On World Press Freedom Day – What Hope for Reconciliation and Free Expression in Sri Lanka?

Historical Justice and Memory Research Network, 3 May 2012 *

Many countries emerging from conflict have relied on the free media to involve the nation in its inquiry processes, and therefore help to validate them. From Kenya to Peru, the press has broadcast televised sessions, disseminated reports in different languages and formats and, while often divided on issues, has catalysed critical commentary and debate.

This has not been the case in Sri Lanka.

According to Sri Lankan NGOs public interest in the report of its Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission is low. Five months after its release it has yet to be translated into Tamil or Sinhala, and with the exception of state-sponsored editorials and maverick English language platforms online, media analysis of its findings has been rare.

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Mentions of the Commission, along with most other issues pertaining to national security, minority rights and human rights, are framed largely by the nationalist rhetoric being led by the government.

Reasons for this are not difficult to identify. State officials and state-owned media outlets have for years conducted smear campaigns and issued threats of violence against dissenting voices, often while questioning their national loyalties.

The Minister of Public Relations was quoted in pro-government papers this year saying he will ‘break the limbs’ of Sri Lankan journalists overseas who have ‘made various statements against the country.’ An editorial in the state-owned Sinhala-language daily, Dinamina, denounced journalists by name, before referring to state critics as ‘degenerates.’ The author opined that in some countries, such ‘bastards’ would be stoned to death.

These sentiments are not softened by Sri Lanka’s reputation for targeted killings and disappearances.

The 2012 Impunity Index, just released by Committee to Protect Journalists, has placed it among the four worst nations in combating journalist murders. During President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time in power none of the nine killings committed against journalists critical of the regime have been resolved (nor adequately investigated according to many human rights groups). This includes the high profile murder of vocal government critic and Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in 2009.

The Alliance of Media Organizations marked ‘Black January’ this year on behalf of Sri Lanka’s journalists. For many in the country, self-censorship has become a matter of physical as well as professional security.

Further restrictions indicate that the government’s grip on democratic space will continue to tighten.

These range from its scheme to register websites, to the outright banning or blocking of dissenting sites such as the Sri Lanka Guardian. The latest clench, in March, involved text message alerts from news sites; any related to national security must now be state approved.

Expressions of concern have surfaced from EU heads of mission in Colombo, international watchdogs and NGOs.

During my last visit to the country in late 2009, low spirits and disheartening forecasts coloured my interviews with NGO staff, journalists and editors. They stood in stark contrast to the post-war triumphalism in the public at large.

Three years on, despite the LLRC’s published recommendations for reform and investigation, there is little hope to offer them; public interest in or tolerance for accountability or human rights issues remains low.

As highlighted by the resolution passed at the UN Human Rights Council in March this year, a clear national picture of the roots and content of the conflict has not emerged, nor is one being pursued.

With a free press, Sri Lanka, with its vibrant democratic history, could have utilised the LLRC as a cathartic learning exercise – or at least the start of a road to accountability and recovery. There seems no greater sign of its absence than the call from Geneva this March. Far better, surely, for the call to have come from Sri Lankans themselves.

For more information: See Free Media Movement, Groundviews, Freedom House; Transcurrents; and the blog of exiled Sri Lankan journalist, Sunanda Deshapriya.

*The Historical Justice and Memory Research Network News appeared fortnightly between February 2011 and January 2013. In February 2013, the Historical Justice and Memory Research Network became part of the Dialogues on Historical Justice and Memory, and the Dialogues newsletter replaced the HJMRN News.