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Sri Lanka: Press Council Revival Controversial

(July 16, 2015) On July 2, 2015, Sri Lanka’s government announced that the Press Council, which had given authorities a great deal of control over the media in the past, is being revived. The decision followed by only six months the election of President Maithripala Sirisena, whose rise to power brought with it hope for wider democracy. (Press Council’s Revival Threatens Media Freedom in Sri Lanka, REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS (July 13, 2015).)

Background

The Press Council had been created in 1973, by Act No. 5 of that year, and was used by the former administration to regulate the press and on occasion to imprison and otherwise sanction journalists. (Id.; Sri Lanka Press Council, Ministry of Mass Media website (last visited July 14, 2015).) The Act established the broad powers of the Council, including to “require the proprietor, printer, publisher, editor or journalist of any newspaper to furnish to the Council such returns and information on such matters as it may deem necessary for the purpose of performing its functions under this Law.” (Sri Lanka Press Council Law (No. 5 of 1973), art. 10 (1), COMMONLII.) It also states that the Council may take any actions that “may be incidental or conducive to the carrying out of the objects of the Council or the exercise of its powers under this Law.” (Id. art. 10 (9).)

If the Council “has reason to believe” that a statement that is “untrue, distorted or improper” has been published or that a journalist has breached a code of journalistic ethics, the Council may order the publication of a correction, issue a statement of censure, or order that an apology be made. (Id. art. 9.)

Reaction to the Decision

Human rights groups and free press advocates have been severely critical of the re-instatement of the Press Council. Reporters Without Borders spokesman Benjamin Ismail said that “[b]y reviving this mechanism for harassing the Sri Lankan media, President Sirisena is dashing the hopes raised by his election and is again placing the media under a permanent threat of authoritarian abuses.” (Press Council’s Revival Threatens Media Freedom in Sri Lanka, supra.) He urged the President to rescind his decision and completely remodel the Press Council. (Id.)

The Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, a group of journalists exiled from Sri Lanka, issued a statement saying, “[t]he government’s move to re-enact the controversial legislation reinforces serious and legitimate fears, as the desire to curtail media freedom always reflects anti-democratic intentions.” (Id.; International Media Watchdog Expresses Concerns over Sri Lanka’s Decision to Revive Press Council, COLOMBO PAGE (July 14, 2015).)