Her Excellency Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga
President, Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
VIA FAX: 011-94-1-333-703
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) deplores your administration's decision to reimpose censorship restrictions on the media.
A July 1 amendment to the emergency regulations issued in early May gives Your Excellency the power to appoint a Competent Authority charged with enforcing the censorship provisions. This move undermines the spirit of last week's ruling by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, in which a three-member bench unanimously held that the decisions of the chief censor were invalid and without legal force because he had been improperly appointed as the Competent Authority.
"We have reimposed some restrictions again as we felt that in the interest of the nation there should be some restrictions on news reporting," chief censor Ariya Rubasinghe told the Associated Press on July 4. That same day, Rubasinghe met with editors and senior journalists from the print and broadcast media to explain the provisions of the revised regulations. According to CPJ's sources, he said that the prior censorship requirement was no longer in place, but that journalists would still be held liable if found guilty of violating the terms of the censorship.
Among the topics proscribed by the revised decree--labeled Gazette Extraordinary No. 1,138/34--are the reporting of "any matter which pertains to any operations carried out or proposed to be carried out by the Armed Forces or the Police Force"; "any statement pertaining to the official conduct or the performance of the Head or any member of any of the Armed Forces or the Police Force, which affect the morale of the members of such forces"; and "any material which would or might in the opinion of the Competent Authority be prejudicial to the interests of national security or the preservation of public order."
As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of press freedom around the world, CPJ is dismayed that Your Excellency has chosen to give new life to the censorship regulations, instead of using the opportunity afforded by the Supreme Court ruling to disband a system that senior administration officials have conceded is both counterproductive and politically polarizing. When a CPJ delegation visited Colombo in mid-June, we were assured that the administration was moving away from its censorship policy, but these new regulations belie that commitment.
CPJ objects to censorship in any form, but we find that a system that forces journalists to censor and check themselves can be even more pernicious than one in which the government directly censors material. Prior censorship can at least be documented--and journalists in Sri Lanka have submitted reams of evidence to the Supreme Court, and to CPJ, demonstrating the often arbitrary and partisan decisions made by the censor to omit certain articles and even cartoons that may have been critical of the administration, but certainly did not jeopardize the country's national security situation. The press in Sri Lanka had also kept the public informed of the censorship restrictions by leaving blank pages and paragraphs where cuts were made.
Censorship in various forms has been in force in Sri Lanka for more than two years, badly straining the fabric of Sri Lanka's democracy. We respectfully urge Your Excellency to act immediately to lift all restrictions on the media in Sri Lanka and to ensure that journalists are provided access to the conflict areas. CPJ believes that Sri Lanka's national security is more compromised by censorship than by a free flow of information. Allowing independent reporting on the civil war is the only effective antidote to the rumors and propaganda now circulating, and will help foster the public's understanding of efforts to resolve the current crisis.
We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter, and eagerly await your response.