Sri Lankan political crisis threatens media independence
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges the Sri Lankan authorities to respect journalists’ safety and editorial independence after supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa – the new prime minister, whose appointment is being disputed – invaded state media outlets on 26 October in order to seize control of them.
Journalists have found themselves at the centre of the political power struggle that began when President Maithripala Sirisena fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe on 26 October and replaced him with Rajapaksa, who earned a prominent position on RSF’s list of the world’s biggest press freedom predators during two terms as president, from 2005 to 2015.
Just minutes after Rajapaksa was sworn in as prime minister, supporters of his party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), led by former information minister Keheliya Rambukwella, invaded the newsrooms of various state media.
Helped by union leaders linked to the SLPP, they took control of the two public service TV channels, Rupavahini and ITN, the radio stations that are part of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, and the Lake House press group.
That evening, they forced journalists at the Daily News and the Lake House group’s two leading weeklies, Silumina and Sunday Observer, to change the front pages of their next issues. The Sunday Observer’s editor, Dharisha Bastians, was made to surrender complete editorial control. Headlines, photos and editorials in the next issues all hailed the former president’s return to power.
“Your time is done”
At the time, ITN deputy general manager Subhash Jayawardena was warned by SLPP activists that he and his colleagues would be attacked if they did not leave the TV station immediately. They finally managed to escape, but not without first facing a threatening crowd that chanted: “Your time is done!”
“The violence with which Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bully boys took over the state media is absolutely unacceptable,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “We call on all parties to act responsibly by guaranteeing journalists’ safety and by respecting their editorial independence, so that impartial news coverage is available to the public. Sri Lanka’s journalists are very worried because the current constitutional crisis recalls the darkest hours of Rajapaksa’s presidency.”
"We cannot forget the state terror against journalists during the rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa,” Lasantha Ruhunage, the deputy editor of the newspaper Anidda and former head of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association, told RSF. “So many journalists were harassed, attacked, and killed. There are reported cases of disappeared journalists."
Contrary to the promises that President Sirisena gave when installed in 2015, almost all of the crimes of violence against journalists have remained unpunished.
RSF has just published a survey of media ownership in Sri Lanka, which is ranked 131st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.