Press freedom advocates this week cautiously greeted promises that press freedom in Sri Lanka will improve after former health minister and opposition coalition candidate Maithripala Sirisena unexpectedly unseated President Mahinda Rajapaksa in an election last Thursday, but some observers remained wary.
Sirisena’s victory marks the first time an incumbent has been beaten out by an opposition candidate since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. Sirisena has promised massive reforms within the first 100 days of his presidency, and many in both Sri Lanka and the international community have welcomed the incoming administration’s stance against the corruption and increasingly authoritarian climate that had come to dominate the small island nation.
The new president, who took office on Friday, reportedly has already ordered the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to lift a ban on news sites that were blocked under Rajapaksa. The new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, announced that journalists in Sri Lanka should feel “free to report whatever you want without the fear of being abducted”, and another politician, Rajitha Senaratne, urged Sri Lankan journalists and political dissidents currently living in exile to return.
The new administration has promised to investigate the high-profile 2009 killing of critical journalist and IPI Press Freedom Hero Lasantha Wickrematunge. In the six years since his death, no progress has been made in finding and bringing those responsible for his murder to justice.
Journalists in Sri Lanka faced severe restrictions during Rajapaksa’s 10-year rule. This oppression was troublingly illustrated in “white van” abductions, a well-known phenomenon whereby activists, members of opposition political parties, and journalists who were critical of the government were snatched by individuals in white vans and then disappeared without a trace. The white van abductions were common during the conflict between the Rajapaksa regime and separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) group, which ended in 2009, but the number of such abductions spiked again in 2012.
Rajapaksa was notorious for his frequent bids to consolidate power in order to strengthen the presidency and for his penchant for filling important government ministries and other positions of power with members of his own family.
Sirisena has promised to expand media freedom and to dismantle the architecture of corruption and nepotism that plagued the former Sri Lankan government. However, despite those promises, he also indicated that he does not intend pursue the prosecution of the former president or members of the armed forces for potential war crimes committed during the conflict with the LTTE.
Some observers expressed little surprise. The new president, who was minister of health under Rajapaksa until his defection to the opposition in November, also claims to have been Sri Lanka’s acting defence minister during the last two weeks of conflict with the LTTE, when number civilian casualties occurred amid shelling by government forces on LTTE-occupied territory.
IPI spoke by email about these recent developments with Sri Lankan journalist Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, founder and editor of online newspaper The Colombo Telegraph, who has been living in exile since Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder.
IPI: We heard the president promised full freedom for Sri Lanka’s media and that a spokesperson urged journalists who are living in exile to return. We also read that he ordered the country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to lift the ban on blocked websites. Have there been any other similar, positive promises? Were these promises a surprise?
Kurukulasuriya: I’m not surprised at all. As soon as any new government comes to power they make these kinds of promises. But the political history of Sri Lanka shows that except for the Ranil Wickremesinghe government [in place from 2001 to 2004], none of the governments made promises regarding press freedom. Yes, the newly elected President Sirisena’s government urged exile journalists to come back and also they will investigate all killings, harassment and intimidation related to journalists. That is a good promise.
IPI: What kind of impact do you believe they might have on media freedom in Sri Lanka?
Kurukulasuriya: Before 9 January 2015, Sri Lanka journalists were “practitioners of self-censorship”. Now the media in Sri Lanka are already publishing many critical articles. But I cannot say we are free. In Sri Lanka there is no editorial freedom. There are no “charters of editorial independence”. Even if the government declared “freedom”, then it will ultimately be about “Owners’ rights” and not “Editors’ rights”.
IPI: In your opinion, what is the likelihood that these promises will become reality?
Kurukulasuriya: I don’t think so, we need a holistic approach. We need a commission on media to investigate what has happened, what should be done. To establish a media policy.
IPI: Under the previous administration, we heard many reports of websites being blocked, and of surveillance and harassment of journalists. We also heard reports that affiliates of the president were taking steps to gain control of independent media in order to silence criticism. What overall effect did these policies or actions have on independent media, and were there other press freedom violations that hindered journalists’ ability to do their job?
Kurukulasuriya: There are many incidents of killings of journalists, attacks, harassment, intimidation, burning of presses, cancelling of radio licences… and that is why we need a commission to investigate all those. The previous Rajapaksa regime changed the ownerships of several media intuitions through intimidation.
IPI: Do you think that what the new president has promised will adequately address these problems? If not, what else needs to be done?
Kurukulasuriya: Not at all, they never mentioned the necessary measure I outlined above. We need an independent state commission. We also need a competition commission to avoid monopolizing media in the future. And the government should transform state-owned broadcasters, newspapers and websites into public service media.
IPI: What implications do these promises have for bringing the murderers of Lasantha Wickrematunge to justice?
Kurukulasuriya: One minister, Rajitha Senaratne promised the government will investigate Lasantha’s murder in a press briefing. I have reservations about that. It is not only Lasantha’s murder; there have been dozens of killings, as I said before. The former army commander who had command responsibility for those killings and attacks is a key figure in the new administration! So I don’t think they will investigate those.
IPI: Is this development linked to international pressure to improve the press freedom situation in Sri Lanka? If so, is it important for international groups to keep up that pressure to ensure that these promises are realised?
Kurukulasuriya: Yes, the international pressure helped, no doubt about it. Keep the pressure continuously! That is my request.
IPI: For outsiders, what is most important to understand about the current transition?
Kurukulasuriya: The dictators have no place in this new media era! Sri Lanka has shown how to change a ruthless regime without any violence. The fact that there was no post-election violence sets a good example.