As the world celebrates press freedom day today, media suppression continues to be a serious issue facing Sri Lanka, despite the change in government and rhetoric pledges made by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe assuring media freedom in the country.
Since coming to power in January 2015, both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe has used their position to influence media organisations in the country, specially newspapers and television channels against reporting certain incidents, while Wickremesinghe has gone to the extent of lambasting journalists even in Parliament for their writing.
Despite the change in Government, and continuous rhetoric assuring media freedom, Sri Lanka continue to be ranked among the lowest for media freedom in the world. The 2016 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders ranked Sri Lanka at 141 out of 180 countries, with a score of 44.9%, although Sri Lanka continue to be at the bottom, the ranking is still a remarkable improvement in comparison to 2015, where Sri Lanka was ranked at 165.
Unlike during the previous regime under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa where media censorship, suppression and harassment was carried out more in the open, the current regime has been resorting to a more informal form of censorship. In March this year, Sirisena telephoned newspaper editors and proprietors and requested them not to publish any news report after Sri Lanka demanded an explanation from the UK government as to why the visa request of Sirisena’s son, Daham and his three friends to travel to UK was subject to long delays. Daham Sirisena reportedly used the Foreign Ministry issued TPLs (Third Party Letters) to the British High Commission in Colombo, to obtain visas for several of his friends, two of whom were blacklisted by the High Commission for submitting fraudulent documents in the past.
Wickremesinghe is known to be more vociferous against the media, since coming into power last year, with him at many instances launching scathing attacks against certain journalists, and media organisations for towing the pro-Rajapaksa line. In one instance, Wickremesinghe demanded certain journalists to quit and go home, if they can’t fall in line, after they wrote critical pieces on him.
Meanwhile, Leader of the Opposition, R. Sampanthan has called on the government to take immediate steps to demonstrate its commitment to media freedom and ensure its protection in Sri Lanka. “Disturbingly, Sri Lanka has been ranked 141 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index prepared by Reporters Without Borders,” he said.
Sampanthan reiterated that it was no secret that previous regimes have overlooked serious incidents of intimidation and violence against journalists including the killing of media personnel in Sri Lanka. “As such, I call upon the present government to take all steps necessary to investigate all such incidents and bring to justice perpetrators of crimes both past and present in Sri Lanka,” he said.
After being elected to power, Sirisena reportedly said that he will appoint a Presidential Commission to investigate the attacks on journalists and media organizations which were carried out during Rajapaksa’s rule. However, despite being in power for 16 months, he is yet to appoint this commission, while no headway has been made in any of the investigations to probe the murders and attacks of journalists.
The Wickremesinghe led government came to power promising to apprehend the culprits, including those behind the killing of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, however these assurances it seems have only remained mere rhetoric to appease the public and the journalism community, and nothing more. (By Munza Mushtaq © Colombo Telegraph)