Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

SRI LANKA: Media Groups to Challenge New Restrictions

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Nov 2 2008 (IPS) - Media groups in Sri Lanka, already restricted from covering the war against Tamil rebels in the north, are bracing to challenge new regulations that seek to control television broadcasting and new media.

The new rules, announced on Oct. 27, control content not only for broadcast but also MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), a form of news dissemination that is rapidly gaining in popularity. Newspapers on the weekend also reported government plans to bring in similar rules for radio broadcasting.

“Censorship, there is no doubt about it,” warned Sunanda Deshapriya, spokesman for Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement (FMM), the most vibrant of several associations representing journalists, publishers and private broadcasters.

Deshapriya told IPS that media groups and civil society organisations plan to challenge the regulations in the Supreme Court before Nov. 10, the deadline for objections before the regulations take effect.

“These are draconian and repressive rules never before enforced in Sri Lanka,” another journalist, who declined to be named, said. “For any excuse they (authorities) can cancel the licence, and if a news item is seen to be unfavourable to the government.”

The new regulations provide the media minister, as the regulator, with powers to cancel licenses if content is ‘’detrimental to the interests of a national security; incites a break-down of public order; incites ethnic, religious or cultural hatred; is morally offensive or indecent; is detrimental to the rights and privileges of children’’, among other restrictions.

In a statement, the FMM said the ‘Private Television Broadcasting Station Regulations’, seek to control new technology and bar foreigners from operating stations. Members of political parties may not seek licenses and the validity of all licenses are limited to one year.

The FMM said the new rules could be used for reasons other than reasonable regulation. “In our view, these new regulations are misconceived in the way they allow governmental intrusion into freedom of expression, and media independence,” a representative said.

Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe alleged at a press briefing on Friday that the government was trying to tighten conditions for the issuance of broadcasting licenses, as it cannot control live, political talk shows and reportage of spot news. “All these attempts are aimed at establishing control of the (Mahinda) Rajapaksa family company. In fact, the country is today under the control of a family which severely restricts all democratic rights. This gazette extraordinary has been issued as part of that attempt.’’

Political analysts say President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers – Chamal (minister for ports and aviation), Basil (senior advisor to the President and parliamentarian) and Gotabaya (defence secretary) together with a handful of close associates, including army commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka, form a cabal that runs the country.

The government has defended the new regulations. Media minister, Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, said they were needed to bring about uniformity in the fast-growing electronic media broadcasting field. “The same rules must apply to all television stations and these regulations were introduced for this purpose,” he said.

Under the earlier regulations, TV and radio stations were provided ‘temporary’ licenses’ with no operating period specified. Over the past few years, efforts have been underway to standardise regulations for both private and government TV and radio broadcasting.

The new regulations also seek to severely restrict news dissemination through the Internet – particularly citizen blogs, popular on news websites.

The government already controls information on the civil war in which the Sri Lankan army is fighting separatist Tamil rebels in the north of the island. In recent weeks, only state television has been reporting from the front.

Government forces are within striking distance of the key northern town of Kilinochchi, the last bastion of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but have got bogged down by stiff resistance and heavy monsoon rains.

Since Rajapaksa was elected President in November 2005, at least 15 journalists have been killed, some allegedly by vigilante groups. Several others have been picked up by state agencies. The Tigers have also been accused of harassment and attempts to control or intimidate journalists in the areas they control.

In the latest World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, Sri Lanka has fallen to the lowest press freedom rating of any democratic country worldwide.

Another opposition politician, Mangala Samaraweera, a former powerful politician in Rajapaksa’s political party before the latter became president, said Rajapaka was acting “like Adolf Hitler in a dictatorial rage.’ At least one TV channel has been asked to submit its news content to the government as a precursor to the enforcement of the regulations, IPS learns.

FMM’s Deshapriya says that the government should have appointed an independent authority as the regulator instead of the minister.

An international media team, which carried out a fact-finding mission (Oct.25 – 29) to Sri Lanka, has said it deplored the new regulations and any effort to impose prior restraint or direct censorship on the media.

The team, comprising representatives of the International Federation of Journalists, International Media Support, International News Safety Institute, International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders, said it found a deterioration in the press freedom situation since its last visit in June 2007.

“In recent months journalists and media institutions seeking to report independently on the ongoing conflict have been attacked and intimidated in a seeming effort to limit public knowledge about the conduct of the war and to reveal their sources. This is a violation of the public right to know and the accepted norm that media sources should be protected,” it said.

Republish | | Print |