September 1, 2000
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) is dismayed by recent indications that censorship regulations are still fully in force in Sri Lanka, despite earlier assurances by the media minister that these restrictions would be lifted by mid-August, well in advance of the upcoming parliamentary elections. CPJ believes that it is impossible to hold free and fair elections in a country where media are subject to censorship regulations.
Within the last two weeks, at least five newspapers have received warning letters signed by Director of Information Ariya Rubasinghe, who is in charge of enforcing the censorship regime. The letters all came in response to press coverage of controversy surrounding the appointment of a new army chief. The Sinhala-language newspapers Lankadipa and Divaina, and the English-language newspapers The Daily Mirror, The Island, and The Sunday Leader have each received separate warnings, according to CPJ sources.
On August 28, Rubasinghe issued a statement to all media, saying that the press "in the recent past has published several news items which tend to create dissension among the Security Forces."
Rubasinghe apparently acted at the behest of the Ministry of Defense, which had requested his intervention in a letter sent earlier that day. That letter, a copy of which was obtained by CPJ, objected to press reports that allegedly tried "to show that there are problems within the Army."
Rubasinghe's statement accordingly warned journalists that "reporting ... military-related news that would affect the morale of the Security Forces contravenes existing Emergency Regulations."
Among many other topics, the amended Emergency Regulations of July 1 proscribe press coverage of "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."
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has called for an overhaul of the Emergency Regulations concerning censorship on the grounds that they are "too broad and are couched in vague and general language that confers an extensive discretion to the Competent Authority [Rubasinghe]," according to an August 20 report in The Sunday Times.
As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of press freedom around the world, CPJ calls for the immediate lifting of the censorship regulations. With the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 10, less than six weeks away, it is imperative that all journalists in Sri Lanka are free to comment independently and without fear of reprisal on issues of national importance-including the conduct and composition of the armed forces, and the course of the civil war.
We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter, and await your response.