G.L hits back over crackdown criticism

Sri Lanka hit back Wednesday over claims it is clamping down on press freedom after criticism from rights groups and Washington for its shuttering of opposition news websites.

“Look at the newspapers in Sri Lanka. Can you possibly say that there is no freedom of press in the country? There is so much,” Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris told reporters in Tokyo.

“If you look at Sri Lankan newspapers, if you look at Sunday papers, they are full of the most abusive criticism, but nothing happens to those newspapers,” he said.

Sri Lanka, which lifted a state of emergency last year after concluding a decades-long ethnic conflict in 2009, is now beginning “a new chapter in our history, an exciting chapter, full of hope and promise,” he said.

Colombo faced criticism after its police shut down opposition news websites and arrested nine employees, including several journalists, last Friday.
The United States on Saturday joined rights groups in demanding Sri Lanka stop “harassing” media organisations.

Peiris told reporters in Japan the police move was justified as a way to protect privacy and safeguard reputations.

“There has been flagrant violation of those rights,” he said. “In order to comply with the applicable laws… actions in that case are necessary in exceptional situations.”

The foreign minister blamed the raided media organisation for turning “deaf ears” to repeated warnings to tone down their coverage.

“There is no response at all,” he said.

“These things happen not only in Sri Lanka but in many other countries. It is not something unique, it is not something that is happening only in Sri Lanka, but law enforcement measures… have been found to be necessary.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the media crackdown signaled Colombo did not tolerate dissent.

Both websites have been highly critical of President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government, already facing international censure over its human rights record amid unsolved murders of journalists and attacks on independent media.

Rights groups and employees said srilankaxnews.com was the official news organ of the opposition United National Party (UNP), while the other website was closely linked to the UNP. They shared the same office in Colombo.

The latest police crackdown comes three months after the defence ministry ordered all mobile phone operators to clear any security-related news reports before issuing them as SMS alerts.

Sri Lanka lifted a state of emergency last year, but media rights groups have said journalists have been forced to self-censor their work amid fear of physical attacks. (AFP)