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The Colombo Telegraph, Sri Lanka’s most iconoclastic investigative news website, is gearing up for this year’s second national election. And once again they face the threat of censorship — despite a presidential promise to bring it to an end.
January’s polls saw the website blocked to domestic voters by order of authoritarian incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Unseated by shock winner Maithripala Sirisena, one of the victor’s first acts after the vote was to lift the official banning order.
Unfortunately his officials didn’t get the memo and simply resorted to more subtle and illegal censorship. Their covert interference was exposed by the Colombo Telegraph just a month later, drawing a personal apology from the minister responsible, Mangala Samaraweera, and a promise of a full investigation.
That promised investigation has so far come to nothing, while the later announcement of a general election for August 18 has raised political tensions. This week eight international freedom of expression groups, including Index on Censorship, wrote to Samaraweera reminding him of his promise.
“The media must be free to cover the upcoming campaigns without fear of interference, covert or overt, online or off,” said the groups. Censorship, legal or illegal, may fall hard on independent voices like the Colombo Telegraph unless the state’s secret censors are found and stopped.
Colombo Telegraph editor Uvindu Kurukulasuriya is calling on the government to complete the inquiry as soon as possible and guarantee that the media will be free to report the campaign.
But the Colombo Telegraph has few friends among the current government, led by United National Party prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The government has been embarrassed by the site’s publication of parts of a leaked 19-page draft parliamentary committee report into an alleged government bond scam linked to Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran and his son-in-law. The dissolution of parliament would have buried its detailed allegations had it not been leaked.
Wickremesinghe said the draft report was ‘false and perverted’ and has no official status. This did not stop him threatening media that cite it with prosecution under an act prohibiting sharing details of committee proceedings before they are presented to parliament itself. The use of the act – much criticised by independent media who have called for its repeal – is designed to deter other journalists following up the story during the election campaign.
Media rights are suddenly looking shaky across the country. Despite pledging to introduce a Right to Information Act as a key part of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s first 100 days in power, they failed to deliver. And the ruling party set the tone for the election campaign by reportedly pressing state media to downplay coverage of the start of Rajapakse’s bid to return to power as prime minister.
Meanwhile the threat of more illegal online censorship remains as long as the original crime remains un-investigated. It took a careful study by the site’s technical advisers in Denmark to discover that what appeared to be poor connections to some of the site’s more controversial news pages, was in fact targeted interference.
The source of the interference was traced to a server in the central office of Sri Lanka Telecom at the OTS Building in Lotus Road in Colombo.
Websites can be “prohibited or be subject to supervision and control” under section 69 of the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act 1991 – but only under ministerial authority, and under a publicly announced order. No such order was made to replace the one lifted by Sirisena.
Kurukulasuriya’s online news site, run by volunteers for four years, has developed a strong record of controversial scoops backed with an impressive array of documentation.
“We’ve never supported any particular political party, organisation or individual over another, and have proven it over the years. We just want our site to continue as an independent media organisation without unnecessary legal interference or illegal censorship.”
Any nation’s media would be hard pressed keeping track of a landslide of political change, environmental crises, imminent constitutional reform and a general election, all while keeping safe from a generation of assassins used to impunity.
When the media itself needs reform too, the problems might seem overwhelming. This is why Sri Lanka needs a constitutionally recognised national commission to oversee that reform and ensure freedom of expression is properly defended.
Maithripala Sirisena’s unexpected and virtually peaceful election win over incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa was quickly painted as a game changer for the country’s media.
He and new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe began well by lifting blocks on independent news websites banned by the old regime. Exiled journalists were urged to return. Sirisena also promised to use his new authority to investigate the 2009 murder of combative political journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, whose killers are still free.
But the early offers soon began to look token. There was no matching commitment to identify the killers of cartoonist Prageeth Eknelygoda, who went missing five years ago, or the men behind the notorious “white van” abductions of peaceful activists. In fact Sirisena’s commitment to media freedom looks somewhat qualified.
A series of special expert commissions will be established to oversee an independent review of the judiciary, police, public services, elections, human rights and anti-corruption measures, written into authority by a 19th amendment to the constitution. Pointedly perhaps, the list does not include a commission on the media.
Plans for an independent media commission are not new, and were excluded from what was eventually enacted as the 17th amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution in 2001. Media rights groups should steel themselves for a fight to ensure that the much-needed body is not excluded again.
Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, editor of the once banned Colombo Telegraph, thinks it unfortunate that the new government will not establish a media commission, but thinks it was deliberate. “They are not willing to transform state media into (independent) public service broadcasters, and they don’t want to broad-base (collectivise) the state owned Lake House newspaper group.”
The journalist and legal scholar Asanga Welikala calls for the founding of an independent media commission on the recommendation of the constitutional council and representing working journalists, academics, proprietors and new media.
“The commission once constituted would have overall oversight of public service media and would be answerable to parliament,” he argued for the online political journal Groundviews. “Its primary role would be to oversee the public service media institutions, but may include other powers and functions, including the regulation of the (new and traditional) media marketplace, and to promote the freedom of expression in all its forms including through new technology.”
Kurukulasuriya urges action to break the grip of the political appointees heading the country’s major public and private media companies. The co-option of the owners was the subtler side of the old regime’s system of media control, he says. “The previous Rajapaksa regime changed the ownerships of several media institutions through intimidation.”
Self-censorship drove the majority; more deadly means of censorship were reserved for the small cadres of independent journalists who could not be bought or fired, says Kurukulasuriya. Will the government go on reading “media freedom” as owners’ rights, not journalists’ rights?
Reforming the Sri Lankan media is a vast task. The counter-intuitively named Independent Television Network needs privatisation and the nominally public Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), need a proper public service broadcast mandate and an end to political interference. A constitutionally mandated media commission could appoint and “audit” the works of a new independent broadcasting authority founded to oversee their works.
There is justice still to be found too. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Sri Lanka has the fourth worst record on its 2014 Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are murdered and the killers remain free.
In an open letter to Rajapaksa on the eve of elections, Wickrematunge’s widow Sonali Samarasinghe wrote: “At no time in the history of our country has the freedom of expression so brutally been repressed as it is now. Such media as do operate in the country, have been transformed either into propaganda mouthpieces for you and your brothers, or bullied into submission.”
The state media’s job is to “reflect the line of whatever government is in power,” admitted Rajpal Abeynayake, the editor of the state-run Daily News in a memorable post-election quote to The Guardian’s Amantha Perera. “If the government changes, so does the newspaper. It’s as simple as that. If they want to change that practice they could, but so far no government has done it.”
That Sirisena is showing little inclination to substantively change matters. Bandula Padmakumara — the chairman of the Lake House newspaper group, morning news show anchor and well documented supporter of the Rajapakse family — went just a few hours after the election results came in. But few others have followed.
The new president may have to rely on established partners in self-censorship to help shore up his “fragile, sprawling and diverse” coalition, as the New York Times described it. With parliamentary elections set for late April under Sirisena’s 100 day schedule, the campaign may see old favours be called in and the media expected to help paper over the coalition’s cracks.
Without greater independence the Sri Lankan media will not be able to fairly and accurately report the campaign. International and regional media rights groups need to heap pressure of their own on Sirisena’s new media ministry secretary, Karunarathna Paranawithana, who describes himself on his Facebook page as a “diplomat, journalist (and) political activist”.
The appointment of a constitutionally recognised commission for the media next month would not do much to change the situation in time for the election, but it would send a clear message to embattled journalists that change was on the agenda and risks were worth taking.
According to Sirisena’s own strict timetable, his administration will establish the independent commissions on Wednesday 18 February. There’s still time to add one on media to the list.
This article was posted on 26 January 2015 at indexoncensorship.org
This would be no defence for Lasantha. President Mahinda Rajapaksa repeatedly referred to him as a “terrorist journalist” and “Kotiyek” (a Tiger).
According to exiled journalist Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, shortly before Lasantha was killed, the president offered to buy the Sunday Leader, with the intention of muting its voice. Lasantha declined the generous offer. On 8 January 2009, he was shot dead.
Days later, an astonishing editorial, written by Lasantha before his death, appeared in the Sunday Leader, and subsequently in newspapers throughout the world. After describing his pride in the Sunday Leader’s journalism, Wickrematunge wrote chillingly: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”
Lasantha’s murder was shocking. As was the murder of Hrant Dink, the Armenian editor who “insulted Turkishness” by daring to speak of the genocide of his people; as was the murder of Anastasia Barburova, the young Novaya Gazeta reporter who investigated the Russian far right; as was the murder of Martin O’Hagan, who took on the criminality of Northern Ireland’s loyalist gangs. As were the murders of the dozens of Filipino journalists killed in the Maguindanao massacre in 2009, too numerous to name, caught up in a ruthless turf war.
Then there are the reporters killed in war zones. The conflict in Syria has been a killing field for journalists. Where once the media were seen as protected, even potential allies, now they are seen as targets. The killings of Steven Sotloff and James Foley by ISIS in Iraq brought back memories of the beheading of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. As Joel Simon of Committee to Protect Journalists relates in his forthcoming book, the New Censorship, that crime marked a turning point. In the Pearl case, even Osama bin Laden, who viewed the media as a potential tool in his global war, was shocked by the tactic employed by his lieutenant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who claimed to have carried out the murder himself. From that point on, journalists were not just fair game, but trophies.
As money is drained from news, many organisations choose not to send correspondents to areas where reporters are needed most. Too dangerous, too expensive. As a result, freelancers, local journalists and fixers take ever greater risks. Under-resourced, undersupported and out on a limb, they are picked off.
Regional journalists covering tough domestic beats are easy prey. In Mexico, drug cartels boast of their ability to murder reporters. In Burma, the army kills a reporter who dares report its activities.
The numbers are horrifying: over 1,000 media workers have been killed because of their work since 1992.
Every single time, the message is sent: don’t get involved; don’t ask questions; don’t do your job. No journalism here. No inconvenient truths, no dissenting voices.
With rare exceptions, those responsible for these crimes act with impunity. Sometimes, as in the case of Anna Politkovskaya, outspoken on war crimes in Chechnya, the man who pulled the trigger is traced but those who gave the orders remain untouched. In over 90 per cent of cases of attacks on journalists, there are no convictions.
There is no greater infringement of human rights than to deliberately take an innocent life. The killing of a journalist also signals contempt for the concept of free expression as a right. As the United Nation’s Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, states, violent attacks on journalists and free expression do not happen in a vacuum: “[T]he existence of laws that curtail freedom of expression (e.g. overly restrictive defamation laws), must be addressed. The media industry also must deal with low wages and improving journalistic skills. To whatever extent possible, the public must be made aware of these challenges in the public and private spheres and the consequences from a failure to act.”
In that famous final editorial, Lasantha Wickrematunge wrote: “In the course of the last few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print institutions have been burned, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories.”
Like many journalists, Lasantha prided himself on bravery: there is no higher compliment in the profession than to call a colleague “courageous”.
But there is a danger in this that we create martyrs: that we become enamoured of the idea that a good journalist should die for the cause. That persecution and suffering are marks of valour.
They are not. Journalism should be intrepid, of course, but we shouldn’t accept the idea that intrepid journalism comes with a price. Journalism, the exercise of free expression, is a basic right both for practitioners and for the readers, viewers and listeners who benifit from it. They should be able to practice this right without fear of persecution from states, criminals or terrorists. If they are to suffer, their oppressors must face justice.
Correction 10:02, 10 November: An earlier version of this article stated that a government minister offered to buy the Sunday Leader.
Index on Censorship is mapping harassment and violence against journalists across the European Union and candidate countries at mediafreedom.ushahidi.com.
This article was posted on 6 November 2014 at indexoncensorship.org
To mark World Refugee Day, English Pen, Index on Censorship and the Committee to Protect Journalists will hold a panel discussion examining the plight of journalists and writers living in exile.
Yousef Azizi Banitorof, Iranian journalist and human rights activist
Sarata Jabbi-Dibba, First Vice-President of the Gambia Press Union
Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, Sri Lankan journalist and press freedom activist
Elisabeth Witchel, Campaign Consultant, Committee to Protect Journalists
Chaired by Rohan Jayasekera, Associate Editor at Index on Censorship
Monday 20 June 2011, 6.30pm
Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3GA
Elisabeth Witchel, Campaign Consultant at the Committee to Protect Journalists, will be joined by three writers living in exile in the UK: Iranian journalist and human rights activist Yousef Azizi Banitorof, Sri Lankan journalist and press freedom activist Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, and the first Vice-President of the Gambia Press Union Sarata Jabbi-Dibba. Together they will explore the reasons behind the choice or coercion faced by those who leave their homelands, and the main challenges once in exile.
This event marks the release of the Committee to Protect Journalists 2011 Journalists in Exile survey and aims to provide context and more in-depth discussion on the points raised therein. The survey highlights which countries around the world have driven the most journalists into exile and why, as well as looking at the broader impacts on media coverage in those countries. It also underscores some of the challenges of going into exile, such as obtaining visas, negotiating what is often a very complex asylum process, and the fact that many journalists in exile have great difficulty in continuing their work in journalism.
The discussion will be followed by a wine reception in the main hall. It is open to the public but space is limited. Email ewitchel[at]cpj.org to reserve your place.