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Sri Lankan journalists protest as news websites are blocked

Fears grow over deteriorating media environment

<p>Journalists leave after handing over a petition about the blocked news websites to the Human Rights Commission</p>

Journalists leave after handing over a petition about the blocked news websites to the Human Rights Commission

  • ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • May 22, 2014
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Journalists in Sri Lanka have lobbied the government to reopen two news websites that were blocked this week by officials because of their criticism of the country’s leadership.

The closure of the srilankamirror.com and independent.lk websites were decried by critics of the government, who said it was a further sign of a rapidly deteriorating environment for freedom of expression in the island nation. It brings to eight the total number of news websites now blocked.

“The government sees the new media as a threat to the continuation of their corrupt and fraudulent practices, and so they violate the right to information for the people,” said Freddy Gamage, convener of the Professional Web Journalists' Association, which filed a complaint on Wednesday with the Human Rights Commission (HRC).

Kelum Shivantha, editor of srilankamirror.com, says he has informed the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, the president and the media minister, but received no response.

“Our news website was one of the first sites to be registered and we paid money to the Media Ministry,” he said.

The closure of the sites coincided with the release of a new report by Transparency International, which criticized the lack of rights to information and protection for whistleblowers in Sri Lanka, as well as treatment of activists and the government’s record on corruption.

“Sri Lanka must pass a Right to Information law as a matter of urgency to enable citizens to realize their fundamental right to information as guaranteed in the country’s constitution,” the report said.

The report was welcomed by critics of the government.

“This report captures the reality of governance in Sri Lanka where the focus is on development, and issues of separation of powers, checks and balances and accountability are glossed over,” said Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council.

“The government is pretty much able to ride roughshod over those who stand in its path,” he continued. “The space for dissent has shrunk. As a result the masses of people are not fully aware of the violations that are taking place and even when they see them are unable and unwilling to protest.”

The offices of srilankamirror.com had already been raided in 2012 by police who arrested seven staff members. Despite a subsequent Supreme Court request that police allow the media to operate free of government constraints, the website remained the target of intimidation.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, said civil society has lost confidence in law enforcement in Sri Lanka.

“Political interference in the judiciary, a lack of government transparency on corruption, and widespread impunity for a broad range of alleged human rights abuses are serious problems in the country,” he said.

In the past decade there have been 138 cases of attacks on journalists and media institutes in Sri Lanka, while 17 journalists have been killed in the past seven years. About 80 journalists have fled the country since 2005. Sri Lanka ranked 162 out of 179 countries in last year’s World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders.

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