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Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Sri Lanka

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Sri Lanka, February 1998, available at: [accessed 21 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

When President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her People's Alliance (PA) party won power in November 1994, the new administration promised far-reaching reforms to reverse 17 years of United National Party (UNP) aggression against press freedom and civil liberties. After three years in office, however, the PA government earns at best a mixed report card on civil liberties, with some heartening improvements in 1997.

With the bitter civil war between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sinhalese majority in its 14th year, the government has tended to restrict press coverage of the conflict through a variety of means, including direct censorship and control of information entering the country. Since the harsh censorship strictures of 1995, local and international activists have pressured the government to relax hard-line restrictions. In the last year, most forms of direct censorship have been lifted. Meanwhile, criminal defamation laws are still used to silence dissent against the governing regime and its policies, while shielding public officials from scrutiny by the media.

War correspondents struggled to file independent reports, as they have since 1995 when the Defense Ministry introduced regulations preventing the press from independently visiting specified war zones mostly in northern and eastern provinces.

Local journalists allied with the Free Media Movement in Sri Lanka routinely demonstrated against state-directed and state-tolerated hostility toward the independent media and demanded greater press freedom in Sri Lanka. In May, a landmark Supreme Court ruling declared a controversial Broadcasting Authority Bill unconstitutional. The measure would have given political authorities unrestricted control over the broadcast media. Journalists anticipated an improved media culture as a result of the ruling.

In developments to safeguard the press, in November, three policemen faced charges for the 1990 murder of Richard de Zoysa, an editor and Colombo correspondent for the Rome-based InterPress Service. Though the previous UNP regime denied police involvement in the killing, the PA government reopened the case and has been pursuing investigations since coming to power.

The Sri Lankan press was guardedly optimistic, following President Kumaratunga's appointment of Mangala Samaraweera as Minister of Posts, Telecommunications, and Media in June. Known as a left-of-center liberal, Samaraweera has promised more freedom to the media and, as a gesture of goodwill, approved 13 new radio and television station licenses in mid-June. Among new measures Samaraweera announced are the closure of the state-controlled news agency, Lankapuvath, and the adoption of a code of conduct for journalists in the state-owned media institutions. In addition, after years of censorship, the government asked local television stations not to censor news about Sri Lanka from foreign news broadcasts carried locally.

Samaraweera also promoted the repeal of the infamous Parliamentary Privileges Special Provisions Act of 1978, which empowered the parliament to fine and imprison journalists who allegedly insulted a member of parliament or the procedures of the House. In a related development, parliament appointed a select committee to recommend changes to the laws governing the media, including the repeal or amendment of legislation which poses limitations on freedom of expression. The government has resisted changes in harsh criminal defamation statutes, however, and journalists remain wary of policies which could threaten press freedom.

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