July 13, 2015 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Press Council’s revival threatens media freedom in Sri Lanka

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) are alarmed by the new president’s decision to revive the Press Council – a controversial body that gave the authorities a great deal of scope to coerce the media – and urge him to create an independent council that guarantees a system of media self-regulation.

President Maithripala Sirisena’s government announced the revival of the Press Council on 2 July, six month after his election victory ended years of autocratic rule by the Rajapaksa family and fuelled democratic hopes in Sri Lanka. The council allowed the authorities to impose severe sanctions, including imprisonment, on journalists.

By reviving this mechanism for harassing the Sri Lankan media, President Sirisena is dashing the hopes raised by his election and is again placing the media under a permanent threat of authoritarian abuses,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

We urge the president to rescind this decision and instead to begin a complete overhaul of the Press Council with the aim of turning it into an entity that guarantees media independence.”

JDS added: “The government's move to re-enact the controversial legislation reinforces serious and legitimate fears, as the desire to curtail media freedom always reflects anti-democratic intentions.”

Created in 1973, the Press Council was much used during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, which was brought to an end by Sirisena’s victory in January. During his campaign, Sirisena pledged to support media freedom and to end the harassment of journalists.

RSF already voiced concern about a resumption of intimidation of Tamil journalists in April, when several journalists from the north of the country were questioned and in some cases charged or detained by the Colombo police.

After Sirisena’s 8 January election victory, RSF and JDS urged him to end his predecessor’s policy of violence against journalists and to combat impunity for such violence.

Sri Lanka is ranked 165th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.