In a message marking World Press Freedom Day, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, claimed that under his government media freedom and right to information was always protected but warned journalists to be “unbiased”.
Under his administration, from 2005 to 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that at least 13 journalists were killed whilst others were threatened, abducted, and tortured. Tamil journalists were disproportionately victimised with the Jaffna based, Uthayan news outlet being set fire to. Reporters Without Borders has ranked Sri Lanka 127 out of 180 in terms of press freedom.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, former Defence Minister and current President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa reportedly oversaw “white van commando,” a team of special operatives that used white vans to abduct and murder journalists.
Since taking office Gotabaya Rajapaksa has acted to clamp down on free speech issuing proscriptions on a range of Tamil and Muslim organisations under the claim of national security. There has also been a surge of detentions under Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which was expanded upon in March. The measure has been used to detain prominent politicians, human rights defenders, and poets. The government is currently proposing legislation that targets speech on social media.
Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister, Ali Sabry, has insisted on the need to restrict freedom in respects to “national security, reconciliation and development, refraining from destroying the name of the country and defaming individuals”.
Alongside these measures, Sri Lanka’s President has issued a Commission of Inquiry into supposed “political victimisation” which has called for the pardoning of those accused of egregious human rights violations and corruption. Amongst the high-profile cases are the 2008 abduction and torture of a journalist, Keith Noyahr; the 2009 murder of a newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge; and the 2010 disappearance of a journalist, Prageeth Ekneligoda, in which a criminal trial is proceeding. In all of these cases, police have provided evidence implicating Gotabaya Rajapaksa in these crimes.
The commission further calls to bring prosecutions against police, prosecutors, and witnesses for supposedly fabricating evidence.