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SRI LANKA: Journalists Laying Aside Pens Once Again

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Jun 29 2009 (IPS) - Sri Lankan journalists are laying aside their pens once again and bracing for renewed confrontation with President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government after the revival of the repressive Press Council and fresh attacks on the media.

The abduction and release of a journalist and the torching of newspapers by an unknown group last week exacerbated the crisis facing the media in Sri Lanka – which in March was listed as the fourth worst country in the Impunity Index of the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The index is a compilation of countries where journalists are killed regularly and where governments fail to solve the crimes, the CPJ said.

In Sri Lanka, the state-appointed Press Council has the power to imprison or fine journalists for false and defamatory articles. The Press Council – which dealt with complaints from the public against media reports – went off the radar in 2002 after media organisations here set up the self-regulatory, industry-run Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

"The sword of Damocles is over our heads once again," said Manik de Silva, a local newspaper editor and President of the Editors Guild representing local editors, referring to the re-activation of the Press Council after the government said last week it was appointed new members to this body.

"We are in trouble again," exclaimed E. Saravanapavan, publisher of a Tamil- language newspaper group that has constantly faced attacks and threats, and whose newspapers were set on fire this week.

The crisis over the reactivation was followed by two other disturbing events last week.

Krishni Ifham, a journalist working for a website, was waylaid outside her home near Colombo, bundled in a van and questioned by an unknown group of people on her work. She was released later on the same day, several kilometres away.

On Friday morning, some 10,000 copies of Saravanapavan’s Udayan newspaper was seized from vans as they left the newspaper office in northern Jaffna for delivery, and destroyed by burning. Journalists said a group styled the ‘National Public Front’ had sent a letter to newspapers in Jaffna warning them against reports critical of the authorities.

Staff at Udayan have also been warned not to report for work after Jun. 30, while newspaper agents have been told not to sell the newspaper.

This comes just as Jaffna and other parts of the north prepare for local council elections in August – a measure announced by the government to restore civilian rule in the region after Tamil guerrillas and their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran were defeated by government troops last month ending nearly three decades of conflict.

The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka, the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka and six national media organisations have written a letter to Rajapaksa urging him to reconsider the revival of the Press Council.

"A media culture cannot be based on slapping charges against journalists, fining them or sending them to jail. Instead the modern world has accepted a self-regulatory mechanism by media persons as the way forward," the letter said.

The owner of a small newspaper, who declined to be named, said the effort to revive the Council is another attempt by the government to control the media. "If the Council is reactivated it would make the PCC redundant and all complaints to the Council would be essentially over articles criticising the government," he said.

But senior government officials say the PCC has not been an effective medium for public complaints. "There were only a few complaints that were entertained last year," a senior official at the Media Ministry, who declined to be named, said.

An official at the PCC rejected this claim saying the Commission received 93 complaints from the public and inquiries were held. In 2007, the Commission received 125 complaints.

The government official also said the cabinet last week approved the proposal to revive the Council as it felt society needed a more effective and independent mechanism to entertain complaints against the media from the public.

The Council has the powers of a District Court and can impose jail sentences of up to two years or fines. The government official said journalists need not worry about this, as since its creation in 1973, the Council has not enforced all its laws and has resorted only to requesting newspapers to apologise, if a complaint was valid, or to carry a correction.

Threats against the free press have been in existence for a long time but have increased over the past few years.

Fifteen journalists and media industry workers have been killed since 2006, while another 15 have been abducted or arrested by police, media organisations say. At least two newspaper offices have been ransacked and equipment destroyed. No one has been arrested, detained or blamed by the government in a single case despite ‘extensive investigations’ by state agencies.

Last year was a particularly difficult year for the media as journalists were told to refrain from criticising the government in the campaign against the rebels. Journalists were also barred from visiting war-torn areas and in recent times, visits to camps in the north for some 300,000 displaced persons are restricted and permitted only if accompanied by government officials.

International groups condemned the move to revive the Press Council – with the CPJ saying the "press council might sound innocuous enough, but it is the sort of tool we’ve seen in many countries where the government is intent on silencing critics."

The International Federation of Journalists said the 1973 law is designed to protect governmental privileges, rather than serve any public purpose, such as the right of the people of Sri Lanka to be informed about the processes under which they are governed.

Journalists, in the letter to the President, said the self regulation process in 2002 was enforced only after a series of consultations between media associations in Sri Lanka and leaders of all political parties represented in Parliament "which culminated in broad, bi-partisan agreement being reached that the newspaper industry would appoint a self-regulatory mechanism as a ‘fair change’ for the repeal of laws relating to criminal defamation that were used as an instrument of government repression on media practitioners at the time."

Although agreement was reached on self-regulation of the media, the Press Council was not abolished because there was disagreement within some media organisations – over personality issues – the privately-run Press Complaints Commission was not backed by all media outlets.

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