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Sri Lankan president promises ‘media freedom’ under his government

Sri Lanka’s new president Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued a statement on Thursday, claiming that media freedom will not be hindered in any form during his tenure.

Rajapaksa, who has a record of violently stifling dissent, addressed heads of local media institutions on Thursday where he said while there was an opportunity for “reasonable criticism”, he expected every media institution to fulfil its obligation towards the country, by “engaging in favourable media reporting” to uphold the country’s reputation.

In the statement he called for the media cooperation’s to support his presidential aspirations. “People of this country elected me to the office of the President with great expectations,” he said. “Enhancing the efficiency of politicians and public officials, elimination of corruption and the economic development are some of the priorities among them. As such I expect the fullest support and cooperation of media towards achieving these objectives.”

Rajapaksa has made these assurances amidst concerns of journalists’ security being compromised since the November presidential election with multiple incidents of violence and harassment being widely reported across several parts of Sri Lanka. 

As the former Defence Secretary, Rajapaksa, was said to be linked to “top-secret death squads” by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in 2017, which he denied. These claims were on the basis of multiple incidents of journalist harassment and targeted violence with him believed to be behind harassment of multiple tamil journalists for reporting LTTE related news.    

Former editor of Sinhala weekly newspaper Ravaya, Victor Ivan, expressed his concerns with Rajapaksa’s reign, stressing a fear factor among journalists and media outlets. “Gotabaya Rajapaksa is president now and has immunity that comes with Presidency," he said. "The biggest question now is who will stand by journalists, dissidents and civil society?”

Rajapaksa has also previously told international news outlets how he expects media institutions to report during times of conflict. See his 2009 interview with the BBC below, where and asked about the murder of Sinhala journalist Lasantha Wickremetunge, just weeks after he was gunned down in Colombo.

Interviewer: Let me put this very frankly. People seem to be scared of you. Should they be?

Rajapaksa: What should…? I don’t know. These are again, you know, wrong propaganda. The only thing I have done is fighting terrorism. I have only two groups. That is people who want to fight terrorism. And the terrorists. Two groups. Either you are a terrorist or you are a person who’s fighting the terrorism.

Interviewer: As George Bush said, ‘You’re either with us or against us’? 

Rajapaksa: Exactly. That’s it. Because. Remember, for some people when they talk about terrorism, it is only a car bomb or a suicide attack. Or some action, you know like what happened in other countries. But remember in Sri Lanka it has gone far beyond that. 

 Interviewer: Well, let me ask you one more thing then. You said, ‘You’re either with the terrorists or you’re fighting the terrorists’. Does that mean you think that dissent or criticism during a time of war is treason?

Rajapaksa: Yes.

See more from the Sri Lankan President's Media Division here and The Hindu here.