Message to Commonwealth leaders: Stand up for Sri Lanka’s media

Photo courtesy Vikalpa

Editors note: Earlier this year, I was asked to give a presentation on the post-war media landscape in Sri Lanka at the 20th World Editors Forum in Bangkok, Thailand. When subsequently put online, the presentation was viewed by thousands.

Sri Lanka’s media continues to be at risk. As The Economist on 9th November notes,

The press, meanwhile, resents people expecting it to play the effective opposition. Besides, it is muzzled. President Rajapaksa routinely calls up publishers to issue directives. Rarely do journalists dare to be critical of the ruling brothers (Gotabaya, who is in charge of the secret police, is the most feared). Violence against government critics has grown rarer since the war, yet exemplary attacks by goons, or simply threats, help enforce self-censorship. All bar a couple of newspapers are in the hands of pro-Rajapaksa proprietors.

A new Campaign by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) seeks to shed light on this context, leveraging the spotlight the country will be under, at least for a few days, in the lead up to and during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Leaders of the Commonwealth, including from its Secretariat in London, will directly engage with, and by their attendance, strengthen a Government that is violently censorious.

The hysterically large sums of money spend on CHOGM’s Media Centre and its official website need to be contrasted with the true nature of the Rajapaksa regime. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of the President, who Reporters Without Borders calls a ‘media predator’ said earlier this year that web based social media is a national security threat. The President himself called Facebook a disease. This year alone, a leading investigative journalist was forced into exile to protect her life and her family. Senior Sri Lankan diplomats openly and with complete impunity use social media to threaten, vilify and intimidate. Live, public State controlled radio openly discusses how best to kill leading human rights activists (see here and here). State owned and controlled print media continue to run hate speech campaigns, with complete impunity, against anyone critical of Government in general, and the ruling family in particular. What can only be described as bizarre, overarching and incredibly censorious ‘media ethics’ frameworks were tabled in Parliament to muzzle the media, only to be put in cold-storage to be re-activated whenever the regime finds convenient.

Much of this is known, only too well. If the Commonwealth as an institution stands for anything other than a glorified package tour operator, it is imperative it addresses this violence and democratic deficit. If the Commonwealth as an idea seeks legitimacy, its key proponents and participants need to unequivocally flag the grotesqueness of hosting a gala meeting yet at the same time, murdering, abducting, torturing, threatening, abusing and forcing into exile voices critical of abuse, graft and human rights violations.

CPJ’s campaign seeks to highlight what is a brutally effective framework of censorship in Sri Lanka, even post-war. Please support it.


Stand up for Sri Lanka’s press by CPJ

As world leaders gather for the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo this month, all eyes are on the host nation, Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka remains a highly restrictive and dangerous nation for the press. Critical or opposition journalists face intense intimidation. According to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 26 journalists have been driven into exile in the last five years, one of the highest numbers in the world. Work-related murders have declined since 2009, but the slayings of nine journalists have gone unpunished over the past decade, one of the worst records of impunity globally. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration has shown no interest in pursuing the perpetrators in these murders. All of the victims had reported on politically sensitive issues in ways that were critical of the government.

In the past, CHOGM has been a platform to address issues such as apartheid in South Africa and the electoral dispute in Zimbabwe. As leaders from more than 50 nations converge in Colombo for the biennial summit this month, we would like to highlight our grave concern about the lack of press freedom in Sri Lanka and urge meaningful action.

Join CPJ as it calls on leaders of the Commonwealth countries to urge President Rajapaksa to respect press freedom. Sign up to share this message and spread the word.