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Media Watchdogs Urge CHOGM Leaders To Get Tough With Sri Lanka

November 7, 2013
Sandaya, wife disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda at protest

As Sri Lanka (ranked 162nd of 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders’ Media Freedom Index) prepares to hold the biennial Commonwealth Summit in capital Colombo, media freedom watchdogs are asking attending leaders to press the host government for answers for the country’s abysmal standards of media freedom including the murder and disappearance of journalists.

In a letter addressed to leaders of the Commonwealth, which is the 54-member group of Britain’s former colonies, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said, “We ask that in formal and private meetings with (Sri Lanka’s) President Rajapaksa, you urge him to ensure a credible, independent investigation into the cases of disappeared and murdered journalists, make the findings public, and efficiently prosecute the perpetrators in an effort to help reverse the pattern of impunity.”

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be held from November 15 to 17. Human rights violations have a long history in Sri Lanka. However they reached unprecedented heights in the final six months of a civil war fought between successive governments dominated by ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The six-month period that ended in May 2009 with the military defeat of the LTTE saw between 40,000 and 70,000 (some figures put it as high as 146,000) people killed. Responsibility for those deaths lie with government troops and the LTTE, both accused of perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The government of President Mahinda Rajapakse has not only refused to hold an independent investigation into the alleged war crimes, but is accused of continuing rights violations, including media freedom. This has led to strong protests being voiced against holding CHOGM in Colombo for basically three reasons: 1) it would be legitimising a leadership accused of war crimes; 2) it would be a grave violation of the Commonwealth principles; 3) Sri Lanka could use its position as the Chair of the Commonwealth in the next two years, to fend off an international investigation into war crimes. 
“Critical or opposition journalists continue to face intense intimidation in Sri Lanka. Our research shows that at least 26 journalists have gone into exilein the past five years, which is one of the highest rates in the world. And while work-related murders have declined since 2009, the slayings of nine journalists have gone unpunished over the past decade, which is one of the worst records of impunity in the world. […] At least one journalist has simply disappeared,” says CPJ.
Meanwhile in Britain, the controversy over the Royal Charter that would give Parliament some regulatory control over the media took a new turn in late October. The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) wrote to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth asking her not to sign the Royal Charter because it would affect Britain’s standing in the world as a liberal democracy and in the Commonwealth.
“If the UK moves to control the press through the force of law then it will have a terrifying knock-on effect throughout the Commonwealth and much of the developing world where Britain has a key leadership role.
“At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next month in Sri Lanka, the British Government – with The Prince of Wales as your representative – should be campaigning for the protection and expansion of free expression throughout the Commonwealth, not least in countries like Rwanda, Singapore and Sri Lanka itself, which persistently lag at the bottom of world press freedom indices alongside Syria and North Korea. Further, the British Government, which decriminalised defamation in 2009, should also take strong steps encouraging Commonwealth countries to repeal criminal defamation laws. But Britain will be in no position to do that if you have signed a Royal Charter which will be seized on by enemies of free speech everywhere eager to impose similar controls,” the letter said.
Despite uproar on media repression, Sri Lanka seemed in no mood to let up on controlling the media’s access to information during CHOGM. Although it demurring earlier, Sri Lankan authorities agreed to grant press accreditation to visiting journalists covering CHOGM, while reserving the right to deny visas. But while they agreed to allow journalists from Britain’s Channel Four, that produced three documentaries on war crimes in Sri Lanka known as ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,’ the government has denied visas to the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI). IBAHRI has jointly organised a meeting with Sri Lanka’s Bar Association on November 13 on the Commonwealth and the independence of the legal profession.
“By denying entry to the IBAHRI delegation the Government of Sri Lanka is demonstrating to the world its determination to block freedom of speech and independent discussion in the country, leaving the Commonwealth Heads cocooned and isolated. If the Commonwealth is to have any relevance in today’s world, it must act swiftly and decisively to ensure that Sri Lanka engages meaningfully with human rights,” said IBAHRI’sco-chair, Sternford Moyo.
In August this year UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai visited Sri Lanka. Coinciding with her visit, RSF and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), a group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, wrote an open letter to the High Commissioner highlighting deteriorating media freedom conditions in the country.
“As long as crimes against the media and its workforce go unpunished, while perpetrators feel safe with the implicit assurance of impunity, media freedom in Sri Lanka is facing a grave threat. We urge Navi Pillay to remind Sri Lanka’s leaders of their accountability in delivering justice,” said the RSF-JDSletter.
Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.