Media Release: Sri Lanka / 15 November 2013
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) calls on the heads of government and delegations of the Commonwealth countries, who today begin their bi-annual summit meeting in the Sri Lankan national capital of Colombo, to lay appropriate stress on the need for the restoration of democratic liberties and media freedom in the host country, after a quarter century or more when these have been under severe stress.
IFJ affiliates in Sri Lanka have already flagged the issue as an urgent priority. The Free Media Movement (FMM) has issued a fact-sheet on specific incidents in recent times which show that the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) is yet to display any sort of intent to reverse the severe deterioration in the environment for the media and journalism in the country.
As recently as September, the climate of threat and intimidation in Sri Lanka forced senior journalist Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, co-editor of the Sunday Leader, to seek exile. Her husband Romesh Abeywickrema, business editor of the Sunday Leader and their twelve-year old daughter also left the country. This followed an armed raid on their home in August and an effort to rustle through their personal papers in an obvious quest for some documents that they may have obtained as part of their journalistic practice.
The FMM reports that since 2005, when the last phase of active hostilities in Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war began, more than eighty journalists have fled the country. The FMM has described this as an ongoing “war against journalism”.
The IFJ and its partners are especially concerned at the reign of impunity which continues to prevail for attacks on journalists and media institutions, and the constant fear that individual media practitioners work under. Even if overt measures of coercion are less conspicuous than during the war years, political and financial power is being deployed to silence dissent. Victims of gross human rights violations during the war years are deprived of a forum through which they can articulate their grievances and seek redress.
The IFJ and its associated groups are worried at the failure of GSL to accept any firm commitments for implementing the recommendations of a commission appointed at the end of the war, as part of the national reconciliation process. The recommendations related to free speech and the right to information, though modest in number, are deeply consequential. Yet, a “National Action Plan” (NAP) announced in July 2012 to give effect to the recommendations of the high-powered Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) did not set down any time-line for the passage of a right to information law and seemed to gloss over the need to dispel the climate of impunity for attacks on the media.
Following the resettlement of the last of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Menik Farm camp in the northern province late in September 2012, media persons seeking to travel into the area to report on the quality of life of resettled communities, encountered numerous obstacles from military officials whose presence in the area is reportedly, overwhelming.
The IFJ and its partners observe that the GSL is in default on three main recommendations of the commission on national reconciliation: restoration of freedom of movement for media personnel through all parts of the country; the investigation and prosecution of all known cases involving attacks on media practitioners; and the enactment of a right to information law.
In addition, the IFJ and its partners have found that state-controlled media, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, Channel ITN and the Lake House publications, have become forums for verbal abuse and vilification of independent journalists and human rights defenders, often with dangerous implications for their physical safety and wellbeing.
Further, news websites hosting content on Sri Lanka have been subject to arbitrary rule changes and frequent obstruction with absolutely no legal or constitutional mandate.
The IFJ and its partners urge the UPR process in Geneva to particularly underline the following steps as urgent priorities for the GSL to commit itself to:
· The restoration of independence and accountability to the state-owned media, if necessary by initiating the process of conversion to public service media;
· The enactment of a law covering working conditions of all journalists and news-gatherers, in line with other South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal;
· The enactment of a right to information law;
· Prosecution, on the basis of credible evidence, of all who have been guilty of attacking journalists and news gatherers in the recent past; and
· An effort to bring back to Sri Lanka all the journalists in exile, with the assurance that their safety would be guaranteed by the GSL.
As an immediate priority, the IFJ urges the GSL to order a halt to the stream of hostile rhetoric over state-owned media channels.
The IFJ also urges the GSL to allow the free movement of national and international media staff all over the island, including the war-torn northern province, to allow the people who are yet to overcome the trauma of the last years of the war, to speak for themselves and be heard.