(New York) – A new media code proposed by the Sri Lankan government contains overbroad and vague language that could have a severe and chilling effect on free speech, Human Rights Watch said today. On June 17, 2013, the Ministry of Mass Media and Information officially proposed a Code of Media Ethics that would apply to print and electronic media, including the Internet.
The proposed code comes at a time when the government has taken various measures to clamp down on Sri Lanka’s once vibrant media, including forcing some electronic media critical of the government to close down.
“The government’s proposed media code is part of a sustained campaign to control the media and curtail dissent,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Sri Lankan journalists are already under enormous pressure not to be critical of the government, and the vagueness of this code will likely lead to greater self-censorship to avoid government retaliation.”
The minister of mass media and information, Keheliya Rambukwella, announced that the code is intended to create a “salutary media culture in the country” because the actions of unnamed media houses had “led to many problems.”
The code contains 13 types of substantive speech that would be prohibited from publication, including content that vaguely “offends against expectations of the public, morality of the country, or tend to lower the standards of public taste and morality.” Also prohibited would be any content that “contains material against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary, and Legislative” – which could be interpreted as barring criticism of the government. The code also restricts content that “contains criticism affecting foreign relations,” which could lead to sanctions for reporting on international criticism of Sri Lankan government actions.
The government said it has distributed the code of conduct to various political parties for comment and would seek public feedback. It is not clear when the code will be presented to Parliament, what legal effect it will have if passed, or what sanctions would be imposed for non-compliance.
Government-enforced codes of conduct on the media are unnecessary and invariably infringe upon the right to free expression as established under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Human Rights Watch said. The Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka already has a narrowly drafted code of practice that has been endorsed by the International Federation of Journalists and its affiliates in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan media has faced various threats in recent years. On April 3, masked armed men set fire to the office of Uthayan, a leading Tamil opposition newspaper whose journalists have previously been assaulted. In June 2012, the police raided the offices of the Sri Lanka Mirror, a news website, and the opposition Sri Lanka X News website, confiscating computers and documents and arresting nine people. The government shut down at least five news websites critical of the government in 2012 and put in place onerous registration requirements and fees for all web-based media services. Independent or outspoken members of the media have reportedly been pushed out of their positions due to political pressure.
Violence remains a real fear for journalists, which is only heightened by impunity for perpetrators. For instance, there have been no significant developments in the 2010 disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, a contributor to Lanka E-news, or in the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was gunned down in broad daylight near a police station in 2009.
“The new media code is unnecessary and little more than a heavy-handed assault on the remnants of Sri Lanka’s free press,” Adams said. “The code would hand the Sri Lankan authorities a new tool to harass and threaten journalists who are already working in a very difficult environment.”