Long walk to press freedom in Sri Lanka

A vigil organised last year to call for renewed probes on attacks experienced by journalists


Sri Lanka was ranked 127 of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2020. Countries that topped the list included Norway, Finland and Denmark where respective governments have ensured the safety of journalists while promoting a free press. In Denmark for example, when Swedish journalist Kim Wall was murdered near Copenhagen, the murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment. Meanwhile, the fight for media freedom in Sri Lanka has been deadly. Many journalists have been killed and attacked for their work. But the suspects of these crimes either remain free or have been released on bail. With much effort, Sri Lanka managed to pass the Right to Information Act. Freedom of speech and expression is fundamental to any democracy. But in Sri Lanka, limits have been placed on these freedoms through laws like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act, which has been used to penalize writers and journalists.  

Curbing freedom of expression 

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in Sri Lanka, around 11 people were arrested for posting alleged false content on social media. Legal action was taken against them, while investigations are underway in 70 separate incidents for the alleged spread of false information across social media platforms. However, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) writing to the police chief noted any curbing of the freedom of expression and other such democratic rights, even during an emergency, should fall within legal limits. The HRCSL letter added that B reports pertaining to the recent arrests cited several statutes including the Penal Code, Computer Crimes Act, the Police Ordinance, Quarantine Ordinance and the Disaster Management Act as the legal basis for the arrests. “We wish to point out that the legal basis of the use of the provisions of the Quarantine Ordinance and the Disaster Management Act is questionable,” the letter noted. It added that one B report did not specify the legal basis of the arrest.   


"The media can also face challenges from authoritative regimes. Irrespective of whether a country is rich or poor, its media should be unbiased"

Commenting on the Police Media Division’s press release that legal action would be taken against those who criticized public officials, the HRCSL letter said the right to comment and criticize the performance of public officials or anyone else, or any policy, was fundamental to a democratic society. “It is through criticism and commentary that we improve governance and strengthen democracy,” the Commission said. Addressing arrests made under the ICCPR Act, the letter noted the law should be invoked in a non-discriminatory manner, providing protection to all communities. “Our observations on arrests made thus far under the above provision do not make it possible for us to come to a reasonable conclusion that the provision has been invoked in a non-discriminatory manner.”   

Media ethics during COVID-19

Addressing a webinar held in relation to World Press Freedom Day, on May 3, media researcher and communications specialist Wijayananda Jayaweera commented on media behaviour during the COVID-19 crisis. “When Dr. Lee Wenliang from China warned about the emergence of a deadly virus, he was called by medical officials and the police and was forced to sign a statement denouncing his warning as an ‘unfounded and illegal rumour’. But most global media platforms have earned the trust of their readers by reporting in a critical sense. Both local and foreign reporters had the opportunity to report on the existing crisis quite accurately. Therefore, we were able to know of the shortage of N95 masks, the frequency of PCR testing, the lack of ventilators in ICU units and so forth. The number of deaths reported from China was less than its actual figure, and it was corrected recently. Recently an editorial in an Indian newspaper questioned the Indian media for its failure to question Prime Minister Narendra Modi during press conferences. However, most mainstream foreign media outlets have been able to report on the global situation with regard to COVID-19,” Jayaweera said.   
He added the media shouldn’t report on matters without checking the accuracy of facts. “There were rumours that certain traditional medicines could cure COVID-19. This is not to question the eligibility of traditional medical practitioners. But there’s no scientific proof as yet. Therefore, the media has to be careful when reporting on such matters. The media should uphold ethics, and in no way should it fan the flames of racial tension or assist in such attempts. During Hitler’s rule, he made sure none of the soldiers was criticized on the media. Therefore, the media can also face challenges from authoritative regimes. Irrespective of whether a country is rich or poor, its media should be unbiased,” he concluded.   

Industry in crisis

Several other concerns, like pay cuts to provincial journalists, falling revenues from fewer advertisements, and the high cost of newsprint were raised during the webinar. Since many journalists have been arrested under the ICCPR Act and Penal Code, media persons were advised to be responsible when posting content, especially on their personal social media handles. However, the sudden explosion of fake news, and most media outlets giving prominence to such news, have largely undermined media freedom.   

COVID-19 worsened existing crisis

“I have doubts about certain facts that have been disclosed so far,” veteran journalist and political commentator Victor Ivan said. “The government is trying to make people believe that things are getting back to normal, or are already normal, in an attempt to set the stage for elections. The media too helped in this attempt. They have been trying to do this since April 19. But if you remember, there were a higher number of cases that day. Had there been no COVID-19 outbreak, the present government could have won the Parliamentary Election with the majority they expected. But it didn’t happen that way. The government took the virus situation very lightly from the beginning. They tried to bring in more tourists by promoting Sri Lanka as a safe destination. The government was already facing an economic crisis and other matters before COVID-19. With COVID-19, this crisis was further worsened.”  


"The sudden explosion of fake news, and most media outlets giving prominence to such news, have largely undermined media freedom"

Ivan noted that when facing a crisis of this nature, it was important to have internal harmony within governance structures. “However, rather than appointing experts in the respective fields, we see many of the President’s close associates being appointed to the top levels to fight COVID-19. But I believe that virologists should be at the top, medical officials in the second tier, followed by army, police and other law enforcement officials. 
However the tri-forces are being given more prominence than health officials. These officials have minimum facilities, but they are still working. If we continue to be in lockdown, many workers like masons and carpenters will be at risk of losing their jobs. We don’t have a surplus economy like in Europe. Therefore, I feel we are still not ready to face this crisis properly,” he said.    

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