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Government revives harsh press law

Reactivation of Discredited Press Council Law a Step Backward for Sri Lanka

(IFJ/IFEX) - The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) joins its affiliate organisations in Sri Lanka - the Free Media Movement, the Sri Lanka Working Journalists' Association and the Federation of Media Employees' Trade Unions - in strongly condemning the Sri Lankan Government's decision to revive the Press Council that was established by an act of parliament in 1973.

The Sri Lankan Press Council Act of 1973 contains stringent provisions, including the power to prosecute for contempt and sentence journalists to extended periods in prison and to prohibit the publication of certain kinds of content by the media, including:

- Internal communications of the government and the decisions of the Cabinet;

- Matters relating to the armed services that may be deemed prejudicial to national security; and

- Matters of economic policy that could lead to artificial shortages and speculative price rises.

The IFJ notes that four other professional organisations - the Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance, the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum, the Newspapers Society of Sri Lanka and the Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka - joined its affiliates in lodging a strong letter of protest with President Mahinda Rajapakse on 22 June over this deeply worrying decision by his government.

"We applaud this demonstration of unity by the media community of Sri Lanka and urge President Rajapakse to heed the warning that the 1973 law represents a worrying retreat from an agreed compact that the media is best served by self-regulation rather than a coercive imposition of the government's will," IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said.

"Clearly, the 1973 law is designed to protect governmental privileges, rather than serve any public purpose, such as the right of the people of Sri Lanka to be informed about the processes under which they are governed," White said.

The professional media organisations in Sri Lanka have recounted in their letter to Rajapakse, that there was agreement between the media community and the Government as far back as 1994 that the statutory provisions of the Press Council law would be kept in abeyance and self-regulation instituted as the more democratic process.

Further, in 2003, as the then leader of the opposition, Rajapakse had spoken out against stringent legal impediments to the free functioning of the media. He strongly urged the passage of a law that made defamation a civil rather than a criminal offence.

It was then agreed by unwritten consent that the 1973 law would be scrapped. In line with this compact, the Sri Lankan media community in 2003 joined forces to set up the Sri Lanka Press Institute, which also established a Press Complaints Commission to act as a body overseeing the ethical conduct of the media.

Sri Lanka's media community reminds Rajapakse of the need to honour this compact, and deplores the decision to revive a lapsed piece of legislation without consulting major stakeholders.

"We stand by our colleagues in Sri Lanka in this struggle to defeat the revival of old habits of thought," White said.

"We are convinced that the spirit of unity they have shown in lodging their protest with the President of Sri Lanka will provide a new impetus to the institutions and processes of self-regulation that began in 2003."

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