2011 was marked by violence, threats and propaganda aimed at journalists and media defenders seen as government critics. Resorting to censorship and disinformation, authorities have blocked access to websites considered unfavourable to the government, claiming legal justifications.
Media registration – a tool for increased monitoring?
On 5 November, the information and media ministry ordered news sites to register with the government, yet another restriction on the free flow of information – and a step toward heavier government control of the media. Kusal Perera, director of the Centre for Social Democracy, called the order legally invalid. “There is enough room under the normal law to prevent obscene and unethical publications," he said.
Since the beginning of 2012, some 70 sites have begun the registration process; only 27 have been authorized. Those who have withheld from registering cite the risks of divulging sensitive information to the government.
Critical news prompts site blockages
One day after the registration order, the ministry blocked access to four major independent news sites critical of the government – Sri Lanka Mirror, Sri Lanka Guardian, paparacigossip9 and lankawaynews. The ministry justified this arbitrary action on the grounds that the sites had carriedinsults of political leaders. Government officials have been implicated in numerous corruption scandals, which the government is trying to cover up by increasing its control of media.
The supreme court has ordered access restored to SriLankaMirror. But otherwise censorship has been expanding in recent months. Several other sites, including SriLankaGuardian and TamilNet, have had access permanently blocked. Groundviews and its partner site, vikalpa, were blocked temporarily last June, along with the Transparency International site.
The Lanka-e-News site has been blocked since late October by state-owned Sri Lanka Telecom and by privately owned Internet service provider Dialog Axiata PLC without any explanation to the site’s management (read the website’s editor interview with Reporters Without Borders). A court order on 8 November upheld the blockage.
Lanka-e-News had been the only site to publish news on 15 October of a shootout involving members of parliament close to defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Pressure on Lanka-e-News has been increasing since its office was set on fire in January of last year. On 7 April, a threatening message was left on the door of the site’s new office after its editor, Bennet Rupashinghe, was arrested (he was released on bail). Meanwhile, a cartoonist and political journalist for the site, Prageeth Eknaligoda, has been missing since 24 January 2010.
On 25 February, the TamilNet news site was hit by Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks. The site’s personnel are trying to keep it on line. Lanka News Web and Lanka-e-News faced similar attacks last year.
International pressure urged
At the 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last February, Reporters Without Borders called for adoption of a resolution condemning Sri Lankan government attacks on freedom of information. The organization demanded an end to violence and threats against media organizations and human rights activists in Sri Lanka.