Sri Lanka flirts with press regulation
Is Sri Lanka's President Rajapaksa, identified as an "enemy of the press", taking lessons from Leveson, asks Padraig Reidy
11 Jul 13

Sri LankaIn an interview with the UK’s Press Gazette this month, Lal Wickrematunge, brother of murdered Sri Lankan newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, lamented the self-censorship of his country’s press, and warned that UK hacks should fight for their own freedom of speech as an example to others, saying “Those who are in safer climates must keep the drum beating because these are the standards that other journalists in troubled areas look to.” Padraig Reidy writes

The Sri Lankan regime is not noted for its commitment to media freedom, with Reporters Without Borders declaring the president and his brother, the defence minister “predators of the press” in May 2013.

Wickrematunge’s comments echoed the response of the The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka to Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for press regulation. In a statement in response to Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations, the island’s editors said:

“The almost draconian legislature contemplated in the United Kingdom would serve oppressive governments around the world, and especially in the Commonwealth with a convenient example to maintain tight controls over an independent media.

“In the future, any statements from the British Government on the freedom of the press would sound hollow in the face of such legislation.”

They were not wrong. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa wasted little time in drafting a code of media ethics designed to stifle country’s already under siege press. Draft guidelines were released in June.

In very best Leveson language, the authorities stressed that the restrictions aimed “to ensure that the Electronic and Print media and Websites in Sri Lanka are free and responsible and sensitive to the needs and expectations of the receivers of the message it sends out whilst maintaining the highest standards of journalism, and to uphold the best traditions of investigative journalism in the public interest, unfettered by distorting commercialism or by improper pressure or by narrow self-interests which are against the bare norms of media freedom.”

The code then went on to ban everything, from information that could damage the foreign relations, to stories containing “details of a person’s family life, financial information, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability and one’s home or family and individuals in hospitals unless it has a direct relevance to the public interest.”

There is some confusion about the status of this new code. Sri Lanka’s media minister Keheliya Rambukwella, has said that the code is not about to made a law, but in the same breath suggested that it was to be introduced because of the absence of a criminal defamation law. President Rajapaksa meanwhile, suggested that editors write their own code, adapted from the government’s.

Despite this, it’s clear that the government is firing warning shots at the newpapers’ bows to remind them of their limits.

Sri Lankan journalists are looking ahead to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo in November. While British Channel 4 News and Australian ABC journalists will be wondering if they will even allowed into the country, after the president took umbrage at their coverage of his brutal final push in the civil war with the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lankans will be wondering if, post-Leveson, David Cameron will be able to look the likes of Rajapakse in the eye and talk about press freedom.