IFJ assesses press freedom in Sri Lanka

BY ninan| IN Media Freedom | 15/05/2004
In its latest report on press freedom in South Asia the International Federation of Journalists finds Sri Lanka a cause for worry

 From May 2003 to April 2004, Sri Lanka has seen a marked stalling in its peace process and an assertion of executive powers by the President in November 2003, along with the sudden dissolution of Parliament and elections scheduled for April 2004. The IFJ report was written at a time when the newly elected United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) - a coalition between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)1, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP)2 and a number of other small left-wing and nationalist groups - had just assumed power. 

After six rounds of talks between the representatives of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government in March 2003, the LTTE announced its withdrawal from further talks. The main point of discontent was that the talks failed to address the future structure of governance that would devolve political and economic power to the North and East of the country. This move has caused consternation among observers of the peace process, and caused in certainty and insecurity in the country, especially amongst the business sector. However the government and the LTTE have remained committed to maintaining the ceasefire and the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission has remained in place.  

That has been considered one of the gravest consequences of the stalling of the peace process was that discussions on human rights were put on hold. In November 2003, President Chandrika Kumaratunga took over critical ministries of defence, media and the interior. On March 6 2004 she dissolved parliament and called snap parliamentary elections for April 2004.  

It has been confirmed by various local and foreign election monitoring groups the elections were the most violence free of the past decade. Most of the observers attributed this to the powers vested in the Commissioner of Elections through the 17th Amendment of the Constitution, as well as the creation of an independent Police Commission. 

The Media and Elections of April 2004

 The tradition of political interference in state-own media is not new to Sri Lanka-- Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, Lakhanda (Broadcasting), Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (electronic), Independent Television Network and the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd and this tradition continued in the election of April 2004. The General Public in Sri Lanka believed that the Media Unit of the pervious Prime Minister was behind the excessive use of State Media for government canvassing. Journalist s that did not agree with this form of journalism suffered from various forms of harassment.  

It is believed that the editor of the Sunday Observer Lakshman Gunasekera, was relieved of his responsibilities due to the stance he adopted regarding the need for the state-owned media to be, and to be seen to be, impartial during an election campaign. The takeover of the Uva community radio station in Badulla was another move that led to protests by media freedom organisations. The Private Media Institutions (electronic, broadcast and print) aired opinions, which were in line with the government. Fundamental rights of journalists and the media workers were blocked, such as the right to form trade unions. Furthermore any unions that were formed were abruptly stopped by the relevant authorities.          

The role of the Media in the election campaign has been a concern for many human rights and election monitoring groups, in previous years, intensive monitoring of both the state owned and privately owned media had shown that there was a strong bias towards the ruling party by the state owned media. When the President took over the Ministry of Mass Communication she appointed Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, as the Minister of Mass Communication, he then cancelled the license given to the ABC network to operate a TV station. ABC was however able to obtain a stay on the ministers cancellation. This move by the ministers was seen as a step to restrict the activities of the network. On March 28th 2004, days before the election there was a grenade attack on the residence of the ABC Radio’s managing director.  

Early in the election campaign the commissioner of Elections published guidelines for the coverage of the campaign. Despite the fact that the state media was bound to follow these guidelines they continued to be grossly biased towards the UPFA. Complaints by various political parties contesting the elections urged the commissioner for a Competent Authority (CA) to over see the state’s media coverage of the election. Despite a second set of guidelines and the appointing of a CA the sates bias continued. The State Media and UPFA criticized the election commission and filed a petition against his actions in the Supreme Court, on the grounds that he violated their freedom of expression. The Supreme Court did not issue an injunction but entertained the petition and gave leave for it to proceed. The UPFA also demanded that the Privately owned media should also be controlled by the commissioner of elections and abide by the same rules as the state media. This caused for many heated debates between privately owned media and the propaganda secretary of the UPFA’s partner JVP.  

Political analysts have expressed fears that the new UPFA government may undermine civil liberties including the freedom of association and expression. 

State Control Over Media 

Many changes have been made in the Ministry of Media and Information after it came under the purview of the President in November 2003. The largest media group, Lake Housea, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, Independent Television Network (ITN) and Lak Handa radio also came under the control of the President. Changes were made in all of these organizations, regarding management and administration to ensure a partisan political agenda. The President also appointed those close to her as the heads of all state owned media institutions. 

In the context of her criticism of non state media, December 2003 President Kumaratunga created a Task Force for Media Reform, which consisted mainly of her close associates and supporters. The Task Force’s mandate was defined in extremely narrow terms with a heavy emphasis in the role of the media in protecting religious and cultural traditions and norms. During the elections this task force issued a press statement justifying the sate medias pro- UPFA coverage. The President also appointed a commission to look into allegations of corruption at ITN during the UNF regime. During the campaign many non state TV Channels an newspapers were seen to be biased to the UNF and then Prime Minister Ranil Wikramasingha. 

