US rights group concerned over Press Council

lanka-media-350_032412120218The Committee to Protect Journalists, a US based media rights group, is concerned about Sri Lankan authorities’ decision to re-establish the Sri Lankan Press Council, a media regulatory body which gives the government powers to jail journalists in connection with their reporting.

The Press Council was established under the 1973 Press Council law and is made up of members appointed by the president as well as two journalists chosen by media organizations. Under the law, outlets are forbidden from publishing documents related to cabinet decisions without the permission of the cabinet, as well as some defense and fiscal matters, according to news reports. The law also provides for wide-ranging punitive powers, including the imprisonment of journalists and publishers, according to local press freedom groups.

President Maithripala Sirisena announced the decision on July 2, and appointed new members to the council that day, according to news reports. The reason for the decision is unclear. The president did not consult any local media houses or press organizations, according to local press freedom organizations which called the move illegal. Under the 1973 Press Council Law, the president must consult stakeholders before re-constituting the council, the groups said.

The Press Council was dissolved in January 2015 after Sirisena was elected president. During his presidential bid, Sirisena vowed to uphold press freedom. In his 100-day program, part of his election manifesto, he promised to “safeguard the independence of media personnel and institutions” and strengthen the right to freedom of expression, reports said.

“This decision comes from a government that lifted Sri Lankans’ hopes that their country was ready to make a genuine effort to move away from the hostile environment that has surrounded the media for years,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The move calls into question the government’s commitment to the reform agenda that carried it to victory in January’s elections.”