Sri Lanka Fact Sheet 3 May 2021 – Freedom of Expression Violations 2021
1. Sri Lanka ranked 137 out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
2. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions have been unevenly imposed on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, resulting in the arrest and detention of social media commentators and others…. Since 2019, increased surveillance, harassment, questioning and threats from security agencies against human rights activists, journalists, lawyers and families of victims have been regularly documented”, said the report by eight UN human rights experts (Special Rapporteurs) to the 46th session of the UNHRC.
3. On 9th January 2021 Speaking at a public meeting in Ampara President Rajapaksa said that “he has a peaceful side and a dark side, and that he is perfectly capable of returning to his dark roots from his tenure as Secretary of Defence.” “The President clearly insinuates that he is capable of having me “killed like a dog” if I continue saying things that displease him. In his remarks, the President refers to me by name and addresses speeches made by me in Parliament in which I referred to his first name, Nandasena,” Harin Fernando wrote to IGP. This was a clear threat to Freedom of speech.
4. On 2oth March 2021 President Rajapaksa made a public threat to Maharaja TV network saying “It is a mafia, there are no kings in our country, and there are no Maharajas. Certain media owners want to run the country the way they want. That will not be possible with me. I know how to teach a lesson if they need to be taught. Those who worked against us during the war have reappeared and they are in them.” Later Government slashed advertising on the MTV network.
5. “Instead of addressing the pandemic, the government today remains occupied with turning the police and criminal justice system into weapons to silence dissenting voices. Rather than engaging with or responding to their critics, the government is trying to lock them up” said the broad based civil society organisation NMSJ headed by former speaker Karu Jayasuriya.
6. “The warning issued by the Police Media Division letter (1st April 2020) to media institutions that legal action would be taken against those who criticize officials is viewed with deep concern by the Commission as it is bound to have a serious chilling effect on people’s freedom of expression, said HRCSL in a letter the Inspector General of Police. The situation remains the same today.
7. An unknown number of persons have been arrested and detained for social media posts related to memorialisation of the war dead by the Tamil people. In early December, the Sri Lankan Police filed a case under the Prevention of Terrorism Act against the Jaffna-based Uthayan newspaper, for publishing images and quotes of Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the LTTE, on his birthday 26th November. Case on going. Journalist Murugupillai Kokulathasan was arrested on 28th November for a Facebook post commemorating those killed during Sri Lanka’s 30 year civil war. He is being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The Sri Lankan Police arrested 19 people across Batticaloa for allegedly posting birthday wishes online for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. In early April 2021 a Tamil youth was arrested in Kopay, Jaffna for having a photo of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on his smartphone.
8. In April 2021 two female officers of the The National Transport Medical Institute was transferred on grounds of having allegedly criticized President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Facebook. An investigation into the alleged conduct of two female officers was launched. On 30th April an individual allegedly involved in the recent honking of car horns at the vehicular convoy of a VIP was arrested. A leading consumer rights activist Asela Sampath was arrested and tortured on a pretext for criticising a Government relief package.
9. Malika Abeykoon, a freelance journalist and photographer was arrested and assaulted on 07th April 2021 while covering a health workers’ protest rally; Freelance journalist Sujeewa Gamage was abducted and tortured forcing him to disclose certain information on 18th March 2021.
10. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gazetted an extension to the Prevention of Terrorism Act called De-radicalization from holding violent extremist religious ideology Regulations No. 01 of 2021 on March, 2021. The definition of an “offence” under the regulations are imprecise and ambiguous, and they run the risk of being used against civic dissent and legitimate criticism of the government and its treatment of ethnic and religious minority communities. As it stands, the regulations can be used against “any person who by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, causes or intend to cause the commission of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups.
11. In March 2021 a young student Bhagya Abeyratne, who expressed her concern regarding the deforestation taking place Sinharaja forest was named and shamed by authorities for speaking the truth. Two male police officers of the Rakwana police had gone to her residence and recorded a statement inquiring as to who had influenced her to express these views. Sri Lanka President’s office ordered to take down an Ecocide mural which is 70×20 feet was put together by children who are part of the youth wing of the wildlife nature protection society
12. On 28th March 2021 media reported that both false and accurate information posted on social media on incidents of environmental destruction will be kept under watch by a new unit to be set up by the Environment Ministry. To carry out the task, 323 ‘environmental officers’ would be recruited at Divisional Secretariat level. Deforestation and environmental destruction has become a serious issue in the country and two largest opposition political parties based in the South of Sri Lanka and farmers around the country have taken it up. The action to monitor and take punitive action on allegedly false posts on environmental degradation is a clear attempt to silence critical voices.
13. 25 year-old poet Ahnaf Jazeem was arrested by authorities also using the draconian PTA in May 2020 for a collection of poems he published under the title “Navarasam.” Amnesty International has reviewed the poems and has found that his writings speak against extremism, violence and war. Ahnaf, who has been in detention for more than ten months, was only permitted access to legal representation on 8 March 2021. Further, he was subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment while in detention, where the conditions of detention were unhygienic.
14. Social media commentator, Ramzy Razeek was arrested on 9 April 2020 for a Facebook post on 2 April 2020, where he called for an ideological jihad (ideological struggle), using the pen and keyboard as weapons, against the government’s policy of forced cremations in the context of COVID-19. Razeek spent more than five months in detention without charge or proper access to a lawyer amidst deteriorating health conditions. Although released on bail on 17 September the case against Razeek remains open and faces the threat of arrest and formal charges being brought against him.
15. In its 2000 page report the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Political Victimization has recommended to discharge persons that have been accused of abduction, torture, and killing of journalists. They include the assassination of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, abduction and killing of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and abduction and assault of deputy editor of the The Nation, Keith Noyer.
16. The new government issued guidelines for expenditure on advertising and marketing, instructing state institutions’ top officials to give preference to state media. “All State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are required to negotiate with state-owned media agencies as the first preference and may enter into exclusive arrangements with mutual benefits” states the circular issued in December 2020 by the Presidential Secretariat and signed by Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundera.
17. Government’s aim of monitoring Social Media and imposing a state controlled regulatory mechanism for print, electronic and online media may become a reality any time now. In early January 2021 Cabinet of Ministers approved a proposal to “structurally reform and reorganise” the controversial Press Council law to cover electronic and new media as well.
18. On April 20, 2021 Cabinet approval was granted to draft new legislation to come curtail what the Government terms as false and misleading online posts. It is uncertain whether the legal provisions aimed at controlling online media will also take the same route of harassment and abuse. There is no reason to believe that this repressive hand will not be extended to cover traditional media.
19. In late April Police visited The Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) and requested to hand over a copy of a report given by the main opposition SJB on Easter Sunday attacks. “If they wanted the report, they should have asked from us and we would have given it to them. This is an act of state intimidation,” MP Harsha de Silva told the media.