The Freedom of Information Bill, which has been drafted on the basis of many proposals made by media freedom and human rights groups, both local and foreign was approved by the Cabinet in December 2003 and should be tabled before the new Parliament. 

Debate on the State Media 

 In Mid November 2003 President Kumaratunga, in her proposals for a cohabitation government propsed to change the state media. Her proposals included-- 

ii. Free and Fair Media:

1. Appoint Independent Governing Council for all State Media. i. e.Rupavahini, SLBC, ITN/Lakhanda and ANCL. (BBC Model) 

2. Have an independent body for all media called a Standards and Ethics Board, in addition to the Press Complaints Commission.

 3. Code of Conduct between PA, UNF and other parties to this "Partnership" to be worked out - An Ethics Joint Committee be formed for this purpose.

 In mid-January 2004 Mr Wikramesinha, in his proposals for cohabitation government, stated: 

Under the provisions aimed at ensuring a free and fair media an independent

supervisory council will be appointed to monitor the functioning of all state media. The rules and procedures pertaining to the council are to be finalized by the end of this month. 

ITN and Lakhanda will be privatized as soon as possible. Representatives of the Media will be encouraged to create a mechanism for setting of standards and Ethical code for the media.

 FMM has issued a statement requesting that the state media be democratised as a cohabitation arrangement. IFJ and International Press Institute have  issued separate statements on the same issue insisting that state media in Sri Lanka should be transformed into a pubic services media. Unfortunately, there was no constructive dialogue on this issue, and Parliament was dissolved on February 6.

 Under the UNF government state media functioned as a tool for political propaganda for the ruling party. The print media establishment Lake House especially was ruled with the iron fist of the chairperson appointed by the UNF government, Mr Nalin Ladduwahetti. 

Contempt of Court

 The Sri Lankan Government appointed the Select Committee on August 15, 2003, to inquire into the law relating to contempt of court and to make recommendations for its codification.Article 19, the Global Campaign for Free Expression, made a submission to the Sri Lankan Parliament Select Committee recommending that:

1)The purpose of contempt law should be to prevent prejudice to ongoing legal cases and to ensure the integrity of court procedures, not to prevent criticism of courts and judges;

 2)No liability should ensue unless there is a substantial risk of serious prejudice to an ongoing court proceeding or the court is actually being disrupted;

3) Defences of truth, fair comment and public interest should apply to all charges of contempt. 

Challenges to Independent Journalism 

The media continues to face many problems which hamper their ability to report events that are critical along with incidents of importance. There have been several instances in which the media was shut out, example of which would be a committee meeting of the National Labour Advisory Committee held in July 2003. On another occasions, questions dealing with the LTTE were not answered and journalists were requested to leave the premises. 

In the North and East of the country too, journalists and media persons continued to face threats and intimidation. The editor of the Tamil daily newspaper Thinamurusu, Mr Baskaran, made several complaints of threats, intimidation and hindrance to his work during 2003/2004. He had made similar complaints in 2002. Tamil journalists working in the North and East had several unpleasant encounters with the military.

During the period of the LTTE split, Tamil-language mass media and journalists became sandwiched between the two contending parties of the LTTE. Thousands of copies of Tamil newspapers were burned, journalists’ movements were restricted and pressure was put on them not to report any thing harmful to LTTE factions in their geographical areas. Tamil mainstream newspapers were openly biased towards the LTTE led by Prabhakaran during the North-East split, as well as during the election period. 

There was no clear improvement in media freedom in the period 2003-04.An example of which would be that the Press Council has been inactive since 2002 for want of a chairman and a board of directors. 

The previous UNF government failed to set up a new institute after abolishing the Press Council. While the Editors’ Guild, Newspaper Owners’ Association and the Free Media Movement initiated the "Press Complaints Commission" as an independent institute, this body has no legal powers. 

Working for Media Freedom 

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the previous UNF Government and the LTTE divided the media fraternity into pro-peace and false-peace. State media, government friendly private media and the whole of Tamil media were lobbying for the MOU and the peace process while the pro-Opposition and the ethnically biased media were of the opinion that the present peace process was a hoax. 

The movement, Journalists for Peace was established by state, private and independent journalists to create a bona fide peace process, and to bring a just solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. This movement played a vital role in strengthening the peace process and finding an amicable solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. It interacted with the LTTE and civil organizations in the North, and in the East it interacted with the Muslim community and other relevant civil organizations. With the peace process stalling, the activities of Journalists for Peace declined. For media freedom in Sri Lanka, a lasting peace is a prerequisite. 

This period has also seen a heightening of donor interest in training and awareness-raising regarding media ethics and rights, as well as reform of laws and policies relating to the conduct of the media. UNESCO is, for example, supporting the creation of a Media Training Institute in Jaffna. 



Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions (FMETU)

Free Media Movement-INFORM Sri Lanka Media Situation Report. For the full report, contact fmm@diamond.lanka.net

                              The Complete Report is available at:                                                                     


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