The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) joins press freedom defenders in Sri Lanka in calling on President Mahinda Rajapakse and the Government of Sri Lanka to put an immediate end to the climate of impunity that has allowed a long campaign of intimidation and violence against independent journalism in Sri Lanka.
The IFJ stands in solidarity with the movement of press freedom organisations and Sri Lankan civil society in demanding that the Government allow space for free public debate, for plurality of opinions and open discussion in Sri Lanka. These conditions are essential for Sri Lanka’s return to peace and democracy.
The IFJ urges Sri Lanka’s Government to revoke its decision in June to reactivate the 1973 Press Council Act and calls for the immediate release from jail of senior journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, who was convicted on August 31 on charges accusing him of terrorism for the content of his reporting on human rights issues.
The IFJ is deeply worried that the Press Council Act re-introduces stringent provisions against press freedom. It allows for journalists to be prosecuted for contempt and sentenced to extended periods in prison, and prohibits publication of materials including government documents, matters related the armed services and national security and economic policy.
IFJ General Secretary Aidan White has condemned the reintroduction of the Act as “a worrying retreat from an agreed compact that the media is best served by self-regulation rather than a coercive imposition of the government’s will”.
The IFJ commends its affiliates, the Free Media Movement (FMM), the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA) and the Federation of Media Employees’ Trade Unions (FMETU), and fellow members of the “Sri Lanka Five” press freedom movement – the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF) and the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance (SLTMA) – for the unity and courage they have shown during the years-long crisis for the media in Sri Lanka.
The IFJ further supports the efforts of a broader coalition between these five organisations and the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka and the National Forum of Journalists to initiate broader civil action to meet the challenges of post-conflict reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
“Any country where journalists contend with murder, assault or imprisonment for independent reporting on matters of great public interest cannot boast of upholding democratic freedoms,” White said today.
“It is imperative that the Rajapakse Government take concrete steps now to overturn the measures it has implemented to gag free public dialogue and debate, including the immediate withdrawal of the Press Council Act and by ensuring that perpetrators of violence against journalists are brought to justice.”
The fresh efforts to defend media rights in Sri Lanka come as the Rajapakse Government shows little sign of relenting in its campaign of hostility against local and foreign media and journalists’ organisations, even after declaring victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on May 19.
After the murder of Sunday Leader editor-in-chief Lasantha Wickrematunga on January 8, 2009, many leading journalists and press freedom activists fled Sri Lanka in fear of their lives. No arrests have been made for the murder of Wickrematunga, and many activists remain in exile.
On February 26, Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, editor of the Tamil-language daily Sudar Oli, disappeared in a “white van” abduction. Police initially denied any involvement, but then claimed Vithyatharan was a “wanted person” and was being detained by police. He was held without charge until a court ordered his release on April 24.
On June 1, unknown persons viciously assaulted senior journalist activist Poddala Jayantha, who has since been elected President of the SLWJA. Jayantha’s injuries will likely leave him with lifelong disabilities. The assault was preceded by public statements by government spokesmen inciting violence against Jayantha. No arrests have been made and the government spokesmen have not been compelled to rescind their comments.
On August 31, Tissainayagam, who had been held in custody since March 2008, was sentenced to 20 years’ rigorous imprisonment under Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency Regulations. He is one of few journalists to be convicted in a democratic country under terrorism-related charges on the basis of his or her professional work. The matter is under appeal.
Tissainayagam’s colleagues, N. Jesiharan and Valamarthi, continue to face trial on related charges.
The IFJ stands firmly with all journalists and press freedom defenders in Sri Lanka who, at great personal risk, continue to defy efforts by the war lobby to entrench a culture of silence in Sri Lanka.