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Free Press in Sri Lanka under threat from regulation

UNP or UNP-led Governments of the past and of the present, though able to deliver, both from a political and economic sense, relative to their peers in their various manifestations in coalitions formed under the auspices of their historical arch rival the SLFP, nonetheless have a penchant for blunderbussing.

This history of blunderbussing is, in particular, in respect of enforcing laws and regulations pertaining to the curbing of press freedom, which had its beginning 38 years ago in 1979.

Those laws however, may not necessarily have had been laws passed by UNP Governments, but by their predecessor governments led by the SLFP, to which successive UNP Governments had only worked to give teeth, more often than not by threat and not by implementation.
The threat is stronger than the execution.

The first move was in 1979 or thereabouts, when the then newly elected UNP Government of J.R. Jayewardene introduced a Cabinet Spokesman for the very first time in Sri Lanka, in the shape and form of the then State Minister Anandatissa de Alwis, Jayewardene’s good friend, and former private secretary to Sir John Kotelawala, Premier from 1953 to 1956.

After Jayewardene made de Alwis his Cabinet Spokesman, he tried to give teeth to an old Press Council law passed by the government of his immediate predecessor Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1973, which, among other things made it an offence for the media to publish ‘Cabinet secrets.’ The Press Council Act which brought these draconian laws was passed by Bandaranaike in 1973, a few months before she nationalized Jayewardene’s first cousin, Ranjith Wijewardene’s newspaper, better known as the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd (ANCL) or Lake House for short, in July 1973.

Jayewardene in 1979, tried to give teeth to Bandaranaike’s old law, by threatening to enact Section 16 of this Press Council Law of 1973, which among other things, made it an offence for a media institution to publish Cabinet news, other than which was dished out by de Alwis, in his weekly Cabinet news briefings.

But certain media outlets, despite Jayewardene’s threat, continued to publish “Cabinet Secrets” outside the domain of what was faithfully mouthed by Jayewardene’s Cabinet Spokesman de Alwis in his weekly Cabinet news briefings. However, neither of those media outlets, nor the journalists responsible for publishing those ‘Cabinet Secrets,’ were ever prosecuted by Jayewardene, for contravening that 1973 law, to the credit of the much wrongly maligned, Jayewardene.

It was a case of a law hanging over the heads of media institutions and journalists by a thread, similar to that of the Sword of Damocles, but never implemented during the Jayewardene regime of 1977 to 1988.

However, successive SLFP or SLFP-led Governments of the past, beginning with the Bandaranaike Government’s abortive bid to takeover ANCL in 1964, which they ultimately successfully did in July 1973, five months after passing the Press Council Law in February 1973 and ending up with ‘The Sunday Leader’ allegedly being bought over by one of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s stooges 39 years later in 2012, not forgetting the murders, threats, abductions, assaults, bodily harm caused to journalists and attacks on media institutions that took place during the subsequent regimes of the SLFP-led PA/UPFA Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga Government of 1994 to 2005 and the Rajapaksa Government of November 2005 to January 2015, previous UNP Governments however, avoided contravening the laws to harass the free press, the possible exception, albeit to a ‘lesser’ extent being Ranasinghe Premadasa’s UNP Government of December 1988 to May 1993.

But, 38 years down the line since 1979 and 44 years since 1973 to the present, a new government in power, co-headed by Jayewardene’s nephew, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe from the UNP and President Maithripala Sirisena from the SLFP, are planning to replace Bandaranaike’s draconian Press Council Law of 1973, with a new law, as equally draconian, if not worse (See this newspaper’s 6 July 2017 edition).

Nonetheless, in a rare show of political bonhomie, the country’s two major political parties, in order to defeat Rajapaksa, got together and at the 8 January 2015 Presidential Poll, the strongman from Hambantota who was allegedly promoting his family over his Party the SLFP, was sent packing home, with Sirisena, backed by Wickremesinghe, winning the polls.

[alert type=”success or warning or info or danger”]But it was not for this proposed new press law titled ‘Independent Council for News Media Standards’ (ICNMS) that the people elected the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo, beginning with the 8 January 2015 poll to power[/alert].

They were elected to ensure the implementation of their promised ‘Yahapalana Government” by the masses of this country.

Nevertheless, some of the harsh penalties proposed under the ICNMS are a fine of rupees one million to any media institution which does not subscribe to the ICNMS’ proposed laws and a fine of Rs 100,000 on and imprisonment of a journalist, publishing false news.

However, it’s hoped that the UNP which has a long history of fighting and protecting media freedom, beginning with 1964, will lead the way by amending the provisions of the ICNMS to make it look more democratic and fair, the very purpose for which, they together with the SLFP were elected to power in the first place in 2015, to usher in a new round of democracy and freedom to the people of this country, whose rights were clipped in the near 10 year long reign of the Rajapaksas.

Freer the press, greater are freedoms protected, leading to prosperity of the people and of the country.

  • Editorial, Ceylon Today/ 09 July 2017 ( original caption: Free Press)


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