South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

By Indi Samarajiva

Reporters Sans Frontiers has protested the lack of freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. Their main target seems to be the government, though they have taken shots at the entirely unrelated Galle Literary Festival. They may, however, have a point, even if the GLF boycott has missed it. Freedom of expression has suffered in Sri Lanka, just not in the ways one might expect.

RSF’s 2010 Press Freedom Index has Sri Lanka at number 158, nearly tied with Saudi Arabia. This makes the rankings somewhat suspect. In Saudi Arabia, all newspapers are owned by the royal family or their associates. All TV and radio stations are government owned. Saudi journalists are forbidden by law to criticise the royal family or religious authorities and writers and bloggers are routinely arrested.

Sri Lanka is obviously not this bad. There is independent media and the government is quite roundly criticised both online and off. If there was a literary festival in Saudi Arabia it would be a farce, but Sri Lanka is, in reality, much more free than the Kingdom. This does not, however, mean that expression is truly free. Sri Lankan repression of speech is more subtle, but still very real.

I was recently in the office of the head of a large media company. Quite casually, he mentioned that they screen certain stories for political content and pull them if they think it would jeopardise the company. This essentially, is the nature of censorship in Sri Lanka today. The government has made it in the media’s self-interest to practice self-censorship.


Censorship is easy to see. The government occasionally seizes shipments of the Economist magazine at customs or has, in the past, shut down radio stations. Even censorship by proxy leaves obvious marks.

During the war, the presses of The Sunday Leader were burnt, its Editor killed, the offices of Sirasa TV were attacked, etc. While the government may not be involved, it remains implicated by its lack of investigation. While they may not have conducted the attacks, they certainly didn’t appear to care, making such extra-legal activity tacitly OK.

When the government was fighting the war in earnest, restrictions on media and expression rose dramatically. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa were quite public in their belief that one was either with the war effort or against the country, and the latter was quite vehement in his belief that military matters should not be reported on. Perhaps no less sensitive was then Army Commander Sarath Fonseka.

This could be seen in that Sri Lanka was rated worse and worse by even the flawed RSF metrics in 2008 and 2009. It was strikingly obvious on the ground, especially as journalists — particularly those covering defense matters — were routinely assaulted or abducted, leading many others to flee. This tacit censorship reached a head with two cases, the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge and the arrest and trial of J.S. Tissainayagam. The clear message sent by the government was that both prominent and humble journalists could have their lives ended or destroyed if they stepped out of line.

Lasantha was a prominent editor, the local TIME magazine correspondent and a lawyer. He was also personally known to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Bandaranaike family and Ranil Wickremesinghe, having worked with them all before. When he was so blatantly killed and when the investigation was so blatantly sidelined, the message was clear. Even the most prominent journalist can be put down.

Tissainayagam was a different case. He published a magazine with a small circulation which included some articles on the war which few people saw. Yet, for that offense, he was arrested, kept in jail and subjected to a rigourous trial and then sentenced to 20 years of hard labour.

That sentence was commuted by the President but the message, again, was clear. Even low-level or independent journalists can also be put down. In all of these cases, the legal and executive arms of the government sent the message that dissent will not be tolerated. Either by who they chose to prosecute (Tissainayagam) or whose death they chose not to investigate (Lasantha.) The message was clear. At a time when Sri Lankan laws were effectively over-ridden by Emergency Law, what mattered was what the government chose to enforce, and what they chose to ignore.  That was the law. The government enforced censorship and they ignored violence against the media. At that time, the chilling effect on freedom of expression was plain to see.

Self Censorship

Fast forward to 2011, however, and censorship has gone mostly underground. If Lasantha and Tissainayagam were meant to teach a lesson, Sri Lankan people and media institutions learned it well. People report less, care less, and notice less that something is wrong.

Since the war ended with press repression (perhaps even because of it), people are also more inclined to accept these restrictions as being for their own good. Also, since the war is over there are simply less sensitive subjects to report on. Still, Mahinda’s government enjoys relatively free reign in massive development projects and economic issues, partly due to the now ingrained reluctance of sources to talk, and the instinct in journalists not to ask.

Traditionally, sources would still talk in the hope of ushering in a change of government. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s repression of the opposition, however, has made that hope a non-starter.  While paying lip-service to freedom of expression, Wickremesinghe effectively created a penned in corral where dissenting opinions may be harmlessly expressed. Since he consistently loses elections, he has created a static opposition with little hope of assuming power under his reign. As such, few sources are willing to attack a government without hope of being someday vindicated when an opposition takes power.

Today the government doesn’t have to openly repress or attack media. The media is effectively tamed by a judicious combination of violence, prosecution, and politics. What opposition media remains hasn’t done itself any favors by clinging to the losing dialogue of the past, heavily influenced by an anti-war stance now widely discredited and a reliance on Western language and support now widely cast as unpatriotic. Media organisations are also struggling to adapt to a post-war era which requires more than simply reporting bomb blasts and body counts. Many have responded by simply reporting government press releases and versions of events, a strategy that seems to work well enough for the market at a low cost, and also without carrying the risk of being shut down. In that way, self-censorship is also made to pay well, or at least better than the alternative.

Freedom Of Expression

This media landscape is thus very different from Saudi Arabia or the other countries RSF investigates. The culture of repression is not that of a dictatorial regime on an unhappy people, it is created with the active participation of both the people and the media, after an initial round of violent education. As such, outside interventions, boycotts, and condemnation are likely counter-productive. The forces for media freedom already suffer by being tagged as unpatriotic, so being identified with punitive foreign forces certainly doesn’t help.

Furthermore, the government lifting restrictions would not mean that a free media suddenly emerges. Censorship has already left the government realm and self-censorship has spread more deeply into boardrooms, newsrooms, and minds. The threats to freedom of expression in Sri Lanka are much more subtle today than the fist or the gun.  Indeed, freedom of expression has suffered so much in Sri Lanka that it’s now bleeding into that other fundamental right, freedom of thought.

This is a much more nuanced picture than the RSF would like to project, and it is a much more delicate problem than a boycott could address.  Indeed, the right solution may be just the opposite — further engagement. Freedom of speech is improving since the end of the war, but the media has not psychologically caught up. It may be, that after years of intense repression, what freedom of expression in Sri Lanka needs is a little practice.

Source: The Sunday Leader – 30.01.2011