Elected in 1994 on a platform that expressly included support for press freedom, the People's Alliance (PA) government continues to use the country's protracted ethnic civil war as a pretext to curb the media through emergency regulations and extra-legal devices. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has threatened the press in public speeches, while defamation suits against newspapers that have criticized Kumaratunga drag on in the courts.
Despite the miltary's success at the end of 1995 in retaking the northern city of Jaffna, a stronghold of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the ethnic civil war continues. The government used the continuing conflict as an excuse to reimpose censorship of coverage of all military and police affairs as part of a new round of emergency regulations which it issued on April 4. Whited-out words and paragraphs replaced with "censored" punctuated stories in Sri Lankan newspapers. Although the government lifted the censorship regime on Oct. 8, it retained tight control over press access to war zones in the north and east.
Appealing to the emergency regulations, authorities detained and questioned four Danish journalists for four days before expelling them on November 13. The four had traveled to Sri Lanka to report on the treatment of Chitra Rajendran, a Tamil woman who was refused asylum in Denmark and deported. The government claimed Rajendran had links to the LTTE.
In early April, President Kumaratunga issued a pointed threat to the media at a public rally in Nittambuwa. She warned that "newspapers which persist in publishing irresponsible and false material detrimental to the war effort and to the Security Forces will have to be closed down." She went on to declare, in unusually florid language, that "what these newspapers enjoy is not press freedom but freedom of the wild ass." She singled out two articles – published more than a year prior to her speech, in the English language daily The Island and the Singhalese-language Divaina – that reported soldiers in northern army camps lacked food and speculated over the main purpose of a state visit to India by President Kumaratunga. Defamation cases that the government's criminal investigation department brought against the Sunday Leader and the Sunday Times for reporting on the president's late-night appearance at a legislator's birthday party moved at a glacial pace, with no resolution in sight at year's end.
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