| by P. Sivakumaran
(November 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) “The ban on Tamil websites was the first instance of what the Free Media Movement believes may soon be a slippery slope of web and internet censorship in Sri Lanka,” BBC reported in June 2007 when local reports indicated that access to Tamil websites such as TamilNet was blocked by unannounced directives to service providers from officials in Colombo. Four years later, Colombo, increasingly alarmed by proliferation of opposing views to the authoritarian trend of the governing Rajapakse family, has banned access to five websites, and initiated new registration procedures for local and foreign websites that intend to carry news on Sri Lanka, local reports said. The ban on Tamil websites have continued for the last 4+ years without any protest from the local rights watchdogs, and Sri Lanka has been noted by media watchdogs as one of the worst offenders of media freedom.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed concerns at Sri Lankan government’s announcement of an upcoming set of guidelines and code of conduct for journalists and media organizations, and believes these regulations will only increase the government’s control of the media.
On general climate of media freedom and dissent, CPJ said, “[Sri Lanka’s] President Mahinda Rajapaksa has presided over a dark era of targeted media killings and complete law enforcement failure in addressing the crimes. All nine journalist murders in the past decade have gone unsolved, leaving persistent questions as to whether authorities have been complicit in some of the crimes.”
The press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranked Sri Lanka 165th last year out of 173 countries in terms of press freedom — by far the lowest democracy on the list. It called Sri Lanka the fourth most dangerous country for journalists, after Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan, New York Times reported in 2009.
“While educated users will have no difficulty in accessing the banned sites through publicly known proxy servers, or through Google, the Government will nevertheless succeed in creating further fear and a chilling effect on journalists already working within a climate of self-censorship,” a rights activist in Washington said.
Many journalists fearing death threats at home are increasingly using the new technology to continue reporting from safer shores abroad. Sonali Wickremasinghe, wife of the slain Sri Lanka journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, is one such journalist who is a resident fellow at the New York University. New York Times in an article titled “From Safety of New York, Reporting on Distant Home” said: The school’s 2010 resident was Sonali Samarasinghe, a Sri Lankan journalist whose husband, also a journalist and an outspoken critic of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was assassinated in 2009. Ms. Samarasinghe immediately fled after she received death threats.
“Classes in digital technology and entrepreneurial journalism helped her prepare for the recent start of her own Web site, Lanka Standard. In its first three months, it had 65,000 visitors, she said, many of them from within Sri Lanka,” the paper wrote.
In the meantime, the transatlantic security body OSCE said in a report in July that “access to the Internet should be seen as a fundamental human right and respected as much as freedom of expression.
“Everyone should have a right to participate in the information society and states have a responsibility to ensure citizens’ access to the Internet is guaranteed,” the report, presented in Vienna, said.
The 1735 Peter Zenger trial in the US is a remarkable story of a divided Colony, the beginnings of a free press. No case in American history stands as a greater landmark on the road to protection for freedom of the press than the trial of a German immigrant printer named John Peter Zenger. Twelve New York jurors ignored the instructions of the Governors’s hand-picked judges and returned a verdict of “Not Guilty” on the charge of publishing “seditious libels.”
The trial happened on August 5th, 1735, and was instrumental in guiding the framers of US constitution to include the “Free speech clause,” in the first amendment to read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
“Some 275 years later in Sri Lanka, Rajapakse government, driven by the need to suppress dissent and to control media outlets to manage messages for consumption by locals, and with ill conceived understanding of the power of technology has “banned” five more websites,” Sri Lanka observers in Washington said.