of a bitter and bloody 15-year war waged by the minority Tamil separatists that has claimed more than 50,000 lives and deeply strained the social fabric, keeping the press free can be a tricky business. On June 5, the military establishment, apparently stung by a stalled offensive against the rebels in the north of the country, may have derailed efforts by Samaraweera and others to negotiate with the Sri Lankan media over constitutional protections for the press. It imposed harsh censorship restrictions on both foreign and local press coverage of the war.

Weeks earlier, Samaraweera had hosted the party for press freedom advocates, signaling dramatic progress for the Sri Lankan press. The process was thrown into confusion by the military. “If you will be reasonable, we will be reasonable,” Samaraweera told an editor at the party who faces multiple defamation suits brought by several government officials.

The new defense ministry censorship rules seem certain to strain relations with press. All news organizations are banned from carrying uncensored news about military operations.
The Free Media Movement in Colombo called the action “a flagrant violation of the commitment made by this government in its election manifesto to defend media freedom.” CPJ similarly denounced the rules. The last time the government attempted to muzzle the press was in 1996, but the regulations were eventually overturned.

A military affairs analyst in Colombo said the moves were a sign of panic in the armed forces. “This is a reaction to military debacles in the war,” said the analyst, who asked not to be quoted due to the new censorship regulations. “The doves in the government are worried because the censorship is in the hands of the army. This a great embarrassment to the government.”

It is unclear where the latest move leaves free press initiatives in Sri Lanka. The April meeting at the home of Samaraweera had come at the end of a round of talks that united all the major players in the national press and set the stage for an unprecedented dialogue between Sri Lankan media and President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance government. The editors, publishers, journalists, academics, and activists who participated were responding to deteriorating relations between the press and a government that came to power in 1994 pledging to strengthen constitutional guarantees for a free press after seventeen years of increasingly authoritarian rule by the United National Party.

The group hammered out a document, with the encouragement of allies within the government and opposition parliamentarians, which they hope will form the basis for lasting reform. The “Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility” seeks to bring Sri Lanka into general compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by calling for the repeal of laws on criminal defamation, the easing of censorship, and the repeal of constitutional restrictions that forbid discussion of “peaceful secession,” a particularly thorny topic in a nation torn by civil war. The group urged the parliament to replace a tough “Official Secrets Act” with a “Freedom of Information Act” and to pass laws that would protect journalistic sources from attack in the courts.

The group also called for the creation of a BBC-style public broadcasting service to replace state control and the formation of an independent broadcasting authority.

The Sri Lankan action is remarkable for the degree to which powerful editors and publishers joined in the effort. The final declaration was signed by the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka, the Newspaper (Publishers) Society, and the Free Media Movement. The Working Journalists Association expects to follow suit. It was the first time the groups had ever worked together. In calling for change, the journalists also drew up an extensive code of ethics as part of their declaration.

Organizers will present the final document to a parliamentary committee on press reform. “We hope this works,” said Iqbal Athas, a defense analyst for The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka and CNN. “This is too important to abandon. We have to protect our right to a free press after so many years. It is now up to the military to respond to the weight of domestic and international criticism against the censorship regulations and allow the press to function freely in Sri Lanka.”

A. Lin Neumann is Asia program coordinator for the Committee To Protect Journalists. A version of this story appeared in the July/August issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.