Media freedom remained restricted in Sri Lanka in 2012, with journalists subject to myriad forms of legal harassment and physical intimidation, Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world said in a report.
The report said that although the government included several items related to media freedom in its July 2012 National Action Plan on national reconciliation—including the passage of freedom of information legislation, enhanced efforts to investigate and prosecute past cases of attacks on journalists, and increased physical access for reporters to the north and east of the country—little progress was made on any of these recommendations by year’s end.
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but it and other laws and regulations place significant limits on the exercise of this right. The 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act contains extremely broad restrictions, such as a prohibition on bringing the government into contempt. The decades-old Official Secrets Act bans reporting on classified information, and those convicted of gathering secret information can be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison. Although no journalists have ever been charged under the law, it is used as a threat. Journalists are also occasionally threatened with contempt-of-court charges or questioned regarding their sources.
The 1973 Press Council Act, which prohibits disclosure of certain fiscal, defense, and security information, was revived in 2009, having not been enforced in more than a decade. The government nominates all seven council members under the act, and violations of its provisions can draw prison terms and other punitive measures. In July 2012, the government announced its intention to extend the act’s application to electronic and web-based media, and to introduce registration fees of 100,000 rupees ($780), with annual renewal fees of 50,000 rupees for websites. These figures were revised downward in August to 25,000 rupees and 10,000 rupees respectively. In 2006, unofficial prepublication censorship on issues of “national security and defense” was imposed by a new Media Center for National Security (MCNS), which assumed the authority to disseminate all information related to these issues to the media and the public. In March 2012, the MCNS issued a directive extending this provision to news services distributed via mobile-telephone text messaging.
“There is no enforceable right to information in the constitution or separate legislation. In fact, the Establishments Code, the formal administrative code governing civil servants, actively discourages access to information even on public-interest grounds. An attempt by the opposition to introduce a right to information bill in Parliament in 2011 was defeated by the governing majority, in violation of its previous campaign promises, and an additional attempt in May 2012 was also stymied by the speaker of Parliament,” the report said.
The report said that journalists throughout Sri Lanka, particularly those who cover human rights or military issues, face regular intimidation and pressure from government officials at all levels. (Colombo Gazette)