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Sri Lanka Flirts With Press Regulation

Sri Lanka Flirts With Press Regulation

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Published by: Thavam on Jul 11, 2013
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11 Jul 2013
In an interview with the UK’s Press Gazette this month, Lal Wickrematunge, brother of murdered Sri Lankan newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, lamented the self-censorship of his country’s press, and warned that UK hacks should fight for their ownfreedom of speech as an example to others, saying “Those who are in safer climatesmust keep the drum beating because these are the standards that other journalists introubled areas look to.” Padraig Reidy writes
The Sri Lankan regime is not noted for its commitment to media freedom, withReporters Without Borders declaring the president and his brother, the defenceminister “predators of the press” in May 2013.Wickrematunge’s comments echoed the response of the The Editors’ Guild of SriLanka to Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for press regulation. In a statement inresponse to Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations, the island’s editorssaid:
The almost draconian legislature contemplated in the United Kingdomwould serve oppressive governments around the world, and especially in theCommonwealth with a
convenient example to maintain tight controls over an independent 
media.
In the future, any statements from the British Government on the freedomof the press would sound hollow in the face of such legislation.” 
They were not wrong. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa wasted littletime in drafting a code of media ethics designed to stifle country’s already under siegepress. Draft guidelines were released in June.In very best Leveson language, the authorities stressed that the restrictions aimed “toensure that the Electronic and Print media and Websites in Sri Lanka are free andresponsible and sensitive to the needs and expectations of the receivers of themessage it sends out whilst maintaining the highest standards of journalism, and touphold the best traditions of investigative journalism in the public interest, unfetteredby distorting commercialism or by improper pressure or by narrow self-interests whichare against the bare norms of media freedom.”The code then went on to ban everything, from information that could damage theforeign relations, to stories containing “details of a person’s family life, financialinformation, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability and one’s home or family and individuals in hospitals unless it has a directrelevance to the public interest.”There is some confusion about the status of this new code. Sri Lanka’s media minister Keheliya Rambukwella, has said that the code is not about to made a law, but in the
 
same breath suggested that it was to be introduced because of the absence of acriminal defamation law. President Rajapaksa meanwhile, suggested that editors writetheir own code, adapted from the government’s.Despite this, it’s clear that the government is firing warning shots at the newpapers’bows to remind them of their limits.Sri Lankan journalists are looking ahead to the Commonwealth Heads of Governmentmeeting in Colombo in November. While British Channel 4 News and Australian ABC journalists will be wondering if they will even allowed into the country, after thepresident took umbrage at their coverage of his brutal final push in the civil war withthe Tamil Tigers, Sri Lankans will be wondering if, post-Leveson, David Cameron willbe able to look the likes of Rajapakse in the eye and talk about press freedom.Brother of murdered Sri Lankan editor: 'Yours are the standards we look to'
-02 July 2013In a world in which journalists are killed every week for no other reason than that theysought to report the truth, it is easy to become numbed to the slaughter. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 25 journalists have been killed in SriLanka since 1992 and it has confirmed that 19 of these were killed because of their work.One of those victims, Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, is a namewhich has become famous around the world, because he had the extraordinarypresence of mind to leave an editorial on his computer with instructions that it bepublished in the event that he was murdered.
 And Then They Came for Me’is a piece of writing which is now quoted by journalismschools. Cynical hacks and fresh-faced students alike should be inspired by 49-year-old Lasantha’s explanation of what it means to be a journalist.
 
No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism…Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I toohave responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it thelaw or journalism.Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert tothe bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood.Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various timessought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministriesof my choice.Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered mesafe passage and the right of residence in their countries.Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. Itis the call of conscience.” After a career in journalism which had been dogged by official intimidation, Lasanthaknew who would be behind his murder. He wrote: “When finally I am killed, it will bethe government that kills me.”I met Lasantha’s brother, Lal Wickrematunge (pictured below) when he stopped off inLondon on his way to Toronto for an annual trip to visit his mother, father and threesisters.Lal was the owner of the Sunday Leader and his brother’s partner in various courtcases and legal battles with the authorities.

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