Press Freedom Under Attack In Sri Lanka: Website Office Raids and Online Content Regulation
Press freedom in Sri Lanka has come under further attack over the course of the past month. On June 29, the Criminal Investigation Department’s Colombo Crime Division raided the office shared by news websites Sri Lanka Mirror and Sri Lanka X News. The latter website is widely known as the official journalistic outlet of the United National Party (UNP), which is the main opposition party against the ruling coalition, United People’s Freedom Alliance. Authorities arrested nine journalists and confiscated much of both websites’ computer equipment for “propagating false and unethical news on Sri Lanka.”
Blogger Patta Pal Boru reported that the journalists, including one editor, were taken into custody under Section 118 of the penal code. However, the relevant portions of the Law of Criminal Defamation had been repealed in 2002, so the Colombo Magistrate ordered that the journalists be released on bail. Employees of the Sri Lanka Mirror filed six “fundamental rights petitions” with the Supreme Court, who heard the case at the end of July. However, after the Deputy Solicitor General responded that the website was not registered and had published “explicit” stories, further hearings were scheduled for February 7.
In order to avoid embarrassments such as the illegal June raid, the government plans to amend the 1973 Sri Lankan Press Council Act so that websites will be regulated by the same agency that regulates printed media. Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwalla said in a Cabinet media briefing on July 5 that the amendments would be designed “to ensure accountability” for national news websites. The amendments will make it easier to prosecute websites under similar content rules as for print media, and will require all websites to register with a government list. The announcement was made on the same day that the UN Human Rights Council endorsed a landmark resolution that upholds online freedom of expression and information.
Sri Lankan media outlets are skeptical that the new Press Council Act amendments are simply a bureaucratic change. Manik de Silva, a director of Sri Lanka's Press Complaint Commission and a member of the country's Editor's Guild, suggested that the amendments are “obviously to control the media… Any strengthening of media laws will be used to further the interest of political parties in power rather than the national interest.” Blogger Patta Pal Boru wrote that with regards to the illegal raids on the Sri Lanka Mirror and Lanka X News, “it is important the public agitate for accountability instead of their current passive acceptance of gross violation of the law by both the Govt. [sic]”
The strict regulation of online and offline news outlets in Sri Lanka is rooted in the decades-long conflict between Tamil separatists and the Sinhalese-majority government. Networking for Rights in Sri Lanka, a media advocacy group composed of exiled journalists and human rights defenders, pointed out in a statement condemning the raids that “TamilNet, a popular news and opinion site on Tamil issues was the first site blocked by the GoSL [Government of Sri Lanka]. On June 19, 2007, on the orders of the GoSL all Internet Service Providers in Sri Lanka blocked the access to the TamilNet website. Since then GoSL has blocked dozens of news and opinion web sites reporting on Sri Lanka.”
While the fronts of political conflict have shifted considerably since the resolution of the civil war in 2008, draconian media regulations meant to protect government interests have only increased in number. In a November 2011 statement, officials in Sri Lanka blocked several high-profile websites and released a statement that accused them of a “deliberate character assassination campaign” against the image of country, heads of State, ministers, senior public officials, and “very very Important People.” The EFF is deeply concerned by the legal challenges to Internet freedom in Sri Lanka, and will continue to monitor both cases against the journalists and the planned Press Council Act amendments.