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Authorities' withdrawal of radio network's broadcasting licence "arbitrary and drastic," says FMM

(FMM/IFEX) - The following is an FMM press release:

ABC radio network license withdrawn; 5 popular radio channels go off the air

On the night of 26 October 2007, the Ministry of Information of Sri Lanka withdrew the broadcasting license of the ABC radio network and ordered the network to stop broadcasting immediately. The five stations thus taken off the air are Hiru (Sinhala), Sha (Sinhala), Gold (English), Sun (English) and Sooriyan (Tamil).

FMM is deeply concerned about this drastic action by the government not only because of what it indicates about the state of media freedom in this country, but also because of the impact such a sudden closure can have on the over 300 persons who are employed by the ABC radio network.

The reason given by the government for the action is related to a news item broadcast by the ABC stations regarding a suspected Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attack on Ranminitenna, a village in Tissamaharama in the south of Sri Lanka. The ABC network promptly corrected their news story, as soon as they learnt that, although villagers had gone to the police with complaints of seeing some strangers in the vicinity, no attack had transpired.

In its communiqué to the ABC network, the ministry said that the action was being taken because the news item broadcast by the network had caused panic in the area. The communiqué accused the network of spreading false information that could have led to inter-ethnic conflict. According to FMM's information, a number of other stations broadcast similar news items, but the government has singled out the ABC network for punishment.

The radio stations run by the ABC network have a reputation for broadcasting news that is critical of the existing situation. Its Tamil station, Sooriyan FM, is one of two privately-owned Tamil language radio stations in Sri Lanka. Sooriyan News director N. Kurupharan was abducted and released after 13 hours on 28 August 2006. In early 2006, the ABC network was warned by senior members of the government against broadcasting recorded statements by LTTE leaders.

FMM is firmly committed to the principle of social responsibility of the media and has always urged media personnel and organizations to be more careful and sensitive in publicizing such incidents without complete verification. This becomes all the more important in the present context, in which mistrust is rampant and the smallest incident can blow up into a situation that affects many people.

However, FMM is extremely concerned about the arbitrary nature of the cancellation of the ABC network's license to broadcast in Sri Lanka. The lack of due process in such a situation can lead to the targeting of specific media persons and institutions and to the silencing of investigative reporting, especially from the Provinces. FMM believes that the government should have conducted a proper and independent investigation into the actions of the ABC network with regard to this specific broadcast, and taken appropriate corrective action. Instead, an entire network has been closed down, the public is deprived of access to information and other programmes offered by these radio stations and hundreds of media persons are facing an uncertain future.

FMM is afraid that such arbitrary action on the part of the government could set a dangerous precedent for undermining the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. We condemn the behaviour of the authorities in this regard, and call for an immediate restitution of the licenses of the ABC radio network. We also call on the Ministry of Media and Information to adopt a more democratic and consultative stand in dealing with media personnel and institutions in the broader interests of democratic practice in Sri Lanka.

